Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music Paperback – May 25 2010
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“Perfecting Sound Forever is an exhaustively researched, extraordinarily inquisitive book that dissects the central question within all music criticism: When we say that something sounds good, what are we really saying? And perhaps more importantly, what are we really hearing?” ―CHUCK KLOSTERMAN
“A compelling look at the birth and evolution of recording, and how it changed the way the world hears itself.” ―MARC WEINGARTEN, Los Angeles Times
“Greg Milner tells the story of recorded music with novelistic verve, ferocious attention to detail, and a soulful ambivalence about our quest for sonic perfection. He shows how great recordings come about not through advances in technology but through a love of the art, and that same love is the motor of his prose.” ―Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise
“You may never listen to Lady Gaga the same way again . . . [Milner is] a gifted storyteller with an ear for absurdity . . . You might not think a book about reverb could thrill. Milner's does.” ―MIKAEL WOOD, Time Out New York
“Very, very, very few books will change the way you listen to music. This is one such book. Read it.” ―JARVIS COCKER
About the Author
GREG MILNER has written about music, media, technology, and politics for Spin, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Slate, Salon, and Wired. He is the coauthor, with the filmmaker Joe Berlinger, of Metallica: This Monster Lives. He lives in Brooklyn.
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Many readers, including myself, will enjoy Milner's lengthy sidetrips describing in detail such historic applications of new recording techniques as John and Alan Lomax's trips to the rural South to record "authentic Negro music," discovering along the way the great blues singer "Huddie" Ledbetter, better known as "Lead Belly." Many of these stories are only tangentially related to the central story of the development of audio recording techniques. Others, such as Milner's discussion of Les Paul's pioneering use of over-tracking to achieve the sound he wanted, are more directly related to the main narrative. If you are not irritated by the author's wanderings off the "track" (sort of an audiophile's "Moby Dick"), and you have a reasonable understanding of the main outlines of the development of audio technology, you will probably thoroughly enjoy this book.
But be forewarned. As audio recording technology hits the crossroads intersectig it with the birth of rock 'n roll in the mid-fifties, there is almost no discussion of the application of audio technology to the recording of classical or jazz music. Milner confines his discussion to pop and rock almost exclusively thereafter. Although his discussion of the influence of the evolution of recording technology on the pop music field is important, if your tastes run to Miles Davis or Dmitri Shostakovich rather than hip-hop or The Red Hot Chili Peppers, you may find your enjoyment of the book substantially lessened.
That said, Miller's exploration of the uses made of digital recording technology, with its promise of greater sensitivity and higher fidelity, is fascinating. He describes in great detail the "misuse" of audio compression and clipping to achieve greater "loudness" even though the results on pop music paradoxically lessened the dynamic range and fidelity of the music being made. Milner paints a picture in which the democratization of the production of pop music made possible by the availability of ever more affordable devices to produce music - the "producer" could now record and remix from a garage instead of an acoustically pristine recording hall - contributed to the so-called "loudness wars" in which records were so compressed that the dynamic range of a pop song from beginning to end might be as little as 9 dB. Loudness got the attention of people flipping through the FM dials, and audiophiles were no longer the object of the producer's attention as the recording industry's prime demographic was hearing their favorite music through cheap stereo systems and later through MP3 devices such as iPods using low fidelity earbuds. The lesson seems to be that people get the music they deserve, and mediocre sound quality is perfectly satisfactory to the average listener.
The author's thesis is that increasingly sophisticated production devices such as Pro-Tools and Auto-Tune, which allow the correction of pitch for a flat singer, and the assembly of "music" one note at a time rather than by capturing even a semblance of live ensemble musical performance, have paradoxically corrupted the quality of most modern recordings. It is interesting then that he winds up at the end of the book putting himself through the paces of a modern day "sound test." In a blind comparison of a uncompressed sound clip in almost CD quality, with an identical clip of the same music that has been compressed using a codec and bit rate unknown to him, the author tries to identify the compressed clip. You may be surprised at the results reported by Milner as he processes the music through his own psycho-acoustic equipment (his ears and his brain).
Overall, I can confidently recommend this book to anyone with more than a passing interest in the history of audio recording, and some of the more interesting stories that are part of that history. However, if reading page after page about lossless and lossy dynamic compression in MP3 players produces sleepiness instead of excitement, you might want to pick up an old copy of Aaron Copland's "What To Listen For in Music."
Actually, it's at least four books in one. It begins as a concise history of the technology of sound reproduction. I've read many books on technological and industrial history -- some good, some worthless -- and this is one of the best for detailed information on Thomas Edison's only invention, the phonograph, as well as subsequent developments in sound reproduction. This early chapter is fascinating, because as awful as Edison's primitive machines sound to us today, they fooled audiences into thinking that the music was coming from a live soprano instead of from the big horn atop a wax cylinder that was actually making the noise.
As opposed to sound reproduction, the book also provides a brief history of music synthesis, at least where it relates to sound reproduction (i.e., sampling). This part is not as thorough as it picks up the story long after such pioneers as Raymond Scott and Robert Moog did their original work creating new analog sounds, but it also relates synthesizers to the curious and overlooked fact that, at least in pop music, people have come to prefer artificial sounds to authentic reproduction. For examples, how popular would the late Les Paul or the late Pink Floyd have been if their records had only presented accurate reproductions of them performing live?
"Perfecting Sound Forever" veers off on a tangent when it devotes a chapter to a biography of folk singer Lead Belly and the men who first recorded him, but this story is so well told that we don't mind the departure from the main topic. The following chapter resumes focus on recording technology, and it's the best history of tape recording I've read, because it's the most complete. Milner is a superb researcher, and this is even more evident in his account of the development of the now-ubiquitous ProTools recording and editing software.
