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Locating Project Studios and Studio Projects

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020


Via a longitudinal case study of a studio project (Middlewood Sessions, 2004–12), this research explores processes of music-making in the increasingly prevalent context of the project studio to give an insight into contemporary music-making practices. Predicated upon technologies of decreasing size but increasing processing power, project studios represent a diversification of musical creativity in terms of the persons and locations of music production. Increasingly mobile technologies lead to increasingly mobile practices of music production, which presents a challenge to the seemingly simple question: where is the project studio? In response, I propose an ontology of project-studio music-making that sets out what conditions have to be met for location, as an active proposition, to take place.

Research Article
Copyright © 2016 The Royal Musical Association

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I would like to thank my colleagues at the University of Hull for supporting my research leave by taking on my teaching and administrative duties and thus allowing me time to think and write. I would also like to thank my colleague and friend Dr Karen Burland at the University of Leeds for having the foresight and tenacity to initiate, guide and perpetuate the collection of data that underpinned this research. Finally, I am grateful to the two anonymous reviewers whose comments on the draft submitted to the Journal helped me refine the article.


1 Musical and economic successes as evidenced and perpetuated by the reputation of some of its best-known clients, such as Richard Hawley, Arctic Monkeys, Jarvis Cocker/Pulp and Tony Christie.

2 Any connection between the cost of technology and widening access is made in very general terms, not as some kind of technological utopia. Although costs may appear to be decreasing (and I am thinking in particular of cost in relation to processing power – see Thom Holmes, Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture (4th edn, London, 2012), 302), this does not mean that they are no longer prohibitive for many. I fully acknowledge that, on a global scale, access to technology remains a privilege. Technologies have proliferated in particular societies and amongst people with particular economic means. This caveat should always apply.

3 Paul Théberge, ‘The Network Studio: Historical and Technological Paths to a New Ideal in Music Making’, Social Studies of Science, 34 (2004), 759–81 (p. 773).

4 Paul Théberge, Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology (Middletown, CT, 1997), 58–71.

5 David Blake, ‘Make Your Own Record – at Home’, Melody Maker (20 January 1973), 34. I am grateful to Peter Wadsworth for allowing me to see his copy of this article.

6 Théberge, Any Sound You Can Imagine, 52–3.

7 Ibid., 231; see also Peter Wadsworth, ‘Strawberry Recording Studios and the Development of Recording Studios in Britain, c.1967–93’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Manchester, 2007), 50–3.

8 Théberge, Any Sound You Can Imagine, 106–28.

9 Ibid., 233; Théberge, ‘The Network Studio’, 773. See also Wadsworth, ‘Strawberry Recording Studios’, 56–63.

10 Paul Greene, ‘Mixed Messages: Unsettled Cosmopolitanisms in Nepali Pop’, Popular Music, 20 (2001), 168–87; Denis Crowdy, ‘Studios at Home in the Solomon Islands: A Case Study of Homesound Studios, Honiara’, The World of Music, 49 (2007), 143–54.

11 Mark Slater and Adam Martin, ‘A Conceptual Foundation for Understanding Musico-Technological Creativity’, Journal of Music, Technology and Education, 5 (2012), 59–76 (p. 72). See Damon Albarn's (2010) account of producing music for Gorillaz while on tour: <> (accessed 10 August 2015).

12 This case study has formed the basis of two other publications: Mark Slater, ‘Nests, Arcs and Cycles in the Lifespan of a Studio Project’, Popular Music, 34 (2015), 67–93, and idem, ‘Processes of Learning in the Project Studio’, Music, Technology and Education: Critical Perspectives, ed. Andrew King and Evangelos Himonides (Farnham, 2016).

13 Middlewood Sessions, The Middlewood Sessions (Middlewood Records MWS1101, 2012, digital; also available at <>, accessed 10 August 2015).

