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Perfecting Sound Forever An Aural History of Recorded Music

Greg Milner

Faber & Faber

0865479380

9780865479388

Trade Paperback

432 Pages

$18.00

CAD20.00

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A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

In 1915, Thomas Edison proclaimed that he could record a live performance and reproduce it perfectly, shocking audiences who found themselves unable to tell whether what they were hearing was an Edison Diamond Disc or a flesh-and-blood musician. Today, the equation is reversed. Whereas Edison proposed that a real performance could be rebuilt with absolute perfection, Pro Tools and digital samplers now allow musicians and engineers to create the illusion of performances that never were. In between lies a century of sonic exploration into the balance between the real and the represented.

Tracing the contours of this history, Greg Milner takes us through the major breakthroughs and glorious failures in the art and science of recording. An American soldier monitoring Nazi radio transmissions stumbles onto the open yet revolutionary secret of magnetic tape. Japanese and Dutch researchers build a first-generation digital audio format and watch as their “compact disc” is marketed by the music industry as the second coming of Edison yet derided as heretical by analog loyalists. The music world becomes addicted to volume in the nineties and fights a self-defeating “loudness war” to get its fix.

From Les Paul to Phil Spector to King Tubby, from vinyl to pirated CDs to iPods, Milner pulls apart musical history to answer a crucial question: Should a recording document reality as faithfully as possible, or should it improve upon or somehow transcend the music it records?

REVIEWS

Praise for Perfecting Sound Forever

"And in the beginning, there was no recorded sound. For millennia, music lovers had to play songs for each other in order to hear their favorite music. Because of this, perhaps—as Greg Milner points out in his exhaustive, technically precise and fascinating survey Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music—the primary objective of the earliest sound recording was verisimilitude. Hence, the term 'high fidelity,' created for the listener who might fret about impurities that could arise as a consequence of reproducing music. Perfecting Sound Forever frames the divide between authentic reproduction and the willful manipulation of sound as the 100-year dialectic that has spurred every new technological advancement in recording. Certainly, it has stoked an ongoing debate among fans and industry professionals, like a fractal tape loop . . . Perfecting Sound Forever is best when it takes readers on the labyrinthine journey through the tiny warrens and corporate-sponsored laboratories of the inventors, musicians and hustlers who helped advance sound recording. We learn, for example, that microphone technology was perfected at Bell Telephone Labs in the early 1920s, as part of an extensive experiment to improve the reception of telephone transmissions. Soon after, Bell Labs became the most important incubator of recording technology in the world, aided in no small part by the barnstorming efforts of a classical maestro named Leopold Stokowski. Milner describes, in compelling detail, how Stokowski became the world's great proselytizer of microphone recording, producing the first commercial electrically recorded performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1925, then enthusiastically cooperating with Bell Labs when it separated the orchestra's high and low frequencies in two separate channels—the first example of Stereophonic sound . . . If the first half of Perfecting Sound Forever tracks a fitful trajectory toward the apex of analog recording glory, the second half—at least by Milner's lights—maps its decline and fall into the garish hyper-realism of digital recording. Cannily using Def Leppard's 'Hysteria' as a swan song for the analog era, Milner describes a recording process, overseen by producer Mutt Lange, that was marked by 'the desire to fix everything, down to the individual note . . . spending years building a sonic edifice and deciding which bricks to remove, and tailoring the record's sound toward saleability rather than a traditional "capture the performance" idea of fidelity.'"—Marc Weingarten, Los Angeles Times