The main part of the book will be of scant interest to older readers as well as those who only listen to classical music and jazz, as it discusses exactly why it is that today's pop (I mistakenly typed "poop" and had to delete an o) records sound so execrable, and unless you are as devoted to contemporary rock music as Milner apparently is, you may wonder, as I did, So what? He provides numerous examples of recordings which he denounces as being artificially made too loud by the use of compression and limiting. Not being familiar with many of the tunes which he names as examples of egregiously boosted sound, I listened to the snippets available at this site, and they didn't sound all that different from other modern rock. He blames the broadcasters for wanting records which blast out of the radio, so as to hold the listener's attention, but hasn't the goal of rock music always been to be as loud and obnoxious as possible? That's what adolescents, at all times and everywhere, enjoy -- annoying the elders with noise. That's why glass-packed mufflers were invented. None of the tracks which upset Milner sound any more dysphonious (I just made that word up) than what Jello Biafra (formerly of the Dead Kennedys) described as "The wall of abrasive noise" common to the punk era, or the Kick Out the Jams live album made by the MC5 in 1968. (Which was made on a two-track portable Ampex recorder with only two microphones. I was there.) Yes, all this music lacks dynamic variation, but that's hardly the only traditional musical value that's fallen by the wayside (i.e., in the ditch) over the years. Why no complaints about the lack of clever harmonic progressions or key changes (modulation) or melody or musicianship in general?
The thing I object to most about the book, though, is that Milner (who, in a late chapter, recounts how he had difficulty distinguishing the sound of uncompressed sound files from that of various compression methods such as AAC or MP3) continually maintains, as if it were fact, the superiority of old analog recordings over the sound of modern digital recordings, which to me is comparable to the hicks who would shout "Get a horse!" at early motorists.
When I worked in a record shop, I frequently (to my dismay) encountered this opinion, and yes, analog recordings do sound "warmer" just as vacuum-tube amplification does sound "warmer." But just what, exactly, does "warmer" mean? It means you have lost the top 6,000 Hz of your your frequency response, and anything shrill and sibilant is no longer there to annoy you. You want "warmer"? Turn the treble control all the way down.
Obviously, Milner is right when he points out how digital recording can be abused by excessive compression, and obviously some hideous-sounding and defective CDs have been released, but at least for those of us who listen to serious music, the comparison is absurd. I suppose that with the exotic playback equipment described in the book (a $90,000 turntable) LPs might sound a bit better, and I suppose that IF, of course, the surface noise, the ticks and pops, could somehow be removed from the LP, and IF the rumble inherent in a stylus dragging over any surface could be removed, and IF one could restore the lost frequencies of an LP (nothing below 40 Hz, scant above 16kHz and less with each playing as the microscopic bumps in the vinyl get flattened), and IF there were no tape hiss from the masters, and IF the LP is not an RCA Dynawarp® release, and IF the LP weren't based on the standard RIAA equalization curve, then yes, LPs would sound better than CDs. But that's like saying that IF your aunt had a dick she'd be your uncle.
Furthermore, if analog is so superior to digital, where were all the complaints when the nation recently switched to digital television broadcasting. If there were any who opined that the digital picture was inferior to the old analogue picture, I missed hearing them. Yet, somehow, with sound, we have all these golden-eared experts who claim to hear some delitescent beauty in the old LPs. Only, they (especially among the classical phonies) express what they hear only in metaphoric terms such as "warmer" or "richer" or "more compelling" or in Milner's words, "more intimately connected," "made the room shimmer," "more ideal."
Still worse, and the nadir of the book, is Milner visiting some qwack holistic psycho-babble healer who claims that digitally-reproduced music interferes with the body's accupressure points, and this is driving us all Stark! Raving! Mad! The healer then does the old Amazing Kreskin power-of-suggestion routine on Milner, in which Milner's raised arms helplessly fall at the very sound of the insidious digital demon-music.
Well, all this, in addition to his preference for puerile indie rock, does not recommend Milner's judgment to the reader, and it sorta negates all his opinions, of which there are too many in the book, but still, the research is superb, and whatever his other shortcomings, the guy sure can write.
It's the omissions that irk me. Although he acknowledges recording's initial start in France, Milner really examines only American advances in equipment and recording techniques. The British, the French, and the Germans (at least) contributed greatly to the challenges of transferring sound waves to a persistent medium. There's an interesting story in British Decca's development during World War II of anti-submarine hydrophone technology that subsequently became the basis for high fidelity music recording in the 1950's (Decca's revolutionary ffrr); but you'll learn nothing of that from this book. Milner can also spend several pages on the Beatles' innovative recordings without ever mentioning George Martin; Ricky is the only Martin who makes it into the book's index. What's with that?
Edison's goal, according to Milner, was to make an objectively accurate record of an individual performance. The through line of Perfecting Sound Forever follows the wandering path from that ideal to recent decades when a CD produces sounds that may never have had any prior physical existence at all. Organizing the book around such a notion requires Milner to virtually ignore classical music after Stokowski's recording of Fantasia (on page 71 of 371) and almost all of acoustic jazz. Fidelity may have vanished in the 1990's from certain types of pop music, but it's grossly over-simplified, even in the era of MP3s, to imply that fidelity has ceased to be a goal of digital recording in general.
Rating the book at two stars would be harsh, but I give it three only because, despite its shortcomings, I found some interesting content in most chapters.
The more interesting sections to my mind were those that cover the earlier recording eras, particularly the development of magnetic tape recording and multitracking. Milner's breezy writing is reasonable rather than brilliant. A definative history of this fascinating subject still remains to be written.