Technical Intermediaries and the Agency of Objects

How Sound Engineers Make Meaning in Live Music Production

Les intermédiaires techniques et l’agentivité des objets. Comment les ingénieurs du son contribuent au sens des concerts

Los intermediarios técnicos y la agencividad de los objetos. Cómo los ingenieros del sonido producen sentido en la producción de música en conciertos

Andy Battentier and Giselinde Kuipers

Les intermédiaires techniques et l’agentivité des objets


Electronic reference

Andy Battentier and Giselinde Kuipers, « Technical Intermediaries and the Agency of Objects », Biens symboliques / Symbolic Goods [Online], 6 | 2020, Online since 30 April 2020, connection on 07 August 2020. URL :

Cultural production is increasingly understood through the prism of science and technology studies (STS) and actor-network theory (ANT), which emphasize the role of objects and the material environment in social processes. We take the case of sound engineers—a category of cultural producers dedicated to creating meaning using primarily materials and objects—to investigate the role of materiality in processes of cultural production. In most studies of music production, this category of workers is lumped together in the amorphous category of “support personnel.” To designate these people—endogenously labeled as the “tech crew”—we introduce the concept of technical intermediaries, as intermediaries of cultural production that, unlike cultural intermediaries, modify the material content of the symbolic goods produced by an art world. Through an ethnographic study of live music sound technicians in France, we show that the working practices of technical intermediaries are explained more by their relationships with other members of the art world than by properties of their material environments, hence questioning the “generalized symmetry” central to ANT and material semiotics.

La production culturelle est de plus en plus analysée par le prisme des études des sciences et technologies (STS) ou de la théorie de l’acteur-réseau (ANT), qui soulignent le rôle des objets et de l’environnement matériel dans les processus sociaux. Nous nous intéressons au cas des ingénieurs du son – une catégorie de producteurs culturels qui se consacrent à produire du sens en utilisant en premier lieu des matériaux et des objets –, afin de comprendre le rôle de la matérialité dans les processus de production de la culture. Dans la plupart des études consacrées à la production musicale, ce groupe de travailleurs est amalgamé dans la catégorie vague du « personnel de renfort ». Pour parler de ces personnes qui se désignent entre elles sous l’appellation d’« équipe technique », nous introduisons le concept d’intermédiaires techniques : des intermédiaires de la production culturelle qui, contrairement aux intermédiaires culturels, modifient le contenu matériel des biens symboliques produits dans un monde de l’art. Par le biais d’une ethnographie des ingénieurs du son de la musique live en France, nous montrons que les pratiques professionnelles des intermédiaires techniques s’expliquent davantage par leur relation à d’autres membres du monde de l’art que par des propriétés de leur environnement matériel, interrogeant ainsi la « symétrie généralisée » au cœur de la théorie de l’acteur-réseau et de la sémiotique des objets.

La producción cultural es crecientemente analizada bajo el prisma de los estudios en ciencias y tecnologías (STS) o la teoría del actor-red (ANT), las que subrayan el rol de los objetos y del entorno material en los procesos sociales. Nos enfocamos en el caso de los ingenieros de sonido –una categoría de productores culturales que se dedican a producir sentido utilizando en primer lugar materiales y objetos– para comprender el rol de la materialidad y los procesos de producción de la cultura. En la mayoría de los estudios sobre la producción musical se amalgama esta categoría de trabajadores con la categoría vaga de «personal de refuerzo». Para hablar de estas personas, que se designan ellas mismas bajo la apelación de «equipo técnico», introducimos el concepto de intermediarios técnicos, intermediarios de la producción cultural que, contrariamente a los intermediarios culturales, modifican el contenido material de los bienes simbólicos producidos en el mundo del arte. A través de una etnografía de los ingenieros de sonido de la música en vivo en Francia, mostramos que las prácticas profesionales de los intermediarios técnicos se explican más por su relación a otros miembros del mundo del arte que por las propiedades de su entorno material. De esta manera se cuestiona la «simetría generalizada», concepto central de la teoría del actor-red y de la semiótica de los objetos.

1. Introduction: Producing Music and Meaning in Material Settings

Recently, the online medium The Verge tried to find out how the Super Bowl halftime show, a musical event during the final of the US football championship with more than one hundred million spectators from around the world, was set up in just six minutes. The article cites Patrick Baltzell who was “in charge of the audio for the last nineteen Super Bowls” and also “designs and mixes for the Grammys, Oscars, and presidential inaugurations.” In this interview, the journalist brought to the fore the hidden artistry of this live sound performance. Baltzell’s work, which consists both of managing the minute preparations for the ant ballet building the stage, and of mixing the performance’s sound on the spot, requires a careful coordination of material constraints and the demands of the producer and performers. The interview mentions a plethora of elements involved in creating the final performance: the weather and the stadium acoustics, the requests of the artistic performers, the broadcasting requirements—all are cited as elements taken into consideration in order to produce the best possible performance.

This constant coordination between material constraints and interpersonal demands is typical of the technical aspect of cultural production, as it happens in sound and visual production such as the Super Bowl. Recent approaches in the sociology of culture and the arts highlighted “the agency of objects”: the capacity of objects to influence social situations. Inspired by science and technology studies (STS) and Actor-Network Theory (ANT), so-called new materialist approaches in cultural sociology have placed objects and the material environment at the center of the analysis of cultural production. Thus, they have stressed “affordances” offered by musical artifacts and objects, and the possibility for people to “attach” themselves to things (DeNora 2000; Gomart & Hennion 1999; Hennion 2007). Others have stressed the ability of objects and environments to shape decision-making in cultural production (Akrich 1992, 1993, 2010; Domínguez Rubio 2012, 2014; Griswold, Mangione, McDonnell 2013; Klett 2014). These approaches, in turn, have recently been criticized for overstating the influence of technologies, objects and environments in shaping social life, and thus downplaying the role of social processes, power relations and historical developments (Elder-Vass 2008, 2015; Lettow 2017).

