Doing Sound: An Ethnography of Fidelity, Temporality, and Labor Among Live Sound Engineers

Whitney Jesse Slaten

Doing Sound: An Ethnography of Fidelity, Temporality, and Labor Among Live Sound Engineers
Slaten, Whitney Jesse
Thesis Advisor(s):
Fox, Aaron A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Persistent URL:
Geographic Area:
New York (State)--New York
This dissertation ethnographically represents the work of three live sound engineers and the profession of live sound reinforcement engineering in the New York City metropolitan area. In addition to amplifying music to intelligible sound levels, these engineers also amplify music in ways that engage the sonic norms associated with the pertinent musical genres of jazz, rock and music theater. These sonic norms often overdetermine audience members' expectations for sound quality at concerts. In particular, these engineers also work to sonically and visually mask themselves and their equipment. Engineers use the term “transparency” to describe this mode of labor and the relative success of sound reproduction technologies. As a concept within the realm of sound reproduction technologies, transparency describes methods of reproducing sounds without coloring or obscuring the original quality. Transparency closely relates to “fidelity,” a concept that became prominent throughout the late nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries to describe the success of sound reproduction equipment in making the quality of reproduced sound faithful to its original. The ethnography opens by framing the creative labor of live sound engineering through a process of “fidelity.” I argue that fidelity dynamically oscillates as struggle and satisfaction in live sound engineers’ theory of labor and resonates with their phenomenological encounters with sounds and social positions as laborers at concerts. In the first chapter, I describe my own live sound engineering at Jazzmobile in Harlem. The following chapter analyzes the freelance engineering of Randy Taber, who engineers rock and music theater concerts throughout New York City. The third chapter investigates Justin Rathbun’s engineering at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers theater production of “Porgy and Bess.” Much of engineering scholarship privileges the recording studio as the primary site of technological mediation in the production of music. However, this dissertation ethnographically asserts that similar politics and facilities of technological mediation shape live performances of music. In addition, I argue that the shifting temporal conditions of live music production reveal the dynamism of the sound engineers’ personhood on the shop floors of the live music stage.
Acoustical engineering
Sound engineers
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Suggested Citation:
Whitney Jesse Slaten, , Doing Sound: An Ethnography of Fidelity, Temporality, and Labor Among Live Sound Engineers, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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