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Former rock vocalist, CWRU graduate hits it big with dissertation award

For immediate release: May 30, 2003
For more information, contact Susan Griffith at 216-368-1004 or sbg4@po.cwru.edu

CLEVELAND—Susan Schmidt Horning, the former guitarist and vocalist for The Poor Girls rock band, crossed paths in 1968 with audio engineer Ken Hamann at the Cleveland Recording Company.

Susan Schmidt Horning

Watching Hamann manipulate sound as he moved his hands across the studio's controls would later inspire Horning to investigate the relationship of music and technology in sound recording studios. Chasing Sound: The Culture and Technology of Recording Studios in America, 1877-1977—her doctoral dissertation, which recently won Ohio Academy of History's 2003 Outstanding Dissertation Award—is a result of that research.

Horning, a CWRU graduate in August 2002 and now a lecturer in history, began her musical career playing with the all-girl band from Akron, which appeared on stage with such '60s groups as Cream, the Shadows of Knight, Bobby Vee and the James Gang and locally in clubs in the Cleveland and Akron areas.

She recalls her fascination with how the engineer used the recording technology during the Poor Girls' demo-recording session.

"Watching him move the controls on the console-and as I heard the result-struck me as so graceful an art, much like playing an instrument," said Horning, whose band's demo-record from that session later played on rock station WMMS.

Chasing Sound is a ground-breaking work that examines how developments in recording technology have affected what artists, recording engineers, producers, musical arrangers and others created in the studio and ultimately on stage. She also looked at the evolution of the industry in the context of the country's economic and wartime conditions.

Horning said the dissertation is a study of how the recording studio became a primary site of musical creation, the nexus between technological and cultural change in the decades after World War II.

Even as she completed the work, advances in computer technology increasingly undermined the primacy of the professional studio. In the words of one 68-year-old recording engineering and inventor interviewed, "One day there won't be any more recording studios."

"The music we hear today has been tempered by the technology that is used to record it," wrote Horning.

"As recordists sought to improve the sound of records, these improvements gradually changed how musicians and composers conceived the music they wanted to record," she continued. "Ultimately, this served to change notions of what constituted authentic performances, 'good' sound or indeed what constituted music."

When Horning began her research, she interviewed local recording engineers, including Hamann (who passed away last year), Don White and Thomas Boddie, one of the few African-American studio owners in the business in the postwar period.

At first, she found a few studies on the phonograph but even fewer on sound recording, and there were no archives. Interviews with professionals in the field that ranged from pioneers like Les Paul and Mitch Miller to less famous yet important figures in recording history led her from one source to another, providing an oral history archive.

Horning traces the recording industry's history from the days of Thomas Edison's first recording cylinder and Emile Berliner's flat disk. In the early days of recording, Horning said the ultimate goal of the recordists was to capture an authentic reproduction of the live performance. Eventually technological developments led to multi-track recording and other means of "perfecting" the recorded performance. "

photo courtesy of the Akron Beacon-Journal
Susan Schmidt Horning (far right) sang lead vocals for The Poor Girls in the 1960s.

By the 1970s," Horning wrote, "recording itself has assumed an individual identity as an art form, and the 'original' performance was rapidly becoming the record, from which a 'live' performance would be copied."

Some of those who furthered the technology of the recording were hobbyists who invented new equipment in an effort to perfect the sound quality of recordings. The introduction of the electrical process of recording, the quality of records improved and the new business of electrical transcription emerged.

Development would give rise to independent and professional studios and a whole cadre of professional engineers to service the business. It would also spur the recordings of a wide range of music genres for a public eager to listen to various styles of music.

The recording industry proliferated before World War II, but a shortage of key record-making materials required for the war effort would stall developments in private industry during wartime and force people to share resources.

World War II also would spur a new generation of audio technicians, who left the armed forces at the end of the war skilled and knowledgeable about sophisticated new technologies from their experience in the signal corps.

As technologies became more widespread, the need for standardization brought together professionals to form societies. The earliest ones were the Sapphire Clubs in New York and Hollywood, the forerunners of the Audio Engineering Society. Early trade journals like Radio and Audio Engineering reported changes in the industry, and the organization of the audio engineering profession was a key point in the improvement of recording technology as well as the growth of the record business.

Horning's dissertation topic was a natural evolution from her middle and high school career on the stage to the doctoral program at CWRU. She attended Berklee College of Music to study arranging and composition, guitar and violin. Later returning to Akron, she continued to play in a number of Akron-area bands, including Friction and Ch-Pig. She also headed to New York City and saw the technical and business side of the field, working for the independent label and production company Ze Records.

While in New York City, she began studies at Hunter College. She would finish her bachelor's (with highest honors) and master's degrees in history at the University of Akron. She came to CWRU in 1992 and began her doctoral work with advisor Carroll Pursell, chair of the department of history and former president of both the International Committee of the History of Technology and Society for the History of Technology.

Research support for Chasing Sound came from the National Science Foundation, the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, a fellowship from CWRU's History Associates and an Andrew W. Mellon Interdisciplinary Dissertation Fellowship.

While a graduate student, Horning was the Ralph M. Besse Fellow in history and editorial assistant for the online version of the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. She has won the Carl Ubbelohde Prize for best teaching assistant and the Ruth Barber Moon Award for graduate studies. She also won the history department's Lyman Prize.

Horning has presented numerous related papers on her research throughout the United States, Mexico and Europe. While attending conferences of the International Committee of The History of Technology, Horning found she was not the only musician to become enthralled with the history of technology.

With other researchers in the field who communicate through the Internet, Horning has sung and played guitar with the jazz group the E-Mail Special since 1996. They have played gigs at the International Committee of The History of Technology conferences in Budapest, Belefort, Prague, Mexico City and Granada.

–CWRU–

 

 

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