In this paper, we aim to follow up on this critique on the “agency of objects.” We question the “generalized symmetry” (Callon 1984), central to ANT, that places human and non-human actors on a same level of influence. Instead, we call for an approach to materiality that accounts for the role of objects, while considering their influence as different in kind. In order to do this, we will show that while the contemporary production of a symbolic good sometimes engages a massive investment of technologies and objects, human relationships and processes of meaning-making stay the central factor influencing its final shape.

For this, we will focus on the specific group of cultural producers that is strongly concerned with manipulating objects and materials. Commonly referred to as the “tech crew,” we introduce the term “technical intermediaries” within art worlds to designate this specific category of workers. People designated under this label are the engineers and technicians who practically engage with materiality during the production of cultural objects or events. We refer to this category as intermediaries because their work consists of mediation, in various ways. However, this mediation is “technical” as it mediates between people and material objects. Moreover, in doing this mediation, such technical intermediaries rely on technologies: tools or devices manipulated by humans in order to work on physical objects.

This article analyzes the work of a specific group of technical intermediaries: sound technicians of live music concerts. It untangles how their tasks, decision and practices result from both interindividual and material elements of the social situations. We will show that sound technicians’ work consists of various forms of mediation. First, they mediate between symbolic goods (music) and physical matter (sound waves). Second, they mediate between different categories of cultural producers: musicians, but also the technicians and other support personnel. Thus, they perform both “material” mediation, as well as “relational mediation.” Third, obviously, they mediate between musicians and their audiences. The do so quite literally: most music performed live today in Western Europe is intended to be worked upon by technicians, and without their contribution would not be appreciated, or not even be understood as music.

The aim of this paper is twofold. First, we introduce the notion of technical intermediaries as a category of actors in art worlds (Becker 1982). We propose to collapse art world workers into four main categories: artists, audiences, cultural intermediaries and technical intermediaries. We explore how and to what extent technical intermediaries contribute to the production of symbolic goods, through the empirical case of sound technicians of live music. More specifically, we investigate how, and to what extent, their supposedly “neutral” “technical” or “support” mediation work creates meaning and adds value.

Second, we analyze how meaning and value are created via the technical and material mediation specifically performed by technical intermediaries, untangling relational and material aspects of their work. We argue for the primacy of the influence of interindividual processes, classically considered as “social” in the literature. Consequently, we understand the “agency of objects” as a result of “technical ability”: the capacity of groups, individuals and institutions, induced by socialization, to overcome challenges posed by objects and environments and to wield them to their needs.

2. Material Agency in Art Worlds as the Work of Technical Intermediaries

In order to achieve the aims of this paper, we bring together insights from three bodies of literature. First, we combine insights from cultural sociology about cultural mediation and cultural intermediaries with Howard Becker’s notion of art worlds to coin the notion of technical intermediaries. Second, we draw on recent discussions on the role of materiality in social life and in particular the discussion whether objects have agency. We finally borrow a frame of empirical analysis from sociology of organizations to understand variations in the working practices of technical intermediaries.

2.1. Technical Intermediaries in Art Worlds

What distinguishes the crew of people that, in the division of labor of a cultural production, engage with materiality? In Art Worlds (Becker 1982), Howard Becker identifies eight categories of actors necessary for the production of an artwork: artists, suppliers, funders, distributors, audience, critics, legislators and support personnel. The tech crew is included in the category of “support personnel,” which is loosely described as “a miscellaneous category designed to hold whatever the other categories do not make an easy place for” (Becker 1982: 2). As Howard Becker notes, the convention to divide artistic production into a core activity, performed by artists, and support personnel doing the less relevant and talent-requiring tasks, is endogenous to art worlds rather than driven by sociological analysis (Becker 1982: 77). Indeed, the criteria to separate an “artist” from “support personnel” are unclear: “every function in an art world can be taken seriously as art, and everything that even the most accepted artist does can become support work for someone else” (Becker 1982: 91). From the perspective of a director or a composer, the interpreter of the violin part of a symphony may be considered “supporting” (Becker 1982: 80‑83).

Hence, support personnel does not properly describe a bounded category of actors with a specific role. Instead, it describes a system of delegation of tasks, where tasks considered “not artistic” are delegated to a range of people. If this system can take many different forms, and is not fixed in time, we conclude that it cannot be used as a category describing the work of tech crews.

In recent years, the notion of “mediation” has allowed researchers to focus on people that bridge relations between artists and audiences within art worlds, in particular through the label of cultural intermediaries (Lizé 2016; Maguire & Matthews 2012; Negus 2002). This term refers to a group of people that in recent decades has become much more salient in cultural production: the agents, bookers, public relations persons, buyers and sellers of cultural products. In cultural production, such cultural intermediaries “construct value, by framing how others—end consumers, as well as other market actors including other cultural intermediaries—engage with goods, affecting and effecting others’ orientations towards those goods as legitimate—with ‘goods’ understood to include material products as well as services, ideas and behaviors” (Maguire & Matthews 2012: 552). Cultural intermediaries “impact upon notions of what, and thereby who is legitimate, desirable and worthy, and thus by definition what and who is not” (Maguire & Matthews 2012: 552).

Although technical crews materialize artistic ideas into specific objects, and thus directly impact the way viewers, listeners, readers etc. will engage with cultural goods, they hardly fit the general understanding of what cultural intermediaries do. This becomes evident when considering Wenceslas Lizé’s typology (2016) of cultural intermediaries. All these intermediaries focus on market access of artworks and artists, by bringing symbolic goods to the attention of the general public as directors of institutions, mediators, or distributors. They frame the opinion of audiences by sharing their own opinions as critics, they shape and produce symbolic capital. Moreover, they may even create encounters in order to trigger the production of a fruitful artistic project (Lingo & O’Mahony 2010). In doing so, they create the cultural frame in which symbolic goods are to be understood as legitimate, meaningful, or worth of interest. However, what they don’t do is modifying directly the material shape of artworks. This work is handled by “support personnel,” or tech crews: cameramen, editors, stagehands, or sound engineers.

This group is de facto excluded from this “cultural mediation,” as their role does not grant the power to create market access. This particular mode of exclusion in cultural production been noted by David Hesmondalgh (2006), who called for a more inclusive frame under the label of “project team.” David Wright (2005) aimed to capture this distinction by separating the “makers of meaning” from the “makers of things.” While cultural intermediaries belong in the former category, the latter more accurately fits the work of technical crews.

