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Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music Paperback – May 25, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Recording gadgets evolve with dizzying speed, but debates over their effects on music never change, according to this fascinating study of technology and aesthetics. Journalist Milner (coauthor, Metallica: This Monster Lives) surveys developments in recording, from Thomas Edison's complaints about those new-fangled Victrolas to the contemporary controversy between CD and vinyl. With every advance of hardware, he notes, comes accompanying shifts in the sound of music: the sense of physical space implied by stereo sound; the advent of rock 'n' roll reverb; the big obnoxious ambient drum sound that defined the '80s under the Phil Collins dictatorship; the unsettling robotic tone imparted to vocals by today's Auto-Tune pitch-correction software; the arms race toward ear-grabbing, distortion-heavy loudness that leaves us surrounded by music that does nothing but shout. Perennial arguments about the fidelity of new technologies, he contends, miss the point: now that every record is digitally spliced together out of multiple tracks and far-flung samples, there is no authentic musical performance for the sound engineer—contemporary music's true auteur—to record. Milner combines a lucid exposition of acoustics and technology with a critic's keen discernment of the pop-music soundscape. The result is a real ear-opener that will captivate fans and techies alike. (June 16)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Perfecting Sound Forever is an exhaustively researched, extraordinarily inquisitive book that dissects the central question within all music criticism: When we say that something sounds good, what are we really saying? And perhaps more importantly, what are we really hearing? (CHUCK KLOSTERMAN)

A compelling look at the birth and evolution of recording, and how it changed the way the world hears itself. (MARC WEINGARTEN, Los Angeles Times)

Greg Milner tells the story of recorded music with novelistic verve, ferocious attention to detail, and a soulful ambivalence about our quest for sonic perfection. He shows how great recordings come about not through advances in technology but through a love of the art, and that same love is the motor of his prose. (Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise)

You may never listen to Lady Gaga the same way again . . . [Milner is] a gifted storyteller with an ear for absurdity . . . You might not think a book about reverb could thrill. Milner's does. (MIKAEL WOOD, Time Out New York)

Very, very, very few books will change the way you listen to music. This is one such book. Read it. (JARVIS COCKER)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber (May 25, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0865479380
  • ISBN-13: 978-0865479388
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #644,911 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Gregory M. Wasson on September 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Perfecting Sound Forever" is both more and less than its title would imply. On the one hand, it is purportedly a history of the technology of recorded music. But it includes many lengthy sidetrips and stories which will engage readers who take an active interest in both the development and the application of recorded sound. For example, the author discusses at length the use of "sound tests" by the makers of the first acoustic recording and playback machines. In these tests (which were as much marketing techniques as much as "scientific" experiments), a singer or instrumentalist would pretend to be playing on stage, then walk off stage in the middle of the performance as a curtain was parted to show that the audience had been listening to an acoustic wax cylinder or disk played through a horn. Believe it or not, the audience was astonished to discover that it had not been listening to a live performance. Similar tests continued to be used right up until the present, always with the same result, which demonstrates the substantial psycho-acoustic element in the listening experience.

Many readers, including myself, will enjoy Milner's lengthy sidetrips describing in detail such historic applications of new recording techniques as John and Alan Lomax's trips to the rural South to record "authentic Negro music," discovering along the way the great blues singer "Huddie" Ledbetter, better known as "Lead Belly." Many of these stories are only tangentially related to the central story of the development of audio recording techniques. Others, such as Milner's discussion of Les Paul's pioneering use of over-tracking to achieve the sound he wanted, are more directly related to the main narrative.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Nancy Becker on September 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
A layman like me could have been intimidated by the charts and bar graphs that pop up every now and again to prove things like replay gain and compression but Greg Milner had me from the start. He starts out with a bang, comparing the creation of the universe to `cutting a record,' then laying out the quirky, fascinating history of the men--and their methods--who proved that Marconi was right and `no sound ever dies.' Like the scientists and inventors, showmen and audio geeks, Willy Lomans and record company suits who wanted to raise the bar--whether that bar be quality, authenticity, loudness, or sales--Milner is also obsessed, and not just with the trajectory--the wax cylinders, analog tape and binary code that plays us back--but with pondering age-old questions: what is art? what is reality? is there truth? It's a rollicking, uproarious, rock `n rolla' ride and Milner takes you with him inside the "sweet spot" of an Edison recording of Bake Dat Chicken Pie; behind the prison walls of the Louisiana State Penitentiary and Lead Belly's thrilling Irene; next to Ike Turner's broken amp and its grungy sound at Sun Studio; beside the pummeling drums of Springstein's Born in the U.S.A.; inside the mix of the master King Tubby; compressed in the eardrum splitting Californication of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. You are there. This is a brilliant, funny record that chronicles the amazing story of recorded (American) sound while raising important questions--to me anyway--like who owns sound? Do I want to hear what I hear, or better? Are the blockbuster Frankensteins of pop music today art? If you have the faintest interest in American music and what it says about our culture, run don't walk and read this book!
Nancy Becker
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Keith Otis Edwards on October 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I suggest that a practical test of a book's quality is how late it keeps you up, reading just one more page and then just another. "Perfecting Sound Forever" kept me up almost all night, and I resumed reading it as soon as I could the next day. It's that great.

Actually, it's at least four books in one. It begins as a concise history of the technology of sound reproduction. I've read many books on technological and industrial history -- some good, some worthless -- and this is one of the best for detailed information on Thomas Edison's only invention, the phonograph, as well as subsequent developments in sound reproduction. This early chapter is fascinating, because as awful as Edison's primitive machines sound to us today, they fooled audiences into thinking that the music was coming from a live soprano instead of from the big horn atop a wax cylinder that was actually making the noise.

As opposed to sound reproduction, the book also provides a brief history of music synthesis, at least where it relates to sound reproduction (i.e., sampling). This part is not as thorough as it picks up the story long after such pioneers as Raymond Scott and Robert Moog did their original work creating new analog sounds, but it also relates synthesizers to the curious and overlooked fact that, at least in pop music, people have come to prefer artificial sounds to authentic reproduction. For examples, how popular would the late Les Paul or the late Pink Floyd have been if their records had only presented accurate reproductions of them performing live?

"Perfecting Sound Forever" veers off on a tangent when it devotes a chapter to a biography of folk singer Lead Belly and the men who first recorded him, but this story is so well told that we don't mind the departure from the main topic.
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