The Aural Illusion

I"You've Gotta Hear These Beats..."
"You've Gotta Hear These Beats..."

Greg Milner – Perfecting Sound Forever

Faber And Faber Inc.

Available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble

I like to consider myself a Music Collector, spending an inordinate amount of time reading about, and tracking down, recordings that please some sensibility that I can’t quite pin down specifically.  So, I feel a little strange in saying that I have never heard the phrase, “Perfect Sound Forever,” used in reference to what you get when you listen to a CD.  Not once, and I grew up at a time when the CD had just been introduced.

This is strange because this is part of the central conceit of Greg Milner’s book which derives its very name from the phrase.  It is (supposedly) the claim that CDs can deliver on this promise that seems to motivate Milner’s prose, and while I have never heard the claim myself, he stresses several times in the book that this has happened, and it is this claim that he takes the most issue with.  I do no deny that this claim was made about CDs.  However, for this music fan, if a large portion of this book rests on a claim that was not impressed on me (or the others I’ve discussed this with), then how can the narrative in the book hold true for me, too?

Milner’s book is lauded as being, “An Aural History of Recorded Music,” and beginning with the earliest practitioners (largely Edison himself), Perfecting Sound Forever traces the story of a world that had no understanding that sound could even be recorded at all, to a world that is largely defined by recorded sound in all its various forms.  One thing becomes clear very early on in trying to parse the effects this has had on the world around us: while it is impossible to claim that any medium is ultimately “better” than others, Milner’s own preference – the vinyl record – clouds his narrative the entire way through this text.

In a way, his bias is a good metaphor to use when looking at the way recorded sound developed over the years.  In what proves to be a very technically-driven book, Milner illustrates the various format wars that have developed since Edison, that have informed the way the next generation recorded sound.  Acoustic vs. Electric recording was the first, but soon Cylinder vs. Disc, Disc vs. Tape, Tape vs. CD, and CD vs. .mp3 have divided music consumers over something that cannot be encoded into any medium: the “way” a sound was “meant” to be heard.  Each generation that developed a new technology found it frowned upon by the one previous that was clinging to the old one.  Meanwhile a successive generation grows up with the older format, loves it, and tries to emulate it using even newer technology, and creates yet another new format, to be reviled by the prior generation who still loves the one they came up with.  Ad infinitum.

With each new format war, the goal appears to be the same: to improve on the sound quality of the previous format.  But each successive improvement creates a backward looking vision.  Crystal clear recording in perfect environments always manages to impress recording and engineering nerds because of the wonderful dynamic range, but almost everyone else agrees that you seem to loose something in the improvements.  Electrical recording was looked down up because it seemed to “loose” something that pure acoustics had.  Tape was similarly mocked because of the hiss that accompanied it, which was only a mere “motor whirr” on a turntable before it.  These days, why outright “new” formats aren’t developed nearly as often, the battle seems to be focused on the ability to recreate those old, glitchy artifacts that were present in primitive modes of recording, but in an entirely digital world.  By adjusting the digital sheen, we can ultimately create the “perfect” simulacrum.

What is lost on the public at large – and seems to be what Milner is driving at – is exactly that conundrum: music consumers have been fooled in thinking that ANY recording we hear is “real” at all.  While this may seem obvious – the sounds a record makes could never be really mistaken for sound made by the actual thing in the real world – the implications seem to have played out in the rhetoric surrounding recording media.  Media has always been marketed in a way that illustrates the illusion between real and recorded.  Edison himself would put on “Tone Test” performances, where records were performing for audiences who were “unaware” that it was merely a recording.  (This tradition continues into the modern age, most recently with digital performances during the last decade.)  “Is it Live?  Or is it Memorex?”  Even the slogan admits that, while they themselves don’t really know, they would rather you believe they are both the same.

Another issue that is addressed is the notion of scientifically measured High Fidelity.  Usually, people marketing anything like to have science on their side to make a point, and there is plenty of that in this book.  However, many of the points are lost or immediately discarded to discuss who was right in the next Format War.  After making the point that Digital Recordings have a higher possible dynamic range than any other recording format, and further making the point that recordings made on tape with more than four tracks is already suffering from sonic compression and leakage that make eight track (or more) recordings “weaker” in many respects, Milner insists that science cannot account for the preference he has in the preferred media he’s chosen (vinyl records).  He will buy records, played on his stereo, forever, in spite of the fact that the sound is not so perfect.

This seems to be what Milner has missed (or, at least, failed to fully develop) in his book.  While people love to get passionate over technology, the real truth is that recorded music has allowed us to create an audio world that reflects our sensibilities, in whatever kind of fidelity that interests us the most.  At each step in the narrative, the backward looking inventors, trying to add analog sensibilities into the digitally pristine world of ProTools, are not attempting to “perfect” sound.  They are sculpting it, building it, molding it into sounds that reflect the kinds of things that they want to hear more of in the world.  It is a mish-mash of perfect and dirty, clean and analog, all at once.  The way we consume music is an extension of ourselves, and our quirks as individuals.

Music is the place we turn to when we want the sign and symbol confused.  We want to believe that the song is real, that it wasn’t tracked and recorded over a period of months, but is a spontaneous example of the way we feel at that exact moment.  We want to believe in this Edisonian notion that there is a “perfect” sound, that can be reproduced in all it’s depth, for us to hear later.  But this is not possible.  We know, consciously, that even Edison was bending over reality backwards to get his musicians as far into the recording horn as possible, to forcibly capture things that would have been lost in a live setting.  The way we really achieve the illusion of recorded sound – be it an iPod or a finely build stereo with nice cabinets – has little to do with how perfect the sound is, and is as much a part of who we are as the clothes we wear every day.

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