Hence, we propose to see technical crews as distinct from cultural intermediaries. Instead, we will investigate them as a category in itself, that we call “technical intermediaries.” Like cultural intermediaries, they are involved in mediation, but their mediation is of a different nature. Technical intermediaries forge a link between the artistic work, as created by artists, and the audience. They do so by transforming the material shape of artworks. In contrast with cultural intermediaries, they do not add meaning—in the sense of legitimacy, framing, or “buzz”—but they add something material, that is nonetheless carrying symbolic meaning. Hence, cultural and technical intermediaries work in a complementary way. The former attempt to insert the cultural object in a larger cultural and economic frame in order for it to reach an audience, but without directly modifying the material content. The latter, on the other hand, work directly on material properties to ensure that the symbolic good will match both the artist’s aesthetic views, the cultural intermediaries’ needs—and ideally, the audience’s tastebuds.

2.2. Objects and Environments in Social Life

In their tasks, technical intermediaries have to deal with objects, which in the field typically summarized as “Actor network theory,” are framed as social actants (Akrich, Callon, Latour 2006; Law 2009). One notable and contested characteristic of this conceptualization, that is central to the theoretical architecture of ANT, is that objects, environments, humans, animals, and ideas all equally take part in a network of interactions. This “generalized symmetry” (Callon 1984; Law 2009) leads to a conception of the social world as a series of associations between actants, i.e. humans, non-human and even symbols that form constantly evolving assemblages.

This approach tends to invalidate macro-sociological analysis, stating that society is built and dismantled fully at a the micro level (Latour 2005; Law 2009). It has been criticized for doing so, and accused of promoting a biased ontological approach (Elder-Vass 2015; Lettow 2017) that minimizes the influence of institutional factors and historical relations of power, while providing explanations of the social that are, in fact, “supra-societal” (Lettow 2017: 112). The notion of generalized symmetry is at the center of this controversy, as it implies a form of fuzziness in the definition of actants’ empirical abilities. For instance, Dave Elder-Vass comments on Michel Callon’s classical formulation of generalized symmetry that highlights the symmetrical agency of humans and scallops:

Some of Callon’s other attempts to treat scallops and fishermen symmetrically are frankly bizarre […]. For example: ‘In fact, the three researchers will have to lead their longest and most difficult negotiations with the scallops’ (Callon, 1984); […] Latour, too, adopts this sort of symmetry […]. As a literary device, such metaphors are stimulating. As a device for provoking the recognition of a gap in conventional sociological reasoning, they are effective. As a methodological requirement for sociological work, they are thoroughly misguided. Scallops don’t negotiate, represent, or betray. Motors don’t become interested in projects or allow or forbid anything. […] But scallops have different causal powers from humans, and different causal powers from motors. Scallops have the power to attach themselves to rocks or to collectors used by the researcher; they do not have the power to negotiate. Motors have the power to drive vehicles in certain conditions (but not in others); they do not have the power to be interested, to allow, to forbid. (Elder-Vass 2008: 468‑469.)

We argue that the concept of technical intermediaries offers an opportunity for a renewed approach of the problem of material agency and generalized symmetry. To do so, we build on recent attempts to integrate objects into the sociology of the arts, in particular by Fernando Domínguez Rubio (2012, 2014, 2016) who mentions the central importance of “the crew.” For instance, in the production of the landscape artwork Spiral Jetty (2012), “the crew” is indispensable to practically solve the problems posed by an environment rather hostile to artist Robert Smithson’s creativity. The crew allows the successful production of the artwork, despite the muddiness, salinity and isolation of the place where it was built. In his work on “docility” or “unruliness” of artworks at MoMa, Fernando Domínguez Rubio highlights the role of conservators in this process: they use an array of technologies to erase the marks of the more or less fast object decomposition (2014). Following Howard Becker (1982), and Steven Shapin (1989), he calls to focus on “cleaners, plumbers, mechanics or conservators, who are responsible for the critical work through which objects are sustained on a daily basis, and without which these objects, as well as the systems of meanings and value that are woven through them, would simply collapse in front of our eyes” (Domínguez Rubio 2016: 82).

Fernando Domínguez Rubio shows that associations between objects, humans and meanings require human work. He identifies people that shape the matter in order to give it an intended meaning: builders in the case of Spiral Jetty, conservators in the case of the MoMa. These people are, in fact, technical intermediaries. However, following the assumption of generalized symmetry, Fernando Domínguez Rubio’s analysis eventually focuses on materials framed as active actors in the meaning production process. For instance, he describes in much detail the array of devices and technologies used for the conservation of the Mona Lisa. He therefore conceptualized the work of technical intermediaries as a response to the actions of objects, rather than as action on the objects:

[Q]ua things, artworks are constantly veering away from the object-positions to which they are subsumed.
[C]onservators attached a prosthetic measuring device […] that record the daily behavior of the painting.
(Domínguez Rubio 2016: 78. Authors’ emphasis).

As a result, technical intermediaries themselves escape from view: who are these people? What are their trajectories? How are they integrated in their working environments? Most importantly, how do the answers to these questions influence their ability to create or maintain the shape in which objects are meaningful? These central questions can only be answered by reversing the perspective: starting from the technical intermediaries’ trajectories and behaviors rather than from the materials they are working on. In itself, this calls into question the accuracy of generalized symmetry, as it suggests that these issues cannot be understood by indifferently focusing the analysis on objects or humans. In this article, therefore, we assume that objects and human contributions in the production of cultural meaning are of a qualitatively different nature, and we will verify this assumption empirically.

2.3. Studying Technical Intermediaries

Despite arguably being a central type of actor in contemporary, technology-driven cultural production, technical intermediaries have been the object of little research in the current literature. Although ethnographic accounts of their working practices in different art worlds do exist (Horning 2004; Kealy 1979; Kuipers 2015; Le Guern 2004; Leyshon 2009; Perrenoud 2007; Rudent 2008), very little conceptual work has been done so far.