"Partway through his new book on music’s journey from the wax cylinder to the MP3, Greg Milner describes the emergence during the mid-’50s high-fidelity craze of a dubious psychiatric disorder called audiophilia, defined by one doctor as a 'tendency to become preoccupied with and dependent upon . . . recorded sound.' I’m no medical expert, but judging by the evidence presented in Perfecting Sound Forever, it seems safe to say that Milner has a raging case of the stuff: He delves so deeply into the hows and whys of recorded sound that you may never listen to Lady Gaga the same way again. Milner’s story begins as far back as you can imagine: 'The first thing the universe did was cut a record,' he writes, likening the Big Bang to a sort of cosmic remix. Then he winds his way forward with CSI-like detail, unpacking Thomas Edison’s foundational wave-capture work; folk-music obsessive Alan Lomax’s in-the-field innovations; the rise of the multitrack recording studio; and the digital revolution that set the stage for Pro Tools and Auto-Tune. Milner is a gifted storyteller . . . Milner never loses his grasp on the humanity behind the music; what fascinates him more than decibels and 'dead rooms' is mankind’s innate desire to document and preserve itself. You might not think a book about reverb could thrill. Milner’s does."—Mikael Wood, Time Out New York

"Why did big rock radio sound like such absolute caca in the ’90s, culminating in the totally unlistenable Californication? Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever unravels the why and how with all the juicy technological details in place—he calls it the Loudness Wars and points the finger at two rival New York radio stations for trashing audio fidelity in search of higher ratings . . . While not a screed against digital music per se, Milner reveals that new formats can be as much compromise as advance, and what we hear as ‘good sound’ comes at the mercy of fashion, business, strong personalities or society’s needs at a given moment. After a detour into NYU’s anthropology department and a master’s thesis on the transition from analog to digital, Milner homed in on writing a history of recorded music. He’s always been interested in 'this relationship between what records sounded like and what people liked or disliked about them,' he says. Perfecting Sound Forever isn’t Milner’s idea of a definitive history of recording. 'Someone should write that book,' he says. Perfecting skips over eight tracks, cassettes and boom boxes, for example—my era. Rather, Milner traces major breakthroughs in recording from Thomas Edison’s phonograph and Alan Lomax’s wire recordings to the Nazis’ innovations with magnetic tape, eventually landing in digital studios alongside similarly important formats for consuming music such as the LP, the CD and the MP3. Genius sound shapers from Les Paul to Steve Albini and King Tubby also get some ink. Perfecting gives unusual figures such as Jack Mullin, who basically brought high-quality magnetic tape recording to America, and Leopold Stokowski, classical music’s first champion of electrical recording, their due. As deep as Perfecting Sound Forever takes us into sound, it never devalues the allure of the chimera that is the perfect recording. Milner is plenty aware of his sphinx-like subject: 'A recording is nothing until it is decoded and what it decodes is an illusion.'"—John Dugan, Time Out Chicago

"Superbly researched . . . Milner's is by no means a nerd's-eye view: this is fundamentally a human story . . . The fact that the Red Hot Chili Peppers get a pasting is just one pleasure to be drawn from a book that is less about the music we like than what we may have sacrificed in pursuing it."—Metro (London)

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 important, what are we really hearing?”—Chuck Klosterman, author of Downtown Owl

“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

“Milner’s history begins with the Big Bang and never quiets down, unpacking recordings by everyone from Bing Crosby to the Red Hot Chili Peppers in a voice that’s equal parts lay scientist and used-record-store guru. It’s ear candy of the highest order.”—Will Hermes, co-editor of Spin: 20 Years of Alternative Music

“A brilliant history of sonic dreams, full of provocative questions for any music lover: When you fall in love with a sound, what are you hearing? Does a recording capture a moment or create one? Milner makes these questions more fascinating—and more unsettling—than ever.”—Rob Sheffield, author of Love Is a Mix Tape

"In his book, Perfecting Sound Forever, Greg Milner explores the evolution of sound. His history covers the analog days of Thomas Edison through the present day of digital recordings, and the quest for sonic perfection. Technological advances have complicated the debate about the value of the most accurate reproduction of a sound, versus the most enhanced. Whereas Edison set out to perfectly capture a live performance, today's sound engineers have the ability to create recordings from musicians who aren't in the same room—or aren't even alive at the same time. Milner takes the reader through major breakthroughs and massive failures in recording history. He also digs into specific recordings from Lead Belly, the Beatles, Mission of Burma, Steve Albini and Massive Attack."—Neal Conan, NPR

