Have you ever wondered why music doesn’t sound the same on an mp3 player or the radio as it does live in concert or on your favorite CD or LP recording? It may not be just because you didn’t buy the high-end player or that the radio station’s signal doesn’t come through well. Greg Milner gives us an absorbing account of the history of the technology behind recording (and broadcasting) from the earliest days of Edison and his cylinders to the current use of proTools for recording and mixing the latest releases. The history he presents is complex (as all history is), but accessible to a popular audience.
Milner divides his lengthy book into three broad but overlapping segments–acoustic/electrical (ending largely in the 1920s), analog, and digital. His brush is broad, but often focused on individuals, as he examines innovations in contexts that are simultaneously economic, political, and artistic, with no single force dominating, but always in tension. Edison’s cylinders may have been a more faithful recording medium than Victor’s discs, but were more difficult to produce, thus sacrificing sound quality for ease of manufacture. Acoustic/ electrical recording controversies foreshadowed the analog/digital wars decades later, where ultimately certain advantages of the former in each case lost out to the latter, sometimes for practical reasons, consumer preference or ease of use, business decisions, or capital investment.
In every part of Milner’s narrative, personalities stand out. Quirky geniuses (Leopold Stokowski, Les Paul), annoying blowhards (several sound engineers and corporate executives come to mind), and elitist audiophiles all put forth their best and worst efforts to change the medium, be first, or cash in. Technology resides not just in the choice of distribution formats with which we are more familiar (vinyl vs. compact disc), but the standards behind them (45 rpm vs. 33 1/3 rpm, 4 1/4 in. vs. 4 3/4 in.), and the studio recording equipment tapping into the sounds of the musicians and altering them in mysterious ways. Milner gives us an extended tour of the evolution of the recording studio, from the space requirements for analog recording (the church-like acoustics of Columbia’s studio and the attempts to reproduce that sound in cramped studios) to the consoles used for capturing and mixing the sounds. That the author devotes half of the book to the last three decades suggests the accelerated rate of change, with the introduction of digital recording, digital processing, and eventually, digital tools to make the studio (in some cases) obsolete. The power of digital technology, reflected not only in the artist’s newfound freedom, but also in the ability of mixing engineers to manipulate recording to alter what was or create what never was. This even extended to radio stations’ ability to modulate frequency and change how a recording sounded on air (more compressed, or “hotter”) to better compete with other stations.
Resistance to any and all changes are duly noted by Milner, among those who pine for the old days when vinyl created a warmer sound (1960s), or when compact discs created a full range of sounds (1980s) but had not yet been compressed (mid-1990s), or when singers would actually have to sing on key (pre-AudioTone, late 1990s). Spice Girls, anyone?
Some might read this book and see progress, others the decline of civilization. Probably neither is true nor entirely false. In either case, Greg Milner supplies considerable food for thought and ear for those of us who live on music.