A notable exception is Stephen Barley (1996). Working from the perspective of organizational sociology, he showed that technicians across various working environments, art worlds or otherwise, share similar working patterns. Technical work is divided in a relational and a non-relational part. The latter regards to production of symbolic representations of the behavior of mechanical, electric or biological systems. The other aspect is relational and consists in making these representations fit the expectations of their co-workers. This distinction will guide our analysis of the work of a particular group of technical intermediaries: sound engineers.

3. Method: Shadowing Sound Engineers

To analyze the relational and non-relational work of technical intermediaries, we need to study the work of technical intermediaries in a field in which their contribution is crucial and visible. This is the case of contemporary live music. Many concerts, regardless of their genre, place or range, require the use of a public address (PA) system. No pop musician could play in a stadium without the use of amplifiers. A rock concert in a small venue would amount to nothing if the non-amplified voice was covered by the drum and guitar amps. The necessary PA system is always built, managed and dismantled by sound technicians—the professional group on which we are going to focus1.

Between December 2015 and March 2018, the first author conducted eighteen interviews with sound technicians, sixteen of which working (at least partly) in live music. Sixteen were working and/or living in Paris and its suburbs, one in the region of Lyon (France), and one in Montréal, Canada. The interviews aimed to gather information about their social trajectories before and during their career, the current state of their career, and their professional practices and ethos (see the list of respondents in annex).

We have then followed eleven of them in twenty observations of live music productions, in which we scrutinized their tasks and interactions with other actors of the concerts. We also gathered information on the venue and its working practices through available documents and informal discussions, and did interviews with musicians whenever possible. In doing so, we observed a variety of artistic contexts. Eleven observations were done during unique shows that were intended to not be repeated. Five of these were part of tours, the others were not. Some of them were done by paid musicians, others played for free. The other observations were done during a daytime hip-hop dance contest; the recording of a non-amplified classical concert; a two-day rehearsal; and three theater plays with ample use of live music. Finally, we observed two several-day open-air festivals, one in the usual position of observing scholar, the other one as a sound assistant on different stages. In all our observations, we openly assumed an observer position. Note that the first author also has experience working as a sound technician.

Despite this diversity, two tasks are shared by all the observed performances. Mixing, i.e. balancing the sources of captured sounds of the different instruments, is one of these tasks. The installation of the PA system is another common task: a PA system positioning has to be carefully thought through—regarding the acoustics of the venue. However, even if the speakers are permanently installed in the venue, the system has to be calibrated, i.e. tuned for the specific music that will be played on a given day. Using the data of our ethnographic study, we will gauge the relational and non-relational aspects of these two tasks.

4. Relational Technical Mediation: Changing Material Properties of Music

One way to interpret live music sound technicians’ work is to say that they transform music, a symbolic good, into sound, a physical object. While music is described in terms of representations, cultural references, subjectivities, identities and so on, sound is described in physical terms: units of acoustic pressure, intensities of electric signal, and other physical descriptions. These symbols become visible on a mixing desk, and are handled by the technician behind it: vu-meters and screens provide measures of the physical properties of sound, while knobs and faders provide the possibility to change these properties. Interpreting and modifying this information is the role of the mixer.

In a strictly physical sense then, the sound that reaches the audience is not the same as the sound made by the musicians. The mixer’s intervention aims to produce a sound that is nonetheless recognized as the music performed by artists. We will see that the relational aspect of technician’s work is central to achieve this goal.

Fig. 1. DI box

Image 1000000000000320000002151393AE28.jpg

© Bene
Wikimedia Commons.

On the non-relational side, sound technicians proceed in three steps to perform the music’s transformation. They capture, retouch and eventually restitute music. Music is captured by microphones, or DI boxes in the case of an electric source (see Figure 1). Sound technicians then use different tools, such as a mixing desk, to modify the raw piece of captured music. We call this step retouch. After being modified, music is restituted on speakers. Two restitutions happen at the same time. For the audience, the sound is restituted at a louder volume than what can be attained by musicians alone: this is the front of house sound. Musicians on stage also need a sound of their own, the monitor or stage sound. The whole path of the sound, from the musicians’ instruments to their ears and those of the audience, is called the audio chain. Figure 2 shows this entire chain. This audio chain is the process through which material properties of music are transformed to take their final shape, in which it will be received by the audience (front of house) and musicians (monitor). This final shape is called an audio image.

Fig. 2. Scheme of the audio chain, based on Mercier 2017

Image 10000000000004CF000000B8E721CF70.jpg

Sources: on the left, drawing of the music group par Dunive; on the right, picture by Edward Cisneros; editing by Andy Battentier.

Far from being plain and neutral, this transformation cannot be assimilated to a direct and simple raising of acoustic pressures, for several reasons. The first one has to do with the physical properties of sound. Indeed, human perception of acoustic pressure does not follow a proportional logic, but a logarithmic one. This means that in certain value ranges, slight changes have a big impact, while in other ranges, the impact is limited even in the case of big changes. Thus, in order to obtain an audio image that resembles a proportional raise in the volume of the music, technicians have to apply a range of filters and tools, such as gain, which amplifies the signal of an audio source, or EQ, which boosts or cuts frequencies within the audio spectrum.

However, the tools of technicians come with limitations. For instance, if a microphone and a speaker are too close, the speaker’s sound can be taken over by the microphone, reamplified, taken back again, creating what is commonly known as “feedback” or the “Larsen effect” (Mercier 2017). As the loop goes on, sound raises progressively up to the maximum of the system’s possibilities, and can cause its destruction. The sound is also generally unpleasant to the human ear, and technicians generally avoid it.

Hence, physical properties of sound and signal treatment imply first and foremost a non-neutral transformation. The various tools that, assembled, form a PA system (microphones, mixing desk, effects modules, cables, amplifiers, speakers…) allow technicians to handle amplification while accounting for the specific kind of changes that these physical properties implies. However, the way these tools are used are in fact scarcely driven by the material properties of the music. Rather, it is shaped by the type of relationship that emerges between musicians and technicians, as we will see now by looking closer on how the front of house sound is constructed.

