From Telephones to Auto-Tune

Jonathan Sterne on How Voice Technologies Shape The Sound of Our Modern World

November 22, 2015

For as closely linked as the voice is to our body and sense of identity, there are also a lot of external forces affecting our voices, both social and technological. In fact, when we're talking about mediated voices—voices we hear in music, film, and of course, on the radio—we're actually not talking about "voices" any more. We're talking about signal processing. And, as media historian Jonathan Sterne tells Craig Eley, signal processing shapes the sound of all vocal media, from your telephone calls to the music of T-Pain.



From the advent of recorded and amplified music - or even since the design of listening spaces - the context of a sound performance has been part of the performance. Recording technology has been a prominent part of that context for the last century.

To assert, though, that since Keith Richards wasn't happy with the sound of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" until he mic'd his Gibson acoustic through a Norelco portable compact cassette recorder used as a preamp plugged directly into a mixing board and since John Hammond and Tom Wilson felt that the simplest an least affected recording equipment for Bob Dylan's first albums on Columbia were both artistic choices, that they amount to equivalent artifice is ridiculous. Artifice can have aesthetic merit but not all art is artifice.

Bing Crosby and his producers didn't "play the microphone"; they recognized that new recording technology allowed a performer to sing more naturally than they were used to doing in live venues where the acoustic megaphone was still required. Ironically, Crosby's lasting contribution wasn't in his voice at all but in his crucial financial support for the creation of the first American copies by Jack Mullin and Ampex of the German Magnetophon machines.

I've read Professor Sterne and heard him pontificate on this subject before. He is a polemicist and ideologue whose "Best Knowledge" could be easily challenged for bias and inaccuracy, were the interviewer a person with some experience rather than a tyro, as Mr Eley's entirely expected giggling about microphone amplifier vacuum tubes blandly reveals him to be.

Wilma Cozart Fine spins in her grave, probably on a take-up spindle.