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The Square Root of Rock and Roll: How science, technology and nerds generated the 20th Century's most subversive art form (Part 2)

By Wil Forbis

In the first half of this article, I posited the notion that the technological innovations of the 20th century were an essential factor in the rise of Rock music. Contrary to those who believe that Rock revolution achieved its success solely on the strength of its composers and performers, I argued that the music was driven by the serendipitous arrival of a series of scientific marvels. Some of this technology was used to affect the sound of Rock music's main instruments, particularly the guitar. Once the guitar signal was captured, an entirely new sonic landscape of tonal and timbral variations could be explored.

But technology did not only change how music sounded, it changed how music was recorded and delivered to the masses. It was in these realms that I think Rock most benefitted and in this article we'll explore technology's impact on three key areas: recording, broadcasting and distribution.


We've all heard songs from the 1920s and 1930s. While the music might be great, you can't help notice a certain flatness to the recordings. Usually the lead vocal or instrument is right out in front while the rest of the background instruments blend together into an aural blur. Such was the nature of music recorded in monophonic sound. This changed around 1943 with the development of 2 track recording which split the music into two tracks that could be panned across the stereo spectrum. This added a lot of flexibility to the recording and playback of sound. Soon music could be divided into even more tracks and the options really opened up.

The first musician to capitalize on this technology was guitarist Les Paul. He recorded a series of pop singles, usually with his wife Mary Ford singing lead, where he took advantage of multi-track recording. Most readers are probably familiar with this technique, often called multitracking, but I will synopsize: with multitracking a performer can record a performance (say a rhythm guitar part) and then record another part on top of that part (say a vocal melody), and then repeat the process again and again. The only limitation is how many tracks are available and this is a limitation that has largely disappeared with digital recording.

Now, Les Paul was taking advantage of this technology in the 1950s. Gee... what else was happened in the 1950s? That's right - Rock and Roll was being born! Rock music arrived just in time for a revolution in recording technology. (Or did Rock and Roll arrive because of a revolution in recording technology? Hmmm, that's a beard stroker.)

By the mid-sixties, multitrack recording had developed to such a degree that artists could create multi-layered songs of unprecedented complexity. While it's certainly true that symphonic music had, for centuries, been using a vast collection of instruments in one composition, Rock musicians were able to apply this practice with even more control. Instruments could appear out of nowhere, voices could pan across the stereo spectrum, players could harmonize with themselves... The technology enabled a kind of eerie sonic experimentation that had never been heard before. With advanced recording technology, even a mundane song could become sound exciting and unique.

It was during this period that many of the great rock albums were made. Phil Spector's famous "wall of sound" recordings as well as The Beatles’ "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band", The Beach Boys’ "Pet Sounds" and Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon" all utilized cutting edge, multitrack recording processes to layer instruments and sounds atop each other.

The recording studios of the era benefitted not just from multitrack technology. There was also the arrival of numerous effects which could be utilized to shape and sculpt the music. Compression, Reverb, Delay, Echo---all effects discussed in relation to live guitar in part 1---could be applied to various aspects of a recording, or the entirety of the recording. It's fair to say this newfound power was abused in its early years, but eventually producers learned to wield their weapons with a deft grip.


So, tech innovations in the formative years of Rock allowed rock musicians to create better sounding music. That might have been all for naught were there no effective way to get this music to the ears of the public. Fortunately, just as recording was changing, so too was broadcasting.

By the midpoint of the 20th Century, radio had been around for decades. But the radios of the day were bulky, boxlike devices that had to sit in a family's living room. A teen who wanted to listen to the hip music of the day away from the prying ears of annoying parents had little recourse. Until the development of the transistor radio that is. The transistor radio, popularized in the 1950s, was small enough to be carried around by hand. Though this might sound like a minor development, it could be argued that the transistor radio was really the key to Rock becoming a youth culture. With portable radios, teens could gather in private and listen to music. As a result, Rock and Roll became the soundtrack for a lot of the magical moments of adolescence, from sweet flirtations to sweaty, sexual explorations. Music had never had the power to inject itself into our most private moments until it became so portable.