Our fieldwork showed diverse degrees of closeness between musicians and technicians for a live show. However, these degrees can be summarized as a range bounded by two archetypes: one extreme case is the completely one-time collaboration, when a technician is hired by a venue to settle a PA system and do the sound of a band he never met before. The other extreme is the long-term collaboration based on informal kinship, in which the technician knows the artists beforehand and is deeply involved in artistic matters. For the sake of contrast, we will focus on the two archetypes.

In all cases, the audio image entails a full reconstruction of the music. Marc Perrenoud (2007) described how recording was an important step in the formation of young musicians, as the shock provoked by the contrast between what is heard in rehearsal and what is heard in recording constitutes a challenge to the musicians’ identity. Sound engineers, in all cases, have to handle this reconstruction.

In the case of a long-term collaboration, sound engineers work as an external ear guiding musicians into the construction of their audio image. Their role can then be close to the one of artistic directors:

“The first concert I did with them I said wow, catastrophe […] it was full of sound problems, arrangements… stuff that did not work […]. Maybe not all sound engineers are like me but I really use the way I feel music. And if I am not feeling well, it means it does not work. So at the beginning I am a bit lost and I said okay…we have to do something about this. So there, we start a discussion and to make the problem evolve […].” (B, interview.)

This quote illustrates how the technician does not only draw on his technical expertise, but also on his personal sense of aesthetics to provide advice and to properly use the tools for constructing the audio image. This collaboration was part of the process of achieving an artistic project, that was both artistic and technical:

“Z: – In fact you were giving them artistic feedback.
B: – Yeah. But not only. Sometimes it is purely technical but also artistic. They know it and they have really been receptive to it. So on the road, step by step, gig after gig, we will… they will modify stuff… they were also in a research of sound. […] what is interesting for me is to participate in the evolution of this band, you see.” (B, interview.)

This collaboration can be central in the construction of a band’s musical identity. For instance, one of the observed bands played acoustic instruments, but with the intention of making it sound like electronic ones. The role of the sound engineer, in this case, is crucial, as it is through the transformation he sets in motion that the illusion is built. In this case, the use of technological tools is driven by specific aesthetic conventions. For instance, we noticed during the observation that two microphones were pointed at some instruments. In fact, these two microphones had different sensitivities, and were used according to the playing style of the musician, in order to make the instrument sound in an electronic way:

“The drummer plays with all kinds of sticks on the snare, in all kinds of ways… On some parts of the set, I know that he will play loud and so I use the dynamic microphone. On other tunes, I know he will be soft so I use the static.” (H, small talk on the spot.)

This kind of precise setting requires a lot of time and effort. In this particular case, the project required several historical conditions. The technician and musicians met at school around ten years ago, and had been working together since. This allowed them to develop a specific aesthetic in which the technician is completely involved. As a symbol of that, he was linked with the musicians during the representation by wearing a stage costume, although he was working from the room. He became completely integrated into the band, to the point that his absence would result in the impossibility for the band to play:

“For instance with them [this band], I’ve created the thing that if I am not here, they can’t do a concert. […] I think this is what I liked in this job in fact. Being part of the artistic project. And the consequence of that is precisely to be irreplaceable.” (H, interview.)

This integration goes far beyond the artistic side of the work, and implies his participation to the negotiation of the band’s gigs:

“When I negotiate with the venue’s technician, I need to defend the project: ‘Yes, we need a piano, no, we are not putting a keyboard because the guy scratches the strings so a digital keyboard is not gonna work.’ To the tour manager: ‘Yes we really need to give musicians what they say they need, yes we really need to bring our sound engineer because it’s essential.’ These kind of things. Yes we really need two hours of soundcheck… To the musicians: ‘Yes we really need to be focused on stage because we really play, we don’t play with machines […] so no we are not going to make a show, we will not run in the audience.’” (H, interview.)

The ability for him to negotiate in this way is conditioned by the support of other people involved in the project, whether they are musicians or cultural intermediaries:

“We are all committed to this project’s originality. And that’s really cool, that you don’t find yourself alone, defending the desires of artists that aren’t conscious that they are on the margins, with the managers of your band who fall in with the programmers and who says: ‘But wait, everyone tells us this is nonsense, why are we asking this?’” (H, interview.)

We can see that if the particular musical identity of this band is allowed by technologies, the work on sound that makes this identity emerge is mostly driven by the type of relationship constructed among the insiders of the project. Musicians and technician, in this case, knew each other for several years. But how is the reconstruction of the audio image going when technicians and musicians don’t know each other in advance? Does the absence of a solid relationship allow for the material to take over and “impose” its definition of the situation?

When they don’t know each other beforehand, musicians and technicians have to establish a relationship during the so-called “sound-check,” the moment before the concert when musicians get on stage and plays for the sound technician to settle the sound. In this configuration, the communicative and relational aspect of the soundcheck is particularly visible, as working routines are not settled between musicians and technicians. If the musicians are not giving information spontaneously, technicians have to ask for all relevant information. For instance, during an observation of a three days open-air festival, a cumbia big band brought nine persons on stage, and did not bring a technician with them. The leader of the band, visibly trained to this situation, brought a set list to the technician half an hour before the beginning of the show and explained to him who will play solos and when, how percussion and melodic instruments, as well as lead and choir voices should be balanced. In this case, the sound design is the result of a direct negotiation between the musician and the technician, under the logic of “the show must go on.”

In contrast, during the same observation, one of the bands came without a technician and did not communicate with the front sound engineer at all. They were playing as if they were rehearsing, and stopped the soundcheck suddenly and without warning. They then went off stage, leaving the front of house and monitor sound engineers with a sound that had to be completely rebuilt during the first minutes of the show. As a consequence, the sound quality dropped, but was only gradually improved during the performance itself.

When they do not know musicians, technicians have to grasp the musical identity of the band within a few minutes, on the basis of the tunes that will be played in the soundcheck. Except for marginal and very conventional moves such as putting a reverb on a voice, technicians usually do not allow themselves to change the music with an aesthetic purpose. To produce the sound of the band, they will rely on an interpretation of how the band is supposed to sound, according to what can be visibly expected of the musicians on stage, on the basis of the information they already have and according to their own experience as technicians, and of course on the basis of what the musicians tell them. In this configuration, communication and the “reading” of other persons is the key to producing the proper sound.

