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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The Modern Librarian

The Modern Librarian
The Modern Librarian

Reading Perfecting Sound Forever has reminded me of an experience I had a few years ago.  During one of my many days at the radio station, I decided to multi-task by transferring a few of my records to the station computer, so I could later take the files home and make some .mp3s of them.  I had a number of reasons for doing this, but in the end I spent most of the day listening to records while I was working.  Not a bad way to spend the day.  I transferred the files to my external drive, bussed it home, and set about the task of hunkering down for an evening of editing.

I put on my headphones and started listening to the first file, and to my complete astonishment, I found that I recorded more than I had intended.  As I scrolled through the first few seconds before the opening of, “(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet”, I noticed that you could actually hear the sounds of me slowly lowering the needle of the record.  They were very faint, but any audio nerd would clearly recognize the sounds for what they were.  This was beyond just the stylus hitting the record.  There was a bit of my voice, the arm moving, me saying, “…okay…,” then click.  A moment later, the song started.

It was something of an epiphany, or, at least, the final piece in a puzzle that has been assembling itself over time.  The only reason that I hadn’t noticed it sooner was that I am so immersed in the ability to edit audio that I hadn’t really seen the ideology that was invisibly at work.  It was almost so clear that I was afraid to say it out loud, and for a while I didn’t.  But it was finally just too obvious to not say it anymore: We do not listen to recorded music.  We listen to recorded ideas & memories.

The moment that I dropped the needle on that Blues Magoos record was, ultimately, nothing to write home about.  I’ve done it hundreds of times before, and will do it again, like millions of other audiophiles across the globe.  But as soon as I captured that moment digitally, there was an idea that could be conveyed in that small recording: an audio re-telling of someone dropping a stylus onto a piece of wax.  The following idea is the song that was contained within that record.  That idea was now forged as a very distinct memory for me, because the idea was re-presented to me, what was a lost moment, an ultimately meaningless moment in the sequences of every day life.  Now, it was more complex than the sounds captured in 1s and 0s.

I snipped off this part of the recording, its implications a little bigger than I had time to wrestle with.  But this book is beginning to stir that pot again, and add a little spice to the broth.

Consider this: while I cannot argue that most music comes in the form of some sort of artifact (CD, vinyl, cassette, etc.), the music therein cannot be pointed to anymore more materially than one can point to the grooves, tape, or aluminum the music is encoded within.  The material that contains a representation of the music constructs, using vibrations, a somewhat realistic sound-image of a musical idea that we then interpret to be the guitars, bass, drums and vocals of The Blues Magoos, in spite of them being no where near where the record is being played.  But the sounds we hear do not “exist” except in the form of created vibrations, that are used to execute the ideas that the artists creating these sounds have.  The results are “music.”  Sound sculptures.  Moments that are, and then pass in a time-based way. They do not “exist” in a tangible sense, any more than the ideas behind words exist in a tangible sense.

However, we confuse the symbol for the sign regularly, because music is encoded in tangible artifacts that we buy and trade in the marketplace.  While the music can never be tangible, the means to communicate it IS, and this cognitive dissonance causes us to refer to music as if it can be possessed.  “I have that,” is a common response when presented with a representation of a song that is also represented in our own material record collections.  While the distinction is nuanced, and seems to play little role in everyday discourse, that does not mean that the implication is any less important.  You may never discuss the meta-realities behind a Brian Eno record at a party, but they are at work at the party – especially at the party – in ways that cause us to want to buy back into this confusion between symbol and reality ever moreso.

I should stress that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  We confuse the symbol for reality all the time, and it is a very human way to deal with things.  Movies would be boring if we couldn’t immerse ourselves in the reality they temporarily represent.  (This is easily recognizable as the friend you hate to take to the movies with you, because they spend the entire film complaining about how unrealistic the movie is.)  So do not think the application of this confusion in the world of recorded sound is meant to deter you from continuing to listen to good music.  I just want to make the point that there is something else going on here.

As way of an example: growing up I had a Sir Mix-A-Lot tape that I would listen to often.  I brought it with me when I went to visit my Dad, and was playing it for my brothers on a new cassette player.  This had a Record feature, that used a built-in Mic.  While my Dad was exploring what the machine could do (while my tape was playing), he pressed the record button momentarily.  I quickly said, “Dad, that’s record.”  He replied, “whoops!” & hit the Stop button.  While I listened back to the tape to survey the damage, both my Dad and myself were surprised to find that, not only was the exchange between himself and I captured perfectly on the tape, but it was actually in-time with “Buttermilk Biscuits.”  Often, when I hear that song, I keep expecting to hear us pop into the recording at a precise moment, because I continued to listen to that tape for quite some time afterward.