The culture of America in the 1950s was still in many ways bound to regionalism. What people in the north were listening to was not necessarily what people in the south were. Towns like Chicago, St. Louis, New York and Nashville were known for signature sounds, sounds that one had to travel towards to really appreciate. But the arrival of Rock coincided with the development of stronger radio signals which could broadcast across city and even state borders. Illegal Clear Channel signals such as those that carried the voice of famed DJ Wolfman Jack spread the gospel of Rock. As a result, the limitations of distance on the spread of music and culture began to break down.

As radio transmissions became more powerful they were also gaining in quality. In the 1960-70s, FM radio rose in popularity because of its higher quality sound. So, at the exact moment when musicians such as the Beatles and Phil Spector were using studio wizardry to create sonically rich music, radio was gaining the ability to broadcast that music in high quality.

Radio wasn't the only broadcasting technology that augmented the spread of music. It was during the 1950s that television really took off. The added visual component of watching a performer in action ratcheted the excitement of the music up several notches, especially in the case of a young, good looking fellah named Elvis Presley. Suddenly musicians weren't just sounds in a speaker or faces on an album cover but real, live, hip-gyrating heartthrobs. This visual trend in rock continued into the 60s and 70s when artists like Pete Townsend and David Bowie mastered the art of rocking as a performance art. That primed the pump for the 1981 arrival of MTV and the music video. At that point the symbiotic relationship between the sound and look of Rock music was fixed, never to return to the years when listeners might have no idea what their favorite artist looked like.


Just as recording and broadcasting were changing, so too was distribution. In 1949 the 45 record single became a popular form of media for music sales. The cheap format was just right for young people's budgets and could easily fit into the jukeboxes of drug stores and hip hangouts*. 45 sales were also a convenient way of tracking the popularity of music artists, engendering a kind of scorecard system that tapped into the brain's natural preference for hierarchy. 45s became the currency of youth culture and owning the latest number one single gave a teenager a certain cultural status.

*I can't help but recall here the scene in 1950s film noir classic "The Concrete Jungle" where a licentious criminal fails to evade the police because he has to stop and watch a young girl gyrate to a jukebox record.

In the 1960s, the short 45 single format gave way to the more robust LPs (“Long Play”) which could hold more songs. As a result, many Rock groups began conceiving of a record as a complete work, not merely a collection of singles. On the most basic level the songs could be connected by a shared theme or sound. On a more architected level the songs could all support a single narrative. Thus arrived the concept album such as The Who's “Tommy” or Pink Floyd's “The Wall.” Rock music was experimenting not just with sound but with form, and this experimentation was a direct result of developing technology.

LPs were soon replaced by cassettes as the medium of choice for rock music. Cassettes were the same length as LPs, but were smaller and more portable. They had one other key feature: they were recordable. By using various means such as double cassette players, users could record music onto blank cassettes. This certainly begat a lot of music piracy (your humble author used to pirate tapes checked out from the public library) but it also led to a curious cultural artifact: the mix tape. With a mix tape, a music fan could curate their own compilations of music. And it was through the exchange of mix tapes that a lot of non-mainstream music was discovered. (Most radio at the time played only non-obscure, big budget music.)

As most people know, the next transition was to CDs. Aside from having higher sound quality*, CDs were not much different from cassettes. However, when the mp3 digital audio file format was developed in the mid-90s, CDs were a perfect source from which to burn files. This took music piracy to a whole new level. Compiling a cassette mix tape was a time intensive process where the end result could be shared with, at best, a dozen or so friends. With mp3s, you could burn you entire collection of CDs in a day and share it with thousands of people using peer-to-peer distribution networks like Napster. This leads us up to today where the future of Rock music as a product and an art form is an open question.

* This point is, of course, disputed by many audiophiles.

What's next is outside the scope of this article. But I do think an honest review of the evolution of Rock's revolutionary sound can lead to only one conclusion. Far from being a footnote to Rock's history, the technological innovations of the 20th century were a driving force in the music’s development. Rock was at the right place at the right time; its sound - the confluence of blues, country and Latin music - arrived at the exact moment when technology became empowered to take popular music global. As much as Rock's success was driven by raw emotion, lyrical truth and musical innovation, it was driven by luck.




Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.



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