14 Middlewood Sessions, ‘Fall Back’ (Brownswood Recordings BWOOD016, 2007; vinyl); ‘Fall Back’, on Brownswood Bubblers 2 (Brownswood Recordings BWOOD015, 2007; CD); ‘Red Waters and Astro Blue’ (WahWah 45s WAH12016, 2008; vinyl); ‘Red Waters’, on Underground Hits and Exclusive Bits 3 (WahWah 45s WAHCD006, 2008; CD).

15 ‘Brownswood Bubblers 2’, Straight, No Chaser (spring/summer 2007), 53; ‘The Middlewood Sessions’, Birth of the Dew (February 2012), <> (accessed 10 August 2015); Ben Eckersley, ‘Middlewood Sessions’, Now Then (March 2012), <> (accessed 10 August 2015).

16 In this case study, Auralex panels and bass traps were installed to treat the domestic rooms that constituted the base of the project studio and, later on, spaces used for on-location recording. Companies such as Auralex, GIK and RealTraps have emerged in order to serve (amongst others) the project-studio market and, in line with other similar companies, offer free advice in response to photos and schematic plans provided by customers.

17 Jonathan A. Smith, Paul Flowers and Michael Larkin, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (London, 2009).

18 James P. Spradley, Participant Observation (London, 1980).

19 Robert K. Yin, Case Study Research: Design and Methods (London, 2009), 112 and 18 respectively.

20 The grain loft at Wood Lane Countryside Centre was used to record drums, percussion, strings, the horn section, guitars and bass. The venue was converted into a temporary studio, its architectural space repurposed, on three occasions in March, May and August 2009; see <> (accessed 10 August 2015).

21 Théberge, ‘The Network Studio’, 773–9.

22 For a wide-ranging and comprehensive discussion of the various ways in which music can be considered mobile, see The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, ed. Sumanth Gopinath and Jason Stanyek, 2 vols. (Oxford, 2014).

23 Sara Cohen, Rock Culture in Liverpool (Oxford, 1991); eadem, ‘Scenes’, Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture, ed. Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss (Oxford, 1999), 239–50; eadem, Decline, Renewal and the City in Popular Music Culture: Beyond the Beatles (Aldershot, 2007); eadem, ‘Bubbles, Tracks, Borders and Lines: Mapping Music and Urban Landscape’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 137 (2012), 135–70; Ruth Finnegan, The Hidden Musicians: Music-Making in an English Town (Middletown, CT, 2007); Adam Krims, Music and Urban Geography (London, 2007).

24 Chris Gibson, ‘Recording Studios: Relational Spaces of Creativity in the City’, Built Environment, 31 (2005), 192–207.

25 Lelio Camilleri, ‘Shaping Sounds, Shaping Spaces’, Popular Music, 29 (2010), 199–211; Ruth Dockwray and Allan Moore, ‘Configuring the Sound-Box 1965–1972’, ibid., 181–97; Simon Zagorski-Thomas, ‘The Stadium in your Bedroom: Functional Staging, Authenticity and the Audience-Led Aesthetic in Record Production’, ibid., 251–66.

26 Julian Dodd, Works of Music (Oxford, 2007), 9.

27 Ibid., 1.

28 Ibid., 92.

29 Ibid., 11 (emphasis original).

30 Ibid., 2.

31 Nicholas Wolterstorff, Works and Worlds of Art (New York, 1980), 41.

32 Dodd, Works of Music, 11.

33 Ibid., 11–13 and 38–48 respectively.

34 Dodd, Works of Music, 43.

35 Ibid., 11.

36 Christopher Small, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Middletown, CT, 1998), 9 (emphases omitted).

37 Ibid., 2.

38 Dodd, Works of Music, 60–5, 83–91, 105.

39 Ibid., 100–2, 113–16.

40 Ibid., 113. See chapters 3 and 5 for Dodd's defence of Platonism.

41 Small, Musicking, 52. See also ibid., 50–1, for Small's invocation of Bateson's thinking based on two key works: Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology (New York, 1972), and idem, Mind and Matter: A Necessary Unity (London, 1979).