We’ve all had this experience with Mix Tapes, Mix CDs, move soundtracks, etc.  Formative moments that were, accidentally or not, captured on tape that become part of the way we hear that song.  I can’t even count the number of stories I’ve heard that all start, “Every time I hear that song, I think of [fill-in-the-blank] song, because I used to have a tape where they were back to back.”  I find these moments interesting.  The expectation is not satisfied, and yet telling the story seems to create the same effect.  Those same people seem to smile after they’ve told it, as if they have heard [fill-in-the-blank] song anyway.

At the party, when we’re listening to Brian Eno with our friends, the ideas that are conveyed are so powerful, it can compel us to want to go out and buy the record.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve done that, or heard a similar story.  What is at work is the Idea & Memory aspect of having heard something.  We hear it, we want to clarify it, to re-experience it, to have the same idea conveyed in a quieter locale.  So we buy the record.  We get to experience music as a side-effect, but what we hear are ideas and memories being formed.

Perhaps this is not big revelation to anyone who is a fan of music.  The media itself is so flimsy, that the impressions of each listening experience is forever etched into the media, preserved for each subsequent time we listen to it again.  Each listening experience accesses a memory – re-written every time it is accessed – with new dimensions that include every time we’ve dropped the needle, every time we accidentally taped over part of something, and every time it was mixed and remixed with something new.

These memories we listen to are what draw me to recorded sound, I think.  Forever nostalgic, but also curious, about the ideas and memories that have been formed before me.  Perhaps I’m really looking to see if Nomeansno is right, and that only so many songs can be sung with two lips, two lungs, and one tongue?  But I think that recorded sound is as limitless as ideas and memories themselves.  It just depends on how much space you want to give to it.

The Search For The Perfect Sound

Perfecting Sound Forever
Perfecting Sound Forever

Just when I was beginning to think that it would be great to find a book about the history of recorded sound, I discover Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner, a book about just that.  While I’ve had this for several months (I got it for my birthday), with school and other projects in the way, it took me a while to get to it.  Now that I’ve already put behind me my first book of my choosing since graduation (The Road by Cormac McCarty, which was excellent), I decided to move on to other things.  This book promises to be an aural history of recorded music, and so far, it is.

While having only just started it, I don’t feel quite right about making a critique just yet.  But what is fascinating is that it does start from the very beginning – with the invention of the phonograph – and goes from there.  At this point, the book is making two big cases for the future history of recorded sound: 1.) That the modern idea of what recorded sound is begins its genesis in how the device was used and marketed in the early years, and that 2.) From the beginning, there were format wars.

I myself have an almost fetish-like obsession with recorded sound, and have always been transfixed by what it is and what it can do.  Some of my earliest memories are of recorded sound, and there is something deeply satisfying about crafting the perfect record collection.  But, like anything, music has an ideology behind it that shapes the way we think about music, and we can no more easily imagine recorded sound existing in any other form save the ones that have been given to us by their creators.  I find it fascinating to imagine the worlds of recorded sound that could have been.  For example: if cylinders had remained king, if the original purists hadn’t lost in the “electricity vs. natural sound” wars, etc.  While I treasure the LP with all my heart and soul, the romantic in me wants to travel briefly in worlds where the artifacts left behind took on a very different form.

In that world, I get the opportunity to occasionally sample the sounds that these amazing cylinders offer (disques? transistor chips? sound plaques?), and in my dreams, the sounds they offer are unlike anything I’ve heard before.  (That is, until I wake up to the neighbors mowing the lawn.)  Perhaps my obsessive aural tendencies stem from this primal moment, so difficult to remember, let alone capture: the moment when an entirely new sound dances across a simple eardrum.

Reading this book makes me feel like I’m very close to that moment.  Almost.

Sex, Drugs, And Particle Physics

No, I'm Not
No, I'm Not

I finished “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” yesterday, much to my own delight. (I discovered that the complete text is available online, and the public library has a wonderful, 10-disc audio version as well.) The book is edited from a series of interviews and conversations conducted with Feynman, and explore the more unusual aspects of his life. (Playing in a Samba band in Brazil, his short-lived career in art, his experiences learning to pick locks, etc.) The majority of the book tries to mine “funny” out of the life of a noble prize winning physicist who helped build the bomb used on Japan.

Feynman’s dedication to solving puzzles, playing games, and generally being the smartest guy in the room is pretty incredible. I’m particularly impressed with his attitude toward the bullshit we deal with on a daily basis: royalty, celebrity, wealth, etc., are to be mocked, derided, and insulted, but being clever, earnestness, and intellect should admired. His public defense of a local strip bar (where, he claims, he would work on some of his theories on the paper plates) sits next to his mocking the US governments handling of patents as a testament to where his values lie. Not only practical and intelligent, he seems like exactly the kind of guy that sees the world for what it is, and not for how it is often presented.

