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Along the route to recorded music

Walt Disney said we live in a wonderful world of color, but we also live in a world of sound. How do scientists describe the very first event in the history of the universe? The Big Bang, the all-time granddaddy of sound, whose ripple effects we feel even today.

nolead begins An Aural History
of Recorded Music
nolead ends nolead begins

By Greg Milner

Faber & Faber. 416 pp. $35

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Thane Tierney

Walt Disney said we live in a wonderful world of color, but we also live in a world of sound. How do scientists describe the very first event in the history of the universe? The Big Bang, the all-time granddaddy of sound, whose ripple effects we feel even today.

More or less ever since then, we've been trying to capture, reclaim, preserve, enhance, quantify and even listen to these fugitive waves that roll through our atmosphere at a rate of about 20 to 20,000 cycles per second. Author Greg Milner goes to epic lengths to record the history of those attempts in Perfecting Sound Forever.

On one level, this book is the stories of men such as Thomas Edison and Emil Berliner grappling in a loser-leaves-the-market audio grudge match between wax cylinders and flat discs. Conductor Leopold Stokowski and the engineers at Bell Labs work out a live-amplification system that, to the ears of one observer, resembles nothing so much as "a million banshees wailing at once." Austrian inventor Fritz Pfleumer, who might best be remembered - if at all - as the inventor of the plastic drinking straw, solves the problem of how to bind iron powder to paper, thereby enabling the first modern tape recorder.

On another level, it's a story of moments: the so-called tone tests of the Roaring Twenties, in which audiences all across America somewhat improbably claimed to be entirely unable to distinguish between Edison's Diamond Disc and a live performer. The countless hours that engineer Geoff Emerick, producer George Martin, and four lovable moptops from Liverpool ping-ponged vocals and instruments across four tracks to create Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The thunderous disapproval with which the compact disc was greeted in 1982, prompting A&M Records cofounder Jerry Moss to set the benchmark for future generations of record industry dim-wittedness: "I fear what the hardware people are going to come up with next, to confuse and confound the consumer, and I loathe the erosion of sales and excitement in the record business because of that confusion."

At its deepest level, though, Perfecting Sound Forever is a meditation, a philosophical treatise, on what sound is and what it means. Think about it: When you listen to your favorite album, what is it that you're really listening to? Is it the transcript of a performance, faithful as a court stenographer in merely reproducing just the facts, ma'am? Is it a wholly invented fiction, digital wizardry manipulated in ways you can't even imagine unless you're an engineer, creating a Star Wars universe where reality and illusion are virtually inseparable? Or is it something in between? Or something else entirely?

After all, from the time of the very first studios, recording involved some reality rearrangement. First of all, recordings were made in a location quieter than most people would ever encounter. Second, even when a recording was completed in a single take, only the "best" version was deemed fit for public consumption. And as soon as we had magnetic tape machines, with their multiple recording tracks and editing capabilities, the pursuit of the perfect sound vanished down a rabbit hole from which it has yet to - and might never - escape.

Interestingly enough, the book splits right down the middle (not unlike the audiophile community itself) between analog and digital, with the first 100 years or so of recorded sound corralled into the same number of pages as the most recent quarter-century. As Milner's vivid portrait reaches across that seemingly unbridgeable gap, it becomes apparent that the more things change, the less we do.

Depression-era audiences hearing scratchy 78s were no more (or less) susceptible to overblown proclamations of audio nirvana than millennial audiences listening to, well, Nirvana. Our reverence toward charts and graphs that claim to illustrate audio excellence is seemingly limitless, even when our ears tell us otherwise. To tweak a phrase created in the digital community, it's a case of "garbage in, garbage in."

Throughout it all, Milner cuts through history's trash heap of claims and counterclaims, foibles and triumphs with clean, clear prose that adds light rather than heat to a war that shows no signs of a truce. The book does get a little technical at times, as Milner explains the electronic underpinnings of the so-called Loudness Wars and "lossy" vs. "lossless" forms of audio file compression, but anybody who can navigate through a Windows Vista installation should find it fairly easy to grasp.

And what of the future? All those ones and zeroes in your MP3 files could go the way of the Betamax, locked forever in a code nobody cares - or even remembers how - to translate. Even now, a mere 20-odd years into the digital revolution, many of your favorite album masters were archived to a standard, or on equipment, that's no longer in use. As legendary mastering engineer Doug Sax notes, analog "master tapes moan and groan, but they play. With digital, when the hard drive won't play, it's gone." Which brings us back to the pre-Big Bang audio standard: silence, the most perfect sound of all, and one that lasts forever.