Summer Research Dispatch: Peter Humphrey and Electroacoustic Science

31 Oct, 2018

Summer Research Dispatch: Peter Humphrey and Electroacoustic Science

Each year, the Berkeley Center for New Media is thrilled to offer summer research awards to support our graduates in their cutting edge work. Below, Peter Humphery describes how he used the funds to research electroacoustic science and sound recording.

For my dissertation I am exploring the development of electroacoustic science and its role in music recordings and sound systems. I am focusing on the 1950s, a decade particularly concerned with control and communications, a phrase taken from Norbert Wiener’s seminal book, Cybernetics. I have been exploring how the movement of cybernetics interacts with sound technology, specifically within musical contexts, such as recording practices. It also offers an interesting way to explore how sound was conceived through the technologies designed to control it. In this way the design of music technology and spaces to capture sound are of particular interest.

This led me to explore the construction of the Capitol Records Tower, the first purpose built sound recording studio in the United States. The Capitol Records Tower was constructed in 1956, built in a unique circular design that supposedly bestowed numerous benefits, including greater office efficiency. The construction of the recording studios in the basement were also hailed as the pinnacle of acoustic manipulation, purposefully designed to offer as much control and flexibility in the recording process as possible. The reverberation chambers beneath the parking lot were built into the designs of the building and became highly sought after for their ability to make vocal recordings shimmer. The BCNM summer grant gave me the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles and explore some of the details around the construction of the Capitol Records Tower. The architectural firm, Welton Becket Associates, were the designers of the Tower and on this research trip I was able to access some of their archives which are stored at the Getty Research Institute. In the MacDonald Becket Papers and the Welton Becket architectural drawings and photographs collections, I was able to find early designs and correspondences with Capitol Records about the construction of the studio and its reverberation chambers.

Historical documents around the design and construction of music recording studios from this era are sparse, so being able to research some of the papers with the BCNM grant was a real boost for my research. The documents at the Getty Research Institute offered an in-depth account of the material history of the Capitol Records Tower and the amount of design that went into their construction. The Capitol Records studios epitomized the growing desire for “high-fidelity” in music recordings, a kind of new media for the 1950s, where recorded music entered a golden age. Being able to research the ways designers met with sound engineers, technicians and acoustic experts to construct a building designed to meet the challenges of high-fidelity media has been invaluable.