Top critical review
A Leisurely Stroll Through The History of Audio Technology
September 17, 2009
"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. If you are not irritated by the author's wanderings off the "track" (sort of an audiophile's "Moby Dick"), and you have a reasonable understanding of the main outlines of the development of audio technology, you will probably thoroughly enjoy this book.
But be forewarned. As audio recording technology hits the crossroads intersectig it with the birth of rock 'n roll in the mid-fifties, there is almost no discussion of the application of audio technology to the recording of classical or jazz music. Milner confines his discussion to pop and rock almost exclusively thereafter. Although his discussion of the influence of the evolution of recording technology on the pop music field is important, if your tastes run to Miles Davis or Dmitri Shostakovich rather than hip-hop or The Red Hot Chili Peppers, you may find your enjoyment of the book substantially lessened.
That said, Miller's exploration of the uses made of digital recording technology, with its promise of greater sensitivity and higher fidelity, is fascinating. He describes in great detail the "misuse" of audio compression and clipping to achieve greater "loudness" even though the results on pop music paradoxically lessened the dynamic range and fidelity of the music being made. Milner paints a picture in which the democratization of the production of pop music made possible by the availability of ever more affordable devices to produce music - the "producer" could now record and remix from a garage instead of an acoustically pristine recording hall - contributed to the so-called "loudness wars" in which records were so compressed that the dynamic range of a pop song from beginning to end might be as little as 9 dB. Loudness got the attention of people flipping through the FM dials, and audiophiles were no longer the object of the producer's attention as the recording industry's prime demographic was hearing their favorite music through cheap stereo systems and later through MP3 devices such as iPods using low fidelity earbuds. The lesson seems to be that people get the music they deserve, and mediocre sound quality is perfectly satisfactory to the average listener.
The author's thesis is that increasingly sophisticated production devices such as Pro-Tools and Auto-Tune, which allow the correction of pitch for a flat singer, and the assembly of "music" one note at a time rather than by capturing even a semblance of live ensemble musical performance, have paradoxically corrupted the quality of most modern recordings. It is interesting then that he winds up at the end of the book putting himself through the paces of a modern day "sound test." In a blind comparison of a uncompressed sound clip in almost CD quality, with an identical clip of the same music that has been compressed using a codec and bit rate unknown to him, the author tries to identify the compressed clip. You may be surprised at the results reported by Milner as he processes the music through his own psycho-acoustic equipment (his ears and his brain).
Overall, I can confidently recommend this book to anyone with more than a passing interest in the history of audio recording, and some of the more interesting stories that are part of that history. However, if reading page after page about lossless and lossy dynamic compression in MP3 players produces sleepiness instead of excitement, you might want to pick up an old copy of Aaron Copland's "What To Listen For in Music."