June/July/Aug 2009

Perfecting Sound Forever

Timothy Farrington


It used to be that all music was recorded live. To cut a song in the Edison era, musicians clustered around a phonograph horn like bees pollinating a flower. The louder they played, the more the horn vibrated and the more undulating was the groove incised in the wax cylinder. If they didn’t like the result, they could try again, but editing was impossible. Eight decades later, the process had become more like an assembly line. For their album Hysteria (1987), the members of Def Leppard separately recorded not only each instrument (standard practice by then) but individual guitar notes, layering them into chords only after the fact. Is one of these recordings more true to life than the other? Does it matter? And what does authenticity mean now that sound, images, text, and video are all “content” denominated in the common currency of bits?

Greg Milner doesn’t fully answer these questions in Perfecting Sound Forever, a lively history of recording technology, but he does give them a good airing. A recording might seem to be a “crystallization of a found moment,” a chunk of time pried loose and preserved, but it’s never that simple. Every record is shaped by a chain of decisions and precedents, and Milner sets out to trace the “fault lines in the narrative of ‘recorded history’—the points where people . . . decided that this was how recordings should sound, and this is what it means to make a record.”

It might seem like the “great record” theory of history, except that many technical landmarks are aesthetic mediocrities—Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” (1999), for instance, which was the first number one single produced entirely with Pro Tools. This program is the most popular example of the current standard for music production: computer-based systems that replicate all the knob-studded hardware of a traditional studio. Pro Tools, which Milner aptly likens to a “word processor” for sound, makes it easy to polish songs to inhuman perfection. Since it processes digitally, a single note or an entire verse can be tweaked, shifted, or multiplied instantly with no loss of quality. If a singer’s phrasing is clumsy, syllables can be nudged further apart with a mouse click.

The decisive break between reality and representation, however, came decades earlier, in the 1940s, with the advent of what Milner terms the “great lie” of magnetic tape. Since segments of tape recorded hours or years apart could be seamlessly spliced together, “‘real time’ no longer mattered.” The refinement of multitracking, which allows the simultaneous playback of tracks whose volumes can be controlled independently, widened the gap, since sounds that would be impossible to hear at the same time—a whisper and a tuba, saycould coexist in the same song.

Milner focuses on pop music, and fittingly, one of his book’s strengths is its attention to the interaction of technology and marketing. He employs as a running theme the tone tests staged by Edison and others, which asked audiences to distinguish live performers from their recorded doubles and helped establish the expectation that recordings should, above all, be lifelike. Even so, as Milner points out, consumers don’t always care about the same features engineers do: Compactness has trumped fidelity in the case of the compressed MP3 format, which is wildly popular despite sounding worse than a CD.

It’s a shame Milner doesn’t treat his topics more theoretically, beyond a brief dip into Adorno. Still, he strikes a good balance between technical depth and narrative thrust. If his prose sometimes veers into the sensational (“like the members of the Manhattan project,” certain radio engineers regretted how their inventions were used), perhaps that’s fine: We wouldn’t want his voice to sound too perfect, right?

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