Multiple nuances exist between the two extremes of long-term collaboration based on informal kinship and unique one-time collaboration. Each variation leads to a differences in the material form in which music will be perceived by audiences. One recurring example was how a label, the manager, or another cultural intermediary would allot a technician of their own, who did not know the musicians before but eventually engages in a more or less long-term collaboration.

We showed that the construction of the audio image of musicians on stage largely depends on the type of relationship they have with technicians, and on the level of communication between them. Physical properties of sound and gear characteristics are marginally influential in performing this task. However, getting behind the mixing desk and mixing is only a part of technical work in live music. Before that, among other things, the PA system needs to be selected, mounted, and tuned to the acoustic environment in which it will play. Due to the object-related nature of this task, we can reasonably expect that this part of the job will be more driven by objects, environments, and tools.

5. Non Relational Technical Mediation: Producing Homogeneous Sound throughout the Room

Audio images may be conceived in rehearsals or in studios, far from the actual place in which they will be played. Thus, besides balancing the different music sources during the soundcheck, technical intermediaries of a live performance have to ensure that the audio image can be properly reproduced in the material environment of the concert. For this, the choice of the PA system, its position in the venue, and its adjustment are crucial elements that happen under the responsibility of technical intermediaries. The question that we need to ask here is to what extent these choices are guided by physical properties of material environments, or by interpersonal characteristics of the art world.

First, we note that the mixing desk is a tool that can compensate, to a certain extent, for the changes in the environment. For instance, in the case of a band on tour, if today’s room resonates at 2.5 kHz and that was not the case in yesterday’s room, the frequency can be reduced with the help of the mixing desk. But mixing may not be enough to address the challenges posed by an acoustic environment. Indeed, acoustic environments can distort the work of the sound engineer and impeach the production of the desired audio image:

“The problem is that we were playing this project in places that were not at all suitable. That was a very rock project, very loud. Ultra rock’n’roll. And we were playing it in like, theater venues… we did it in x [a classical music venue]. There’s four seconds of reverb. […] I said ‘I won’t do the front of house. It will be horse butchery, that’s out of question.’ I said: ‘If you want me to do the monitor, I’ll do the monitor, that’s cool.’ But doing rock’n’roll in a venue with four seconds of reverb, it’s suicide. It will not sound good in front, that’ll be hellish, and I don’t want to do that.” (J, interview.)

In this example, there was a gap between the ideas projected by producers and the material constraints of their project’s implementation. This gap can be closed by an adequate use of the PA system technology. The general purpose of the sound reproducing device is to produce a homogeneous sound for the whole audience, to bring the same audio image of the music to everyone in the room. This is an ideal impossible to reach in practice, a typical case of the “point in which a production system meets the vagaries of the material world” (Barley 1996). The design of the PA system itself is a way to get closer to this ideal. In the 1990’s, the technology of Line Array was introduced, leading to a substantial change in the concert amplification. Rather than concentrating the sound diffusion in one point that targets the whole audience, the Line Array multiplies the sources so that each is focused on one part of the audience only.

Fig. 3. Example of a Line Array system

Image 1000000000000320000004B0E77CA5FF.jpg

Source: Wikipedia, by Rudolf Schuba.

Less reverberated, and thus distorted, sound reaches the audience’s ears, to the benefit of the perception of the much clearer sound that comes directly out of the speakers, and that is under control of the front of house engineer:

“Our goal as system engineers, is to install speakers that will spray… well that will be directed to the audience, where there is audience. The purpose is to really only focus where there’s an audience to avoid sound dispersion, that will create problems…
– Yeah, if you spray the walls…
– Exactly, you’ve got reverberation. It blurs the direct sound and all.” (C, interview.)

This task of tuning the PA system is a constant in all our observations. The system may need to be mounted, for instance in festivals or other such ephemeral events. It is permanently installed in venues that perform concerts regularly. However, the system is always “calibrated,” meaning that the front of house engineer ensures that there is no distortion provoked by the system itself. In our observations, it was generally done by playing a piece of music that the engineer knew well, comparing what was heard from what was expected for the tune to sound good. But technology can also be used, especially in big productions. In two observations, we have seen the use of a “sine sweep.” A measure microphone is placed in the room, and a sinusoidal sound is played at all ranges of frequencies.

Tone Generator. Example of feedback loop

Credits: YouTube


Fig. 4. Response in frequencies to a sine sweep

Image 1000000000000CC0000009904FF895A2.jpg

Source: field photo by Andy Battentier.

The graph that results is analyzed and the system calibration is modified in function of what is displayed. However, the sound engineer stays the final decision-taker:

“The final judge is always your ears… You can have all the analyzers you want, I use my ears to finish calibrating a system…Everything may look good on the analyzer, and then you have complete shit coming out. […] 2,3% of the time, you have systems that react… that’s really weird, you have systems that don’t react as usual. They will give you a flat response and the analyzer, you have a sweet response in flat frequency, but with your ears it sounds like some systems give you more high frequencies, despite the empirical measure […]. There’s something like, a third factor, not on our analyzers. I don’t know exactly what this is, but it’s always worth listening to ensure that it’s not ruining everything.” (R, interview.)

The person quoted here works at the highest level of international concerts, where the most advanced technology available worldwide is used. In this case, technology works to assist the subjective feeling of a trained and experienced professional. If we are trying to understand what can close the gap between the projected show and its material implementation, we can see that the influence of education and experience of technical intermediaries prevails on technological choices in practical processes, whatever the range of technologies used. However, before relying on such technologies, one has to need it, and to be able to fund it. In big shows, handling both the tasks of mixing, and mounting the PA system is too complex for a single human being. In this case a specialist of the mounting can be appointed, if this is financially feasible:

“I am dealing with the diffusion system for the audience. […] That’s for big tours. You have a technician, a system engineer who handles the diffusion system.” (C, interview.)