42 Small, Musicking, 61.

43 Ibid., 113.

44 Georgina Born, ‘On Musical Mediation: Ontology, Technology and Creativity’, Twentieth-Century Music, 21 (2005), 7–36 (p. 27).

45 Dodd, Works of Music, 106–9.

46 As one of the reviewers of this article pointed out, other languages make the distinction between works (objects) and work (effort) clearer: oeuvre and travail in French, Werke and Arbeit in German, opus and labor in Latin; see Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (New York, 1959), chapter 3 (p. 87, for example) and p. 314, note 39.

47 Nicolas Donin and Jacques Theureau, ‘La coproduction des oeuvres et de l'atelier par le compositeur (à partir d'une étude de l'activité de Philippe Leroux entre 2001 et 2006)’, Circuit: Musiques contemporaines, 18 (2008), 59–71.

48 Nicolas Donin, ‘Empirical and Historical Musicologies of Compositional Process: Towards a Cross-Fertilisation’, The Act of Musical Composition: Studies in the Creative Process, ed. Dave Collins (Farnham, 2012), 1–26 (p. 17).

49 Michael Dellaira, ‘Some Recorded Thoughts on Recorded Objects’, Perspectives of New Music, 33 (1995), 192–207 (p. 197).

50 Ibid., 193.

51 See Slater, ‘Nests, Arcs and Cycles’ for a discussion of lifespan phases and their characteristics.

52 Dellaira, ‘Some Recorded Thoughts’, 200 (emphasis original).

53 Aaron Kozbelt, ‘Ontogenetic Heterochrony and the Creative Process in the Visual Arts: A Précis’, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3 (2009), 35–7; idem, ‘All in the Timing: Using Embryological Principles to Understand Creative Thinking in Art’, Thinking through Drawing: Practice into Knowledge, ed. Andrea Kantrowitz, Angela Brew and Michelle Fava (New York, 2011), 55–9, <> (accessed 10 August 2015).

54 Dodd, Works of Music, 174 (emphasis added).

55 Small, Musicking, 91.

56 Jason Stanyek and Benjamin Piekut, ‘Deadness: Technologies of the Intermundane’, Drama Review, 54 (2010), 14–38.

57 Small, Musicking, 112.

58 Nicholas Cook, ‘Between Process and Product: Music and/as Performance’, Music Theory Online, 7 (2001), <> (accessed 10 August 2015).

59 Small, Musicking, 138–9; see also p. 184.

60 Denis Smalley, ‘Spectro-Morphology and Structuring Processes’, The Language of Electroacoustic Music, ed. Simon Emmerson (London, 1986), 61–93; idem, ‘Defining Timbre – Refining Timbre’, Contemporary Music Review, 10 (1994), 35–48; idem, ‘Spectromorphology: Explaining Sound-Shapes’, Organised Sound, 2 (1997), 107–26; see also Mark Slater, ‘Timbre and Non-Radical Didacticism in the Streets’ A Grand Don't Come for Free: A Poetic–Ecological Model’, Music Analysis, 30 (2011), 360–95.

61 Middlewood Sessions, ‘Fall Back (Spiritual South Remix)’ (Brownswood Recordings BWOOD016, 2007; vinyl).

62 Slater, ‘Processes of Learning’.

63 The album comprised nine tracks (T) selected from 14 that had been written between 2004 and 2008. Disparities in the qualities of approaches to their production resulted in timbral dissonances, which were ironed out by re-recording all of the tracks using more uniform approaches to production and performance (the same ensembles across each of the tracks playing in the same acoustic – though not all at the same time) in the final third of the project's life.

