[30 August 2009]
Recorded sound has become so ubiquitous it’s hard to imagine a world without it. From the first note that blares from the clock radio in the morning until the TV goes off at night, we are bombarded with audio that has been pro-tooled, pitch-corrected, compressed and enhanced, a process that is somehow supposed to make sound appear more realistic, more palatable, more enjoyable. And yet, because of the hidden processing that goes along with capturing and reproducing sound, we now live in a world where most people have no clue as to what music actually sounds like.
This is just one of the strange and contradictory issues brought up by Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever, a well-written, meticulously researched and fantastically thought-provoking exploration of the history of recorded music. From the phonograph to the Spector Wall of Sound to the CD and beyond, Milner chronicles every major shift in popular music by unearthing the advancements in technology that made those shifts possible.
What’s more, he does so without the excessive jargon employed by most audiophiles, instead concentrating on the human drama behind the technology, while simultaneously explaining the physics that make it work. In doing so, Milner has penned a fascinating look at the artists, technicians, inventors and entrepreneurs whose combined forces brought us a world of new sonic possibilities, flawed as that world may be.
The history of recording and of popular music are essentially the same story. Before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1888, music could only be experienced in the moment it was made. But by taking music out of its immediate context and allowing people to consume it at their leisure, the advent of recording simultaneously democratized and commodified musical expression, unlocking vast reserves of commercial and creative potential. It also laid the groundwork for alternative cultures and lifestyles, since one no longer needed to be present at a musical event in order to experience it.
By the middle of the 20th century, it was possible to choose from an expansive menu of cultural options that had heretofore only been available on the other side of town, or across the country, or on the other side of the world. This broadened the palettes of musicians and allowed for explorations of music that were unimaginable in the pre-Edisonian era. Don’t like ragtime? Order a waltz record through the mail. Don’t like yodeling? Check out that new station playing something called rock ‘n’ roll. Can’t stand your parents’ adult contemporary? Download that screamo tune your friends have all been talking about.
Yet for all the freedoms gained by the ability to record and manipulate sound, there is a cost. However important music is in our lives, it is no longer a fleeting expression of the emotions of its players. It has become an artificial construction, a simulacrum, a ghost of what it once was.
This is because the vast majority of our modern musical experience is mediated through the recording process, whether we realize it or not. Thanks to modern multi-tracking and effects-processing, this mediation has gone from merely coloring our perception of music to wholly creating it, offering us songs and sounds that have no intrinsic reality to them whatsoever.
While the freeing of music from the boundaries of the physical world has brought plenty of catchy songs and powerful ideas into existence, it has also devalued music as a cultural binding agent and reduced the power of live performance, causing many to wonder why the songs they hear at a concert don’t sound as “good” as they do in their Ipod’s earbuds. The simple answer to this question is because almost all modern recordings are deceptions, “records” of performances that never existed, and in many cases, could never exist.
Milner rightly blames this development on the advent of magnetic tape, which was conceived of in 19th century America, patented some 30 years later in Austria, perfected by the Nazis and then rediscovered by an enterprising GI, who brought it back the states after WWII. Magnetic tape, Milner writes “taught music how to lie” by introducing the ability to cut, splice and layer sounds into musical constructions that sounded completely real, yet were anything but.
From Les Paul and Mary Ford’s otherworldly compositions to The Beatles’ stoned experiments at Abbey Road, the use of magnetic tape changed not only the sound of music itself, but how we perceive music in general. From there, it is a short but rocky road to the modern era, where the multitude of sonic options has become both liberating and oppressive, as musicians and producers, burdened with too many choices and options, now tend to drown their songs in sonic ketchup rather than allowing them to generate their own flavor.
Perhaps this is one reason that music has started to take a back seat to other forms of cultural expression, relegated to sonic wallpaper rather than being an experience in and of itself. As Milner points out, it wasn’t all that long ago that listening to music was an activity of its own. People had hi-fi sets in their living rooms and would sit and listen with their eyes closed, fingers drumming on an armrest, allowing the sound to carry them away.
Yet now, when audio reproduction has hit an all-time peak of clarity and fidelity, nobody seems to actively listen to music anymore. Instead, music is now either functional (something to work out to), augmentive (film and video game scores designed to raise dramatic tension at appropriate moments) or declarative—a fashion accessory used to mark one’s tribal allegiance.
That’s not to say that music has lost all of its intrinsic power, just that the technology that was originally designed to create faithful representations of what a musical performance sounded like has actually done the opposite-—it has made the performance superfluous, replacing the real with the ideal, or somebody’s version of the ideal. It has made listening to music much more convenient, but in doing so, has diluted the actual experience.
As Milner shows, this development is all part of the parallel evolution of recording science and popular culture. It can be seen in our century-long fascination with the search for the authentic—that quintessential quest of the pop culture consumer. Milner’s perfect example of that of Huddy “Leadbelly” Leadbetter, who was certainly “authentic” before his voice was captured on wax cylinders by song hunters John and Alan Lomax.
As Milner points out, Leadbelly was the first pop star to be marketed as an outsider, and thus was the first to expose the paradox of being branded as an outsider while existing inside the cultural mainstream. While Leadbelly would have preferred to wear sharp suits and sing songs reflecting the musical ideas of his era, his benefactors dressed him in prison garb and forced him to sing ancient field hollers and chain gang chants, not because it reflected who he was as an artist, but because it reflected the image people got when they listened to his recordings. In their attempt to re-create that recorded image, the Lomaxes destroyed the very authenticity they were attempting to preserve.
Milner is quite right in labeling the Lomaxes as the first in a long line of record producers who would subvert the reality of their artists in order to market them as “real”.Again, we are brought full-circle to the modern age, where most pop “singers” couldn’t sing in key to save their lives, and where bands who ought to be able to play a song together routinely record entire albums without ever having to do so. Perfecting Sound Forever is a must-read for anyone who has ever wondered how pop music got to this place, and for those who wonder where it might take us next.