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Discovering music: the blues
Discovering music: the blues

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9 The limitations of technology

The trouble with early recording is that the technology was very limited, and therefore the musicians were constrained in what they could do in order to have a usable commercial recording. The musicians had to gather around a large horn microphone, often in unrealistic playing positions (see Figure 8), so what was recorded could not possibly reflect accurately what the live sound might have been like. Even with the comparatively small groups of musicians involved in recording early blues, there were still many pitfalls. For instance, blues was a tradition that lent itself to extemporisation; songs could change from performance to performance and lyrics could often be made up on the spot. Recording fixed a particular version of a song, and the limitations of early recording formats meant that commercial recordings tended to be on the short side. Studying sound recordings as a source does need some caution as a result.

Described image
Figure 8 Photo dating from 1921 of musicians around a recording horn illustrating the unrealistic playing positions. The conductor, Joe Batten, is on a stool and a mirror is used so that musicians can see each other. Lebrecht Music and Arts/Universal images group via Britannica Image Quest).