GREG MILNER Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music (Granta) 

Pretty much bearing all in that intoxicating title, Greg Milner's comprehensive survey covers both the development of recording technology, from Edison to Pro Tools, and the parallel improvements at the replay end that occurred alongside them. On the way, he charts the shifting notions of perfection, and what the sales professionals of the day did to shape them. For example, audiences between the wars were entertained by Edison's tone tests, in which live musicians performed alongside their recorded equivalent reproduced using the top talking machine technology of the day, in effect proving that the sound as reproduced by Edison's machinery was indistinguishable from the real thing. Nearly a century of chasing that elusive goal later it seems ridiculous that audiences could be so fooled, yet it suggests to an extent that the wonder of reproduced music was sufficient to quash what must have been quite a significant gulf in quality between it and the original event.


In dealing with the fluctuating notions of perfection through the years, Milner's personal beliefs never harden into an agenda. (I would say that, though, given that they chime with my own.) It's not so much a black and white, analogue good/digital bad dualism, more a recognition that time and technology have eroded the basic tenets of good sound recording and reproduction. From a golden age highpoint of, say, recordings made with minimal processing in Columbia's 30th Street Studio in New York - a former Armenian church famed for its near-perfect acoustics - it's a rapid downhill tumble in which the purpose of recording changes from being capturing an event to creating one. The malaise extends from the proliferation of multitrack recorders - each subsequent generation cramming more tracks on to the same two-inch tape, with a consequential drop in sound quality - to the almost universal adoption of digital audio workstations that permit performances to be pieced together from a kit of parts but which render some modern bands almost incapable of playing their music live. Milner cites an example of the Kaiser Chiefs attempting to record "Getting Better" for a "Sgt. Pepper" tribute using the same technology as The Beatles had, the band being bewildered at having to attempt 20 takes at the song without Pro Tools' cut and pasting possibilities on hand. The long, slow dumbing down of replay media is also examined, from vinyl's supremacy being usurped by CD's locked down limitations and its subsequent simplification into MP3s, as are the loudness wars that have ruined both radio broadcasts and recorded software for those not inclined to listening against a strong headwind.


I found this book endlessly fascinating, but then again I've been fascinated by this subject pretty much since I was able to hear. I suspect I learned more about the practical application of elecroacoustics from it than I did during three years of an Electroacoustics degree. If you care about sound, its creation and curation, I think you'll learn a lot from it too.