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? The answers he uncovers will change the very way we think about music.
“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, coeditor 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
“[Milner] delves so deeply into the hows and whys of recorded sound that you may never listen to Lady Gaga the same way again. … a gifted storyteller with an ear for absurdity … 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
“Exhaustive, technically precise and fascinating.”—Marc Weingarten, Los Angeles Times
“Broad in scope and steeped in detail… 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.”—Kirkus
“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, 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. … 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
“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.co.uk
“Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever unravels the why and how with all the juicy technological details in place. … 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 sphinxlike subject.”—John Dugan, Time Out: Chicago