By on November 29, 2013

Perfecting Sound Forever:  An Aural History of Recorded Music by Greg Milner
Faber and Faber, 2009, 416 pages

Perfecting SoundI’m a fan of books about audio, and music formats, and record labels.  Sitting on the bookshelf are a LOT of them.  Yeah, I’m a BIG fan.  You can ask my wife.

This particular book is one that I wish had been published a little earlier, because it very handily boils down a lot of information in a form that a layperson (i.e., not an industry specialist) can make use of.  Greg Milner explains a lot of recording history with an eye for the telling anecdote, and a perspective on the nature of performing music versus recording music – and even the blurring of the lines between the two – that isn’t often seen in books of this type.  Milner lays down the idea that multitrack capabilities and overdubbing, even editing, have become ways of cheating reality from the get-go, which mirrors Stereo Review contributor David Ranada’s assessment:  are you listening to a recording of a performance or the performance of a recording?  It’s an important distinction, which also cuts to things like studio overdubbing on live albums, and the fact that live performances have come to mirror recordings in terms of sonic values, effects and innovations.  (And of course, the evils of lip-syncing to recordings in an ostensibly live environment.)

In addition, one of the more interesting undercurrents to the tale is how the human ear over time has been convinced, during a demonstration, about the “lifelikeness” of certain forms of audio, from Edison cylinders to electrically-cut 78s to vinyl albums to CDs and to the present day.  The value of the lifelikeness begins to come apart with the advent of brickwall processing and overdriving sound levels on CDs in the mid-1990s, and a fascinating chapter of the book explores and explains the hows and whys of  modern-era recordings sounding the way they do.  If you’ve ever wondered why there’s less apparent dynamic range in much current music, Milner lays bare the background of the technological changes that led us to the present sound of our tunes, a story that, you may be surprised, has its background in the 1970s, connecting the dots between Richard Nixon’s resignation during Watergate and digital recording, and even the petroleum industry to AutoTuning.

Thankfully, the writing style lends itself to being able to jump across different chapters and not necessarily reading it in order, but I found myself sufficiently taken with Milner’s writing to go back and pick up other parts of the story I thought I knew well.  The book is a wealth of information, covering the entire history of recording, without necessarily getting bogged down in details that would make your eyes glaze over.  This one’s a nifty little tome, with a repeatability factor, and one that I know I’ll find myself pulling off the shelf for handy reference.

All original text inclusive copyright Todd Berryman, 2013



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