Sunday, October 11, 2009

Greg Milner Perfecting Sound Forever 2009

I just finished reading Greg Milner's excellent book, the title of which is a play on the classic CD sales pitch from the 80s, "Perfect Sound Forever". Mr. Milner traces the history of recorded sound from Edison's wax cylinder to today's ProTools computer-based recording, and manages to show the arc of history by telling many interesting stories of the technologies and personalities involved in the progress through the twentieth century to today.

If you thought that format wars started with VHS or BETA, or SACD or DVD-A, Milner tells us of the format war of the 1920s between Edison's Diamond Disc and the Victor company's Victrola. And it was Edison's relentless pursuit of acoustic recordings, which he knew sounded better than the electronic recordings (even though they did not play as loud) that helped him lose that particular round.

Milner tells the fascinating stories of the early "Tone Tests" designed to prove the quality of the new recorded media. These sales demonstrations had opera singers sing live, followed by recorded versions to wow audiences with the fidelity of the recordings. The focus, even early, on fidelity and sound quality is particularly telling in light of the changes that have reduced fidelity of recorded music in recent decades. And Milner has plenty to say on that topic as well.

Along the way the author interviews recording engineers, producers, businessmen, composers, and audiophiles, weaving wonderful stories that build into a comprehensive history of recorded music that focuses primarily on the recording process.

The attitudes towards sound recording and the enjoyment of those recordings in the home over the past sixty years is a tale that raises questions about how we listen and why we like, or don't like, what we hear. Milner covers this era with a mix of the reporter's objectivity and the great storyteller's colorful insights.
The advent of sampling synthesizers in the 1980s heralds the coming move away from analog recording studios, and the push towards digital, and then to the now pervasive ProTools, and the questionable benefits this progress has brought. The process of mixing pop music to sound louder than other CDs to the point of dynamic compression is given considerable discussion, as is the controversial use of the Auto Tune Pro Tools application.

There isn't much said about the SACD and DVD-A formats, and that seems a little odd, given how comprehensive the book seems otherwise. Then again, what can be the point of spending time on another marketing debacle.

It is a very fun read while being very informative. That's a good book any day. My only warning is that Greg Milner is pretty clearly in the analog camp, even though he tries hard to at least sound objective. If you think anybody that listens to vinyl is completely nuts, this might not be your book. Then again, if you want to know how we got to this place in recorded music, and be entertained while you learn, read this book. Highly recommended.

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