Perfecting Sound Forever

The states of the music and book industries are not identical, but they do share some similarities. 

For most of the second half of the 20th century, popular music was a huge force in western culture.  The teen heart throbs of the 1950s got middle-class kids hooked on exciting new sounds and 45 rpm singles.  The breakout artists of the 1960s kept the singles rolling, but also introduced the idea of a long-play (LP) record featuring a suite of songs.  The superstar acts of the 1970s took it one step further into the live performance domain with arena and stadium shows.  The new wave and pop sensations of the 1980s and 1990s took the pop music world into other media, like television music videos.  Things have taken a turn in the new millennium, particularly after the quantum shift of the Napster era.  Today, iTunes is probably the driving force in the music industry (for better or worse), but people are still digging the new sounds.

The book industry has also seen a wild ride over the past half century.  As our culture has become more affluent, some people have found the time to indulge the simple pleasure of reading a book.  The internet has definitely made it easier than ever for music fans to research and find new music from around the world.  I’ll posit that the internet has done the same for the consumption of books.  These days it’s a lot easier to find out about newly-released books.  Web sites abound with reviews, recommendations and sales of mass-market and hard-to-find books.  Sites like Amazon keep track of what you buy and offer you (surprisingly prescient) suggestions on what else you might like.  E-magazines, websites, and blogs are some of the other ways in which someone can quickly and easily do a little research and find an interesting new book to read.  You can even download books electronically and instantaneously onto an ever-expanding array of e-readers.

One book that I discovered from a blog is called Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner (published in 2009 by Faber and Faber, ISBN 978-0-86547-938-8).  I can’t say enough good things about this gem of a book.  The general premise is a description of the history of recorded music, from Edison’s phonograph up to the present day.  It delves into a wide variety of the major advances in recording and playback technology over the past century.

The first 75 pages or so discuss the way that Edison’s Diamond Disc Phonograph and other competitors sought to establish dominance of the emerging music recording industry.  This section seems to go on for awhile (perhaps a little TOO much similar information), but it certainly sets the scene for the sonic booms of the 1950s and beyond.

The next section describes the methods that John and Alan Lomax used to make their famous field recordings in the American South, particularly Alan’s unique and complicated relationship with Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly).  I’ve heard some of the Folkways recordings that Lomax did for the US Library of Congress, and they are interesting snapshots of another place & time.  To think that century upon century of live music performances were lost before 1900 because there was no recording technology available is tragic.

Things really get rolling when Milner describes how some very sharp Americans brought home Nazi magnetic tape recording technology after WWII.  Tape recordings, when mastered to vinyl that the public was desperate to consume, eventually led to the format wars of the 1950s and 1960s between 78, 45, and 33-1/3 rpm records.  The description of the elusive concept of “presence” and the new idea of ‘high-fidelity’ recordings in the late 1950s and beyond is worth the price of the book all on its own.  In fact, a lot of the second half of the book describes the various advances (and occasional backward steps) in the music industry to capture that magic X-factor in recordings and engineers attempts to, simply, make them sound good.

I liked the anecdotes about the legendary sounds of some of popular music’s most venerated studios.  Sun Studios, Abbey Road, Motown, and the Power Station all get their due.  Milner writes quite a lot about tape recording technology, and how recordings progressed from monaural to stereo to 4-track to 8-track to 16-track to 24-track and ultimately to as many tracks as you wanted via bouncing.  Geoff Emerick, who engineered The Beatles’ Abbey Road record, candidly admits that he thinks the sound of the album was diminished by using a brand-new, solid-state transistorized deck instead of the vacuum tube equipment of earlier Beatles records.  He believes the transistors compromised the presence of the recordings.  Elsewhere, Roy Thomas Baker talks about how they bounced Freddie Mercury’s vocals so many times on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” that the base tracks started to distort (yet still sounded so cool that other people tried to COPY the distortion!).  I find these kinds of details really fascinating. 

The best part of the book is probably the descriptions of that very 1980’s gated drum sound that was totally in vogue during my musical coming-of-age.  Now I understand how Hugh Padgham got those recordings of Phil Collins’ drums on his solo albums and the early-1980s Genesis records.  And how Tony Bongiovi was able to get those amazing recordings of Bruce Springsteen, The Ramones, Talking Heads et al.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkADj0TPrJA&ob=av2e

This leads into a discussion on what digital recording technology has done to the sound of records.  Instead of making “perfect” recordings, digital has often had many unintentional, unattractive consequences.  After reading Perfecting Sound Forever, now I have a much better appreciation of why some recordings just seem too loud, too overcooked, just too much EVERYTHING.  Listen to Rush’s Vapor Trails or Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication and you’ll see what he means.  Everything is so loud, so clipped, and so up far up its own aural ass that it just sounds like two channels of sonic garbage. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yz1l1dF6UA

In an embarassment of riches, several other topics get dissected.  I learned about what Pro Tools and digital mixers has done for recording engineers over the past decade, and why mp3 is a step back in aural quality for the sake of compactness and portability.  Milner also gives an entertaining explanation of why music sounds different on the radio due to compression and other sneaky (sometimes illegal) techniques.  There’s even a section on synthesizer technology, which goes a long way to explaining why certain recordings of the 1970s and 1980s sound so distinctive.  Moogs and Fairlights and Linns – oh my!

If you are shopping for a music fanatic this Christmas, you could make their day by giving them a copy of Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever.  It gets the official Craven Hermit seal of approval.

(patent pending)

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