Caught by the River

The Art Of Sound

Chris Watson | 8th January 2018

The Art Of Sound: A Visual History For Audiophiles by Terry Burrows (Thames & Hudson, hardback, 352 pages. Out now and available here.)

Review by Chris Watson

This is really quite embarrassing. Sometime last September, Jeff called and asked if I might be interested in reviewing this book? Yes certainly, it sounded right up my street. I was packing for a forthcoming trip to Australia; a month away recording in the giant Swamp Gum forests of Tasmania, running a location sound workshop in the Kosciuszko National Park and a gig at the Wired Lab Festival near Cootamundra, so The Art Of Sound, I thought, would be a perfect travelling companion. Our front door in Newcastle has a very large letter box so it was a surprise when the postman knocked to hand me the large and heavy package from the publishers Thames and Hudson. This book is a significant publication, 250mm x 218mm, 352 pages and a weighty 1.5Kg, so not ideal in one’s hand luggage. Consequently it remained at home throughout October and my following trips to Paris and Brussels during November whilst casual reminders regarding my review trickled in from Jeff.

The book covers the evolution of sound recording and playback via developing technology and finally, during December, I’ve been enjoying browsing the fabulous collection of illustrations, photographs, posters, diagrams and blueprints, as well as scanning the refreshingly Spartan text. In fact, browsing is probably the best way to gradually consume this volume whilst at home over days, weeks and months, reference book style. Reading is aided by a novel hardback cover and spine which has a very effective hinge so the book can be laid flat on a table for close and considered study. In terms of production and presentation this is a book which I would describe as gorgeous – the lustrous texture of the images, the weight of paper and print quality together with its partially cased binding give this publication a presence which is hard to ignore or push onto a shelf. It’s been around my house and studio space now for three months and I keep picking it and just gazing at some of the images and there are more than 850 to look at. My favourite is on the second page, a photograph titled ‘Stereo Groove’ (1933) [how cool is that?]. It features the model Alan Blumlein used to demonstrate how stereo could be produced from a single gramophone needle playing in a specially cut groove. Alan Blumlein is a particular hero of mine and I highly recommend his biography The Life and Works of Alan Dower Blumlein by Robert Charles Alexander (Focal Press). Also check out Walking and Talking from the EMI Archive Trust in 1933.

The Art Of Sound comes in four waves: Acoustic, Electrical, Magnetic and Digital. The first two waves are colourful and historically engaging, however it is the Magnetic era and the development of the tape recorder that most gripped my imagination. The visual history is remarkably well demonstrated across two facing pages, the first with an image of the AEG Tonschreiber B recorder from 1939, faced by a photograph of Bing Crosby smiling alongside an early Ampex recorder (developed with his money, and technology looted from post-war Germany). This chapter, like the other three, features biographies of celebrated artists and engineers so here are Les Paul, Phil Spector, Joe Meek and Ray Dolby. I scanned the book in vain, though, for even one female contributor – something which I think reflects very badly on the industry.

There are glaring omissions, which I’m afraid would extend the male list even further – but where is Peter Walker from Quad Electroacoustics in Huntingdon? Stefan Kudelski of Nagra in Switzerland or Rupert Neve, whose mixing consoles have shaped so much great music around the world?

Nonetheless, what is included in this book is fascinating and mostly makes me smile, and it’s great to have around and dip into when I give my ears a break from listening. Thanks for giving me the time Jeff.


Chris Watson on Caught by the River/on Twitter