64 The qualities of the influential repertoire layer (R) exert a shaping force not only on the emerging sound structures but also, because these have to be brought about, on the people and objects that are assembled to do this work. However, if no original, emerging music is heard (S, T), then the project studio does not coalesce. Two friends listening to music they both like does not constitute the active creative context I am pursuing; they are just two friends listening to music, though that may be, of course, an important part of their relationship.

65 There are, of course, other trajectories. Some practitioners may be in the process of downsizing their set-up, or some may set out to use the very minimum (quantity and quality) of technologies in the way they make music. In this case study, participants invoked the desire to improve the quality of their music as a conscious, powerful motivating force.

66 Simon Frith and Simon Zagorski-Thomas, ‘Introduction’, The Art of Record Production, ed. Frith and Zagorski-Thomas (Farnham, 2012), 1–9 (p. 3).

67 Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London, 1979), 102–6; John Clarke, ‘Style’, Resistance through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, ed. Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (London and New York, 2006), 147–61 (pp. 149–50).

68 Dan Hosken, An Introduction to Music Technology (New York, 2011), 108–14.

69 While hiring equipment has played a significant part for decades now in the way technologies have been appropriated for making recordings, the initial mode of appropriation for those in this case study was to purchase, with hiring becoming necessary only later on, as the desire for quality outstripped available personal funds. For example, two Neumann M149 microphones were used as the stereo pair to record the seven-piece string section in the latter stage of the project. This pair of microphones alone would have cost in the region of £7,000 at the time, which was an unfeasible purchase in terms of finances and intended usage of the equipment.

70 Project diary (see above, p. 170), December 2007, 1.

71 Project diary, February–March 2008, 3.

72 Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (New York, 1997), 8.

73 Project interview 2 (see above, p. 170), transcript, p. 11.

74 Project interview 3, transcript, p. 19.

75 Antoine Hennion, ‘An Intermediary between Production and Consumption: The Producer of Popular Music’, Science, Technology, and Human Values, 14 (1989), 400–24 (p. 416).

76 Allan Moore, Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song (Farnham, 2012), 120. The basis of the broad decision to include saxophone in the ensemble was in direct response to Tom Chant's playing on the Cinematic Orchestra's album Every Day (Ninja Tune ZENCD59, 2002; CD), particularly tracks 5 and 6.

77 The final versions of these sections can be heard at 0:49 and 3:08 respectively; see above, note 14.

78 Small, Musicking, 183–4.

79 Ibid., 133.

80 Cook, ‘Between Process and Product’.

81 Project interview 4, transcript, p. 11.

82 Project interview 3, transcript, p. 17.

83 Ibid., 10.

84 Small, Musicking, 96.

85 See above, note 14.

86 ‘Gilles Peterson’, <> (accessed 10 August 2015).

87 Bruno Latour, ‘Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together’ (1986), <> (accessed 10 August 2015), 6. I return to this idea in more detail below.

88 Ibid., 10–12.

89 Project interview 1, transcript, p. 2.

90 Mark Butler, Unlocking the Groove (Bloomington, IN, 2006), 3–6, 240–54.

91 Project interview 1, transcript, p.11.

92 Hennion talks of the transformation, or brutalization, of organic matter into ‘raw material’ during the recording process, and of producers using their bodies as obstacles to protect the singer from the resistant, distracting ‘flesh-and-blood listener’ (‘An Intermediary’, 409, 412). Here the process is reversed: data once again becomes organic and the listener/dancer is flesh and blood.

93 Virgil Moorefield, The Producer as Composer: Shaping the Sounds of Popular Music (Cambridge, MA, 2005), 74 (and 109).

94 Project interview 4, transcript, p.12.

95 For example, ‘Then He Was Gone’ (track 9 on The Middlewood Sessions) represents an ensemble of 49 players: drummer, percussionist, bassist, guitarist triple-tracked, two Rhodes parts, a synth player, nine-piece horn section plus flugelhorn overlay, two vocal parts plus a seven-piece string section layered four times.