"Music and technology journalist Milner unravels the expansive saga of documented sound. The author begins in the late 19th century, tracing the evolution from Edison's invention of the phonograph to the contemporary use of digital music files. Broad in scope and steeped in detail, the book strikes a mostly well-maintained balance between the history of the technological development of recordings and the more approachable accounts of the people and events surrounding it . . . Milner provides insightful commentary and possesses a solid grasp of pacing and a light touch with the technical aspects . . . Milner especially excels at revealing the human side of each story. In particular, his portrayal of American folk-music collectors John and Allan Lomax and their relationship with the legendary Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter provides a fascinating window into the early days of musical documentation. The account of embattled New York radio stations WPLJ and Z-100 is a comical narrative of the wars to increase volume on the air, and it signals an unfortunate development in the way we hear broadcast songs today. This loudness issue is central to the later chapters—specifically in the author's discussion of the mastering of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication, an album so compressed that much of its dynamic range is lost. Milner's examination of several contemporary songs, from such diverse bands as Massive Attack and Black-Eyed Peas, imparts an unsettling image of current production techniques."Kirkus Reviews

"Music and technology journalist Milner loosely prescribes the boundaries of this history of recorded music from Thomas Edison to the present; however, he begins by explaining that the big bang was basically the universe cutting a record. Milner goes beyond recounting people, places, and events to explore a major issue surrounding the topic: Should a recording accurately reflect the sounds of a live performance or improve upon it? Readers get an inside look at important moments in recording history, from Def Leppard's groundbreaking style of music performance, to favorite songs redubbed and remixed by different artists and their producers, to a Jennifer Lopez performance that never actually happened. The narrative is divided into eight chapters grouped into three major sections: 'Acoustic/Electrical,' 'Analog,' and 'Digital.' A personal yet informative interpretation of recorded music that will appeal to students and professionals in the music industry as well as general music-loving readers."—Bradford Lee Eden, University of California Library, Santa Barbara, Library Journal

"Recording gadgets evolve with dizzying speed, but debates over their effects on music never change, according to this fascinating study of technology and aesthetics. Journalist Milner surveys developments in recording, from Thomas Edison's complaints about those new-fangled Victrolas to the contemporary controversy between CD and vinyl. With every advance of hardware, he notes, comes accompanying shifts in the sound of music: the sense of physical space implied by stereo sound; the advent of rock 'n' roll reverb; the 'big obnoxious ambient drum sound that defined the '80s' under the Phil Collins dictatorship; the 'unsettling robotic tone' imparted to vocals by today's Auto-Tune pitch-correction software; the arms race toward ear-grabbing, distortion-heavy loudness that leaves us 'surrounded by music that does nothing but shout.' Perennial arguments about the fidelity of new technologies, he contends, miss the point: now that every record is digitally spliced together out of multiple tracks and far-flung samples, there is no authentic musical performance for the sound engineer—contemporary music's true auteur—to 'record.' Milner combines a lucid exposition of acoustics and technology with a critic's keen discernment of the pop-music soundscape. The result is a real ear-opener that will captivate fans and techies alike."Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads

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BOOK EXCERPTS

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Perfecting Sound Forever
Acoustic/Electrical1The Point of CommencementThe chain reaction began in the White House.Shortly before noon on February 20, 1915, Franklin K. Lane, the secretary of the interior, was concluding his remarks in praise of the pioneer spirit, in front of 50,000 people who had gathered at the Tower of Jewels in San Francisco to wait for the start of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. "The waste places of the Earth have been found and filled, but adventure is not at an end," Lane said. "Here will be taught the gospel of an advancing democracy--strong, valiant, confident,
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Greg Milner

  • Greg Milner has written about music, media, technology, and politics for Spin, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Slate, Salon, and Wired. He is the co-author, with the filmmaker Joe Berlinger, of Metallica: This Monster Lives and has also worked as a political speechwriter. He lives in Brooklyn.

  • Greg Milner
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