Goodreads review: Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music

Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded MusicPerfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music by Greg Milner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first came to this book because of Jarvis Cocker’s reading of an excerpt about how, physiologically, you perceive the drums in Led Zeppelin’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’. It was an excerpt – edited, as I’ve discovered, though not greatly – that ropes physics with the excitement that particular Foot-Of-God drum phrase invokes in a way which makes even non-Zep fans a bit excited.

You can hear it here. I’ll wait.

Basically, if you liked that snippet and the way it conveys SCIENCE stuff in an easy-to-appreciate way, you’ll enjoy this book. For a large part, it’s set up as a brace of dichotomies – acoustic versus electric, analogue versus digital, CD versus LP, real or Memorex and so on – but it’s not just a collection of lists or pros and cons: there’s a wealth of interviews, and a suitably peppy commentary about the development of recording and broadcasting technique. Let’s face it – a lot of this stuff is dry, but Milner makes it zip by.

As a music nerd with pretensions to knowledge about recording (not that it’s actually backed up with, yanno, any ability behind the desk) this was right up my alley. It’s a history of the process of recording rather than a history of the recorded, though obviously artists do crop up from time to time – particularly when they bear some relevance to the development of recording techniques. Expected figures crop up – the Beatles, Phil Collins, Queen, Def Leppard, Neil Young – though they’re used as examples rather than major motivators. It’s the dudes behind the scenes – particularly the inventors, from Edison on down – that call the shots. If you’ve ever wondered what separated a Synclavier from an Emu (not the bird) then there’s a chapter here for you.

I must give this book extra credit for its excellent description of the loudness wars, first in the FM radio format, then in the CD-mastering stakes. Much bonus points awarded for explaining the terrible-ness of RHCP’s Californication by dint of direct comparison with the transients visible in a Shellac song. SHELLAC! (Also, lots of Audacity screenshots – props!)

The author’s indie-kid bona-fides are all in this book – aside from Shellac, the Ramones, Pavement, Mission of Burma and the Clash are all covered (as is a love of Fleetwood Mac) – but it doesn’t stop him from covering the standard mainstream stuff with aplomb, too. I’d known about the genesis of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, say, but Milner’s description fills in a lot of blanks. Ditto the escapades of King Tubby in the reggae world, the unplugged-board moments of Stokowski and the in-the-box creation of Ricky Martin’s finest moment.

Tthis book’s a testament to the unachievable – perfect reproduction. If you listen to a lot of music it’s instructive in what it means to listen critically, and to be part of the struggle to hear what was in the room at recording. There’s a lot of canny writing on the ephemeral, trickster nature of recordings, and in total this reads as a mash note to music. A well-written one, but with that lovely enthusiasm always around the edge.

If you’re the sort of person who alphabetises their collection and has a stake in the FLAC versus MP3 debate, this is the book for you. It’ll make you want to play the records Milner mentions, then it’ll make you want to go listen to your collection – or make some of your own.

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