Hence, proper attunement of PA systems to material conditions relies on two factors. First, it relies on the means available to producers, that give the possibility to acquire technologies and the people able to handle it. Second, it relies on educational systems training technical intermediaries, whether through education or professional experience. These systems develop the abilities to properly use technologies, both in terms of exploitation of their potential and of emergence of creative uses in front of concrete problems. Moreover, they also inform technicians of the limitations of the gear they are using. We have witnessed the importance of this theoretical, practical and empirical knowledge in a festival organized in a church. The programming included a good share of amplified pop and electro music. The ten seconds reverb of the church was quite impossible to ignore. Hence, in order to provide a clear sound, the sound engineer, a person in his 30s who benefited from one of the most advanced education program in sound engineering in France, had to place recall speakers with a precise pattern:

“In this place, the problem is that the reverberated sound will quickly overcome the direct sound you hear from the speaker. Ten meters from it and you’re done, basically. You hear more reverberation than the sound of the speaker and you don’t get a thing. So the idea is to put a recall [rappel] speaker at ten meters from the stage, and another one five meters further, and another one, etc., in this way everyone is always covered by a speaker.” (Sound technician, small talk on the spot during observation.)

However, he explicitly said that he was not “fighting” the reverberation of the place, as it would have resulted in a “dull” sound. He rather integrated it into his mix, as a part that he was not able to directly control with a fader, but rather indirectly through other methods. This subtle use of technology in order to apprehend an acoustic environment rather hostile to a pop concert was allowed by his training, and only required casual gear to be implemented. Another observation, happening in a semi-cylindric hall of twenty meters height, had the same reverberation problem and the same kind of speakers, but none of the engineers came up with the solution of spreading speakers across the room. As a result, the mixer did not manage to produce the intended sound.

Here, the work of technical intermediaries appears as the answer to the contradictions inherent in the materialization of a project’s design. Problems appear when the environment constrains the producers’ intentions. While material properties of the environment are indeed considered during calibration, the ability to cope with them depends on the material and human means available to materially implement the project. Economically, money is needed to pay for workers and materials. Practically, workers must be able to fully exploit the potential of technologies. This ability depends on the quality of their training, whether through primary education or professional transmission, coupled with an accurate distribution of responsibility. The picture, then, appears to be much more complex than a dialogue between humans and materials, in which the latter heavily determines how the situation issues.

6. Material Constraints and Conventions: Technical Ability as the Locus of Agency in the Relation between People and Things

Through the study of the working practices of technical intermediaries on two central tasks leading to a concert production, we have been able to disentangle material and relational influences on technical work. This analysis shows that the work of technical intermediaries is mostly driven by relational factors during a live music performance. The material environment is providing a response to the intentions driven by people of the art world.

In an art world, conventions are the cornerstones of a successful performance: they allow musicians, technicians, cultural intermediaries and audiences to find common meaning in the event in which they are participating—concerts in the cases that we studied. Cultural intermediaries produce a symbolic frame for the musicians’ work, thus relaying it to an audience in a form that makes both economic and symbolic sense. They use cultural references and social skill to mobilize distribution canals in order to organize a successful connection between artists and audiences (Becker 1982; Lizé 2016; Maguire & Matthews 2012; Negus 2002). This organization is in itself a production system, in the sense of Stephen Barley (1996). Conventions of this cultural system constitute a middle point between the artist’s aesthetic views, the cultural intermediaries’ needs and the audience’s tastebuds. But conventions are relatively independent from material properties of the environment in which a performance takes place. Instead, conventions are constructed through a process happening before the actual concert. Although it might be at some point rely on material elements, this process goes far beyond the material conditions in which the concert actually happens. Commercial practices (Becker 1982: 46), power relationships (Becker 1982: 47), and cultural practices (Becker 1982: 48), are some examples of the larger processes Howard Becker mentions as crucial for explaining the adoption of a convention by an art world.

Material constraints, on the other hand, are always attached to a particular time and place. Each room sounds differently, each PA system has its own characteristics, each microphone transforms the sound in its own way. Moreover, the same place will not sound the same at two different moments in time, as changes in the weather and particularly the humidity rate, or the presence and size of the audience, will transform the way sound propagates through air.

The role of technical intermediaries is precisely to shape material properties of both the environment and the music in order for conventions to be applied independently of the environment. The technicians we studied have an objective: to rebuild an audio image of the band on stage, defined by the consensus reached beforehand by other actors involved in the art world, which is shaped by and expressed through artistic conventions. In order to achieve their objective, technicians have to account for the material properties of the environment in which this image is built, and they rely on specific tools that they are the only one to master in their working environment. In other words, the expectations of the shape of the audio image are defined independently of the environment in which the concert will take place, and technicians will have to deal with them in order to provide an image that fits these expectations. As they are using specific tools for this purpose, we can consider that it constitutes a form of association between humans and non-human entities, in the sense of actor network theory (Callon 1984).

But our observations call into question the notion of generalized symmetry at the core of this theory. Indeed, it is clear that the function of sound engineers is precisely to cancel, as much as possible, the effects of material variability, so that essential conventionally meaningful aspects of the audio image are not modified. Environments are a given parameter to them, around which they will have to work to achieve a purpose defined independently of these environments. For that, they will implement a strategy on the basis of their education and experience, for instance through the integration or suppression of reverberated sound in the audio image. Clearly, therefore, objects and environments do not take decisions by themselves, and will not purposefully implement a strategy to counter the sound engineers’ plan. In this sense, environments, tools, and people cannot be considered as equal participants in a network. The “negotiation” of non-human actants results in this case from the framing work of technical intermediaries that integrate the material in the network. Assuming generalized symmetry erases this work from the analysis, and thus overestimates the influence of objects.

This is why we propose, instead of speaking of material agency, to rather talk about technical ability. Technical ability, that is in our case the ability of technical intermediaries to materialize cultural objects according to conventions, is the human ability to address and manage objects’ and environments’ physical reactions. It is what determines the human response to the reaction that materials will produce in response to human intention. Technical ability defines the capacity to successfully adapt the means to the challenge posed by a specific context. In our fieldwork, the ability to do so relies on technical intermediaries’ capacity to understand the purposes of other (human) actors of the art world through communication, and on their knowledge and experience of the tools they are using to materially achieve these purposes. Both capacities are constructed by socialization, a concept that relies both on structural and interactional theoretical perspectives.