One thing that did bother me about the book, though, is that his attitudes and intellect do conspire to create a certain kind of smugness and pretension that, ironically, works against his own feelings and attitudes about smugness and pretension. This is something I’ve struggled with in my own life; usually, the people who are against the bullshit in this world often take things so far in their own presentation that they become purveyors of their own pretension and bullshit. (Case in point: most subcultures.) Yes, I love it when the Country Mouse gets the better of the City Mouse, and I am naturally attracted to those kinds of stories anyway. But when the Country Mouse is singing his own praises as being better than the City Mouse, I start to get a little frustrated.

I also find his extreme preoccupation with sex to be a little ho-hum. This is obviously cultural, in our case; Americans are so completely uptight about sex, and at the time this book came out Revenge of the Nerds hadn’t yet changed the cultural perception of what the geeky guy in glasses was thinking about. So I can see why Feynman wanted to drop these stories about his adventures in bars, with girls, even if his advice is somewhat contemptible (if you treat girls really badly, they will sleep with you every single time). In the end, the So What factor starts to take over. Yes, you like pretty girls. Who doesn’t? Yes, it’s unexpected that a Professor would be chasing skirts and getting into fights in bars. Can we get back to the lock-picking stories? Everything relating to being interested in sex was sort of boring, and instead of being revealing and shocking, it read more like, “Yeah, who isn’t like that? Next.” Humans, Feynman included, love to think that they are skirting the edges of acceptability when they are in polite society, not realizing that most other people feel this same way about themselves, too.

One persistent element of this book that I loved, though, is the reflections on alienation. Again, there is nothing new or unheard of in this, but his befuddlement and confusion about the human race struck a chord that rang very true for me, too. Specifically, his realization that the majority of people learn through memorization, rather than understanding. I’ve come up against that hundreds of times in my life. I feel like an absolute moron when I can’t understand something, even if I could give you the right answer because I memorized it. Not understanding something is a terrible state to be in, and I am constantly living in terror of the things I can’t parse or rationalize. A large portion of the world around me seems content with not knowing, and I feel as if this simple schism marks the divide between myself and the rest of the world.

But more general than that, Feynman outlines his struggles to incorporate himself into a world that doesn’t make sense to him. He is baffled by arbitrary custom or inane social practice, and yet wants so badly to find a way to navigate them successfully, as if he’s trying to solve the puzzle that is humanity. Our entire culture is based on establishing rules and scenarios that alienate some while including only select others. Feynman is horrified by this, and yet so desperately wants to be a part of the world that he can’t entirely reject it. He jokes, kids, and does everything he can to avoid playing by the rules, but at the end of the day he can’t entirely remove himself from society just because it is confusing.

That, more than anything, seems to be what he was driving at in this collection of strange anecdotes and bizarre reflections. Yes, this world is stupid, horrible, full of mean spirited people, and on the whole not the place you would choose to live if you could make that choice. But at the end of the day, we all have to live in the world. You might as well make a game of it to help pass the time.

Good advice? That’s not my place to say. But there were times I laughed out loud, and others where I cried. What more could you ask for in a book by someone who made the bombing of Japan possible?

Wow

“Just what comprises humanism is not a simple matter for analysis. Rationality is an indispensable part to be be sure, yet humanity includes emotionality, or the capacity to feel and suffer, to know pleasure, and it includes the capacity for aesthetic satisfaction … his aspiration to feel significant and to have a sense of belonging in a world that is productive of much frustration. These at least are the properties of humanity.”

-Richard Weaver, “Language Is Sermonic,” (1963)

Apparently, all my emotional outbursts, sense of pain and frustration, desire for emotionally satisfying art, and longing for emotional connections outside my own brain DO make me human after all.

Connections

It’s always good to have friends in nearly every sphere of human existence, but sometimes those connections atrophy, leaving you with no access to, say, free day-old donuts, or the inside scoop on the next cool things going down in town (like, another bike-in movie theater in PDX, location and dates open TBA).

It hasn’t been since I worked in the book mines back in the late ’90’s / early 2000’s that I had a decent (and reasonably-priced) book connection, and while school has given me more than enough to do with regards to textual interfacing, I missed the joy that comes with acquiring new, inexpensive leisure-time books. (I have yet to find any joy in the academic past time of acquiring old, extremely-expensive and difficult-to-get-through books.)

Fortunately, one of my old roommates has scored a job at a warehouse sorting books for an amazon.com bookseller. (One of the independent sellers that uses the amazon.com interface to hock their wares.) This has been a two-fold boon for my friends and I: he has a paying job to keep a roof over his head, and we all get to rummage through his “Free Books” box every time they have a party.

I managed to walk out of a party with Libra by Don DeLillo, a cool ’60’s edition of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, and the Autumn 1972 issue of a really crazy academic journal called Horizon, which includes essays on “How Man Invented Cities,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’avventura,” and the life of Machiavelli.

Which worked out great for me; normally I leave a party feeling like I’ve lost something.

(P.S. If anyone’s parents were academics and had a subscription to Horizon– or just happened to collect them in the ’60’s and ’70’s – I would very much be interested in working out a trade for back issues. Please and thank you.)