Do people who tote around thousands of sonically flattened, Pro Tooled songs in their iPods know that most of what they're hearing is closer to a computer program than it is to music? Nowadays, pop music is mainly fast food to be gobbled on the go, to be heard through earbuds or on portable docks with plug-in speakers. As long as it sounds good enough, nobody seems to mind.
But Greg Milner does. A contributing editor for Spin and the co-author (with Joe Berlinger) of Metallica: This Monster Lives, Milner has explored a century-plus of efforts to capture something as ephemeral as a voice or an instrument in song. Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music is the staggeringly researched, novelistically told result. It takes a true audio geek to delve into so much technical minutiae, but Milner doesn't write like one. In graceful, good-humored, layman-friendly prose, he creates an unrivaled account of how music is processed and delivered to our ears.
The story begins in 1877, when a revolving piece of tin foil recorded Thomas Edison as he intoned "Mary Had a Little Lamb." From there, one obsessive technophile after another vowed to improve the recording process. The hissy cylinders and acoustic discs of the early twentieth century gave way to electrical recordings, with their pronounced leap in clarity. Magnetic tape emerged in the '40s, followed by the LP record and the "hi fi" console, a bulky symbol of postwar American largesse. Each new development, straight through to the steely accuracy of digital sound, sparked the war that always happens when old supplants new.
Milner's account reaches its most heated with the arrival, in the '90s, of computer mixing, which opened up a new world of artificial manipulation. "The goal was not so much to preserve a sound in crystalline form," writes Milner, "but to achieve maximum flexibility—to sully it, take it as far from its original form as the musician/engineer wanted it." With Pro Tools, the revolutionary digital editing and mixing system that is now the standard, and the pitch-correcting processor Auto-Tune, people who can't sing can be made to sound like singers, if robotic ones. Much of today's recorded music never actually happened, and can't be reproduced onstage—unless performers lip-synch to their own tracks.
Milner's skepticism, when it creeps through, doesn't stem from stodgy nostalgia but from an impassioned love of recorded music (and a deep understanding of how sounds are captured and replayed). And Milner knows when the new mixing styles work artistically. He cites Ricky Martin's 1999 track of "Livin' La Vida Loca"—the earliest product of Pro Tools—as an example: "Like the song's narrator, who wakes up and discovers that he has somehow been teleported to New York City, the sounds themselves seem to jet by, as though movement through time and space were their birthright."
That recording zoomed to number one, but the industry was headed for a brick wall, and it's clear that technical "progress" was somewhat to blame. By the end, Perfecting Sound Forever becomes an elegy about the dehumanization of commercial music, the rise of unskilled artists thanks to modern technology, and the replacement of realism with trickery. "There is something about the sound of the human voice that hits us on an instinctive level," Milner says. That sound at its purest is something that Pro Tools has mixed away.
James Gavin is the author of this summer's Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne and previously of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker and Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Time Out New York.