96 ‘Background’, Middlewood Sessions, <> (accessed 10 August 2015).

97 Project diary, February–March 2008, 8–9.

98 Ibid., 7.

99 See Slater, ‘Nests, Arcs and Cycles’, 72.

100 Thomas F. Gieryn, ‘What Buildings Do’, Theory and Society, 31 (2002), 35–74 (p. 35).

101 Krims, Music and Urban Geography, xxix–xxxiv.

102 Gieryn, ‘What Buildings Do’, 41–2.

103 At a talk at the University of Hull in November 2013, the producer Ken Scott recounted the story of how the sound of a ringing telephone ended up on the end of David Bowie's ‘Life on Mars?’ A door from the live room of Trident Studios in London led directly to a bathroom in which, for an unknown reason, there was a telephone. Nobody knew the number, so it never rang except, by dint of someone's misdialling, right at the end of this one particular take. The accidental spill of the telephone ringing was kept in the final mix, though the track fades out before Mick Ronson's expletives are proudly pronounced, as heard on the original take that Scott allowed us to hear. The failure of the studio's architectural design was transformed into a musical opportunity.

104 Eliot Bates, ‘What Studios Do’, Journal of the Art of Record Production, 7 (2012), <> (accessed 10 August 2015).

105 Gibson, ‘Recording Studios’, 193; Small, Musicking, 90–1; Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford, 2005), 34.

106 Hennion, ‘An Intermediary’.

107 Ibid., 406.

108 Antoine Hennion, Les professionnels du disque: Une sociologie des variétés (Paris, 1981), 157, cited in idem, ‘An Intermediary’, 407.

109 Hennion, ‘An Intermediary’, 407.

110 Ibid., 415.

111 Mimi Sheller, ‘Mobile Publics: Beyond the Network Perspective’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 22 (2004), 39–52 (p. 39).

112 See Small, Musicking, 113.

113 Latour, Reassembling the Social, 37–8 (emphasis original).

114 Born, ‘On Musical Mediation’, 28.

115 Sheller, ‘Mobile Publics’, 48.

116 Ibid., 49.

117 On durability, see Arendt, The Human Condition, chapter 4 (p. 120, and p. 148 in particular).

118 Timothy Binkley, ‘The Vitality of Digital Creation’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 55 (1997), 107–16 (p. 109; original emphasis).

119 Ibid., 110.

120 Latour, ‘Visualisation and Cognition’, 6 (original emphases).

121 Latour, ‘Visualisation and Cognition’, 10.

122 Binkley, ‘The Vitality of Digital Creation’, 110.

123 The development of Celemony's Melodyne and the changing fortunes (in usage and reception) of Antares's Autotune over the past 15 years or so are interesting examples overlapping with Middlewood Sessions’ lifespan. While these plug-ins developed to permit increased control over the manipulation of pitch, they did not alter the fundamental capacity of computer technologies to allow the capture, storage and retrieval of audio data. In that respect, although computers changed shape, capacity and cost, and software developed commensurately, their function remained the same.

124 R. Keith Sawyer, ‘Improvisational Cultures: Collaborative Emergence and Creativity in Improvisation’, Mind, Culture, and Activity, 7 (2000), 180–5 (p. 183).

125 Ibid., 183–4.

126 Small, Musicking, 95, quoting Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973).

127 See Richard Schechner, Performance Theory (New York and London, 1994), chapter 4; Simon Frith, Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music (Oxford, 2002), chapter 10; Philip Auslander, ‘Performance Analysis and Popular Music: A Manifesto’, Contemporary Theatre Review, 14 (2004), 1–13 (pp. 5–6); and idem, ‘Music as Performance: Living in the Immaterial World’, Theatre Survey, 47 (2006), 261–9.

128 See Slater, ‘Nests, Arcs and Cycles’, 82–4; and ‘Learning in the Project Studio’.

129 Gibson, ‘Recording Studios’, 198.