To use a mathematical metaphor, human agency on objects and environments is thus the result of an equation in which the variables are technical, imaginative, and economic resources and abilities. In this equation, properties of the material environment must of course be included, but as a constant. In social analysis, the material world typically is a constraint rather than a determining variable. Accounting for physical properties of the environment in the same way as interpersonal interactions in social sciences, is problematic theoretically (Elder-Vass 2008, 2015) and practically. It can lead us to overlook human agency over material constraints, built through the social organizations or institutions invented to face collective challenges. Therefore, it can lead to an overestimation of the material’s impact, and worse, to underestimation of human ability to face material challenges. Finally, it can lead us to forget that behind any action intended on the material there are intentions and purposes that are socially constructed, and relatively independent of any physical law. Technology, if it is indeed associated with humans and the material, is essentially a tool that serves these purposes and that needs to be adapted to it. In a professional context, such as a concert production, this task is the one of technical intermediaries. Therefore, “material agency” depends more on their work and the mediation that they produce rather than on the material physical properties.

Conclusion: Music as Meaning, and Technology

This article analyzed the working practices of live music sound engineers, a particular category of technical intermediaries. By questioning the notion of “support personnel” (Becker 1982), we presented a picture of art worlds as constituted of four kinds of actors: artists, audiences, technical and cultural intermediaries. We showed the specific role of technical intermediaries, which broadly consists in modifying the physical shape of cultural objects in order to make them correspond to the conventional expectations of their art world. Furthermore, our analysis questioned the “generalized symmetry” postulated by ANT (Callon 1984), and showed that “the agency of objects” was more accurately seized by the notion of “technical ability,” i.e. the capacity to mobilize social, economic and cultural resources to face material challenges. We identified the economic and social means of actors of the art world, the education and experience level of technical intermediaries, the types of relation and quality of communication between artists and technicians as primarily influencing technical ability, against physical properties of objects and environment, or available technologies.

These results have a number of wider implications for our understanding of cultural production, and the agency and social role of objects.

First, we showed that Howard Becker’s notion of “support personnel” does not adequately capture technical work in art worlds. Indeed, we saw that more than simply delegating tasks that artists or other members of the art world could do themselves but do not have the time or interest in, technical intermediaries provide crucial input during a creative process, as well as during its performance. They bring a specific competence regarding technology that is necessary to perform the cultural activity, and they use this competence to make autonomous and eventually creative choices that impacts the final shape of the cultural object.

Technical intermediaries are present everywhere in cultural production, everywhere where artistic content must be modified in order to fit the frame designed by cultural intermediaries for a presentation to an audience. The typology of art worlds that we propose here does not intend to lock actors in specific and rigid roles. It rather aspires to describe the different actions necessary to issue a cultural object or performance charged with meaning. Hence, it provides a frame that will help us to comparatively study the distribution of tasks, power and responsibilities in different art worlds. In this frame, technical intermediaries provide a good entry point to understand other actors’ expectations. Positioned at the last step of the production process, their work combines all the attempts from different actors to shape the cultural object in the way they think it should be according to their own position, making them easily observable by the researcher. This position, however, can eventually be found in other fields than the cultural one, fields where the process to transform designs in material objects is also found.

Second, our critique of generalized symmetry has led us to coin the new notion of “technical ability.” This concept allows us to avoid anthropocentrism in social sciences, allowing us to understand the agency and importance of objects without falling in the pitfall of material determinism. It opens a perspective that accounts for the influence of objects and environments, but focuses on how society organizes itself in order to integrate them. Thus, the concept calls for further exploration: how is technical ability improved or diminished by social processes? How do previous interactions influence technical ability in a defined moment? How do power relationships influence technical ability? Such questions lead back the way from human-material interactions to macro-perspectives in pragmatic and critical sociology. As a radical change of perspective, it may shed a new light on how materials are integrated in social life, and what role they play in the construction of social bounds and hierarchies.

List of respondents

A: male, early 30s, living in Paris suburbs
B: male, late 30s, living in Paris suburbs
C: male, early 40s, living in Paris suburbs
D: female, mid 30s, living in Tours
E: male, mid-40s, living in Paris
F: male, late 30s, living in Lyon’s region
G: male, early 30s, living in Paris suburbs
H: male, early 30s, living in Paris
I: female, early 30s, living in Paris suburbs
J: male, mid-30s, living in Paris
K: male, mid-20s, living in Paris
L: female, mid 30s, living in Paris
M: male, late 20s, living in Paris suburbs
N: male, mid 30s, living in Paris
O: male, early 30s, living in Paris suburbs
P: male, early 30s, living in Paris suburbs
Q: male, mid 30s, living in Paris
R: male, early 40s, living in Montréal
Z: first author during interviews interactions

1 In small concerts held by “ordinary musicians”(Perrenoud, 2007), there might be no professional technical intermediary, and the task of handling

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1 In small concerts held by “ordinary musicians” (Perrenoud, 2007), there might be no professional technical intermediary, and the task of handling the PA system can be held by musicians themselves. This specific case is kept out of our scope, as we entered the field by focusing on technical intermediaries. However, in this case, the work that would be done by technicians being done by musicians, the latter endorse both the roles of artists and technical intermediaries. There are, thus, technical intermediaries in “ordinary musicians” concerts: the musicians themselves.

Fig. 2. Scheme of the audio chain, based on Mercier 2017

Fig. 2. Scheme of the audio chain, based on Mercier 2017

Sources: on the left, drawing of the music group par Dunive; on the right, picture by Edward Cisneros; editing by Andy Battentier.

Fig. 3. Example of a Line Array system

Fig. 3. Example of a Line Array system

Source: Wikipedia, by Rudolf Schuba.

Fig. 4. Response in frequencies to a sine sweep

Fig. 4. Response in frequencies to a sine sweep

Source: field photo by Andy Battentier.

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