Pink Floyd Drummer Nick Mason Presents the History of Music & Technology in a Nine-Part BBC Podcast

Image by Phil Guest, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

If you’ve seen Pink Floyd in the news late­ly, it’s maybe because gui­tarist David Gilmour recent­ly put up his col­lec­tion of over 120 gui­tars for a char­i­ty auc­tion, fetch­ing “cer­ti­fi­ably insane” prices like a whop­ping $3.975 mil­lion for the famous black Strat played on Dark Side of the Moon. (The gui­tar now “wears the crown as the world’s most expen­sive six string,” notes Enmore Audio.)

But there’s more going on with ex-Pink Floyd mem­bers than Gilmour’s gui­tars or Roger Waters’ polit­i­cal activism. Drum­mer Nick Mason, long renowned post-Floyd for his huge­ly expen­sive car col­lec­tion, has tak­en on anoth­er role this month: as a pod­cast host and music his­to­ri­an in a nine-part series for the Open University/BBC pro­duc­tion, The Doc­u­men­tary Pod­cast.

Titled A His­to­ry of Music in Tech­nol­o­gy, Mason’s series cov­ers an awful lot of ground, “chart­ing the his­to­ry of music and tech­nol­o­gy and explor­ing the world of leg­endary artists, pro­duc­ers and inven­tors. The series shines a light on game-chang­ing inno­va­tions includ­ing the syn­the­siz­er, elec­tric gui­tar, sam­plers, drum machines and the record­ing stu­dio itself.”

A His­to­ry of Music in Tech­nol­o­gy fin­ish­es its run tomor­row. Cur­rent­ly, you can stream all but the final install­ment at BBC News, Apple pod­casts, and Stitch­er. The first episode— “Sound Recording”—which you can hear above, begins in pre­his­to­ry. Long before the tech­nol­o­gy for repro­duc­ing sound could be imag­ined, ear­ly humans showed keen inter­est in the acoustic prop­er­ties of caves, as Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na pro­fes­sor Mark Katz explains.

“I think peo­ple have always had an infat­u­a­tion with try­ing to hold on to [sound], to mod­i­fy it, to cap­ture it,” says Katz—whether that meant seek­ing out the best set­tings for pre­his­toric drum cir­cles or build­ing struc­tures like cathe­drals with spe­cial­ly-designed son­ic prop­er­ties. But for thou­sands of years, the only way to pre­serve music was to write it down in nota­tion.

It took until “the back half of the 19th cen­tu­ry,” says Mason, “before cred­i­ble attempts were made to bot­tle sound for the first time.” (Those very first attempts could record sound but could not play it back.) From the ear­ly tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ments, it’s a long series of leaps, bounds, zig zags, stum­bles, and cir­cling back around to find ways not only to record sound but also to ampli­fy and mod­i­fy it and cre­ate it whole­sale from elec­tri­cal sig­nals.

Above and below, you can hear Mason’s hour-long his­to­ry of the elec­tric gui­tar (Episode 3), the syn­the­siz­er (Episode 5), and sam­plers and drum machines (Episode 6). Mason ded­i­cates two episodes, 7 and 8, to the devel­op­ment of the record­ing stu­dio itself—unsurprising for a mem­ber of Pink Floyd, a band who, like Hen­drix, the Beach Boys, and the Bea­t­les, craft­ed the essence of their psy­che­del­ic sound from stu­dio exper­i­ments.

“When sound record­ing first emerged,” says Mason in “The Stu­dio Part 1” intro, “crit­ics claimed it could be the end of music.” For the dozens of new gen­res record­ing and pro­duc­tion tech­nol­o­gy has enabled, it was only the very begin­ning. Those of us who see com­put­ers killing the spon­tane­ity of rock and roll, for exam­ple, or the very human­i­ty of music itself, might reflect on how our reac­tions mir­ror those of some myopic ear­ly crit­ics.

Amer­i­can com­pos­er John Philip Sousa, for exam­ple, saw record­ing as “reduc­ing the expres­sion of music to a math­e­mat­i­cal sys­tem of wheels, cogs, discs, and cylin­ders,” lan­guage that sounds very like the com­plaints of cur­rent-day purists. Maybe arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence will nev­er write a great love song, but it will most cer­tain­ly help humans cre­ate music as unimag­in­able to us today as the syn­co­pat­ed thump of elec­tron­ic music would have been unimag­in­able to Sousa, king of syn­co­pat­ed brass band march­es.

Lud­dites and technophiles and every­one in-between will learn much from Mason’s series, and the kind of musi­cal edu­ca­tion he’s offering—replete with expert informed opin­ion from schol­ars and musi­cians like himself—will go a long way to prepar­ing us for a musi­cal future we might only dim­ly glimpse now in the most inno­v­a­tive tech­nolo­gies Mason is sure to cov­er in his final episode

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bri­an Eno Presents a Crash Course on How the Record­ing Stu­dio Rad­i­cal­ly Changed Music: Hear His Influ­en­tial Lec­ture “The Record­ing Stu­dio as a Com­po­si­tion­al Tool” (1979)

Nick Cave Answers the Hot­ly Debat­ed Ques­tion: Will Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

How Com­put­ers Ruined Rock Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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