Perfecting Sound Forever

When the intrepid explorer of consciousness Daniel Pinchbeck smoked his first hit of Nn-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), as described in his book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, he was rocketed into the presence of a group of "immense Cyclopean guardians...like giant stalagmites, chattering wildly, projecting toward me what I interpreted as a terrifying impartiality." When Pinchbeck smoked his second hit he made "alarming insect-like vocalizations" for a while and then, his speech restored, turned to the aforementioned guardians, or "bardo wardens," and said, "Thank you very much -- I really appreciate this. And now I would like to go back to my reality."

The sensitive reader, by the time she has reached the end of Greg Milner's excellent Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, may well find herself making a similar request. Post-Milner, I now view the annals of recording as a catastrophic chronicle of alien infiltration and domination -- of a rather rapid (relatively speaking) takeover of our ears and minds by entities that exhibit, in their warmest moods, all the humanity of Pinchbeck's DMT demons. To be clear: the music we are sucking down at the beginning of the 21st century, through the earbuds of our iPods and the speakers in our cars, is barely music at all. It is a sort of code, a sequence of psychoacoustic prompts that we have been programmed to recognize as music. How did this happen? How did they steal our music away from us? Well, they did it by digitization, as Milner explains, and lossy compression, and by "educating the consumer," and by using ProTools, and Auto Tune... But before we get into all of that let's take a deep breath, eliminate the extraneous noise, and see if we can't tune in -- faintly, faintly -- to the Sermon on the Mount.

Can you hear it? The buzz and rustle of the crowd, and then, cutting through, the single compelling and absolutely gentle Voice. Guglielmo Marconi thought he could hear it. Or rather (so runs the legend) the developer of the radiotelegraph imagined that he might be able to pick it up, as it travelled infinitely onward through space, if only he could construct a recording device that was powerful enough. Milner starts his book with this bit of apocrypha, and it sets the tone very well: from the outset, the recording project seems to have been conceived in a spirit that was equal parts reverence, quixotry, and cosmic hubris.

"The phonograph knows more about us than we know ourselves," proclaimed Thomas Edison in 1888. Dissatisfied with the fidelity of his 1912 Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph, Edison experimented over the next three years with 2,300 different styli, finally going so far as to actually bite the machine, gripping the soft wood with his aged teeth, in an effort to discern its shortcomings: "His teeth," writes Milner, "became a de facto stylus, letting him feel the vibrations with his body."

In 1929 the great conductor Leopold Stokowski, upon discovering that the engineers who were about to record his Philadelphia Orchestra for the first network radio program would have control of the broadcast's sound levels, declared "No one controls Stokowski's sound but Stokowski!" and demanded his own private mixing board, to be placed next to the conductor's podium. As he conducted, and the volume of his orchestra waxed and waned, he would reach over to this board to make the necessary adjustments. "Of course," adds Milner, "Stokowski couldn't actually hear what the broadcast level was, and so the engineers frantically tried to control huge shifts in volume. Eventually, they resorted to disconnecting Stokowski's board without telling him."

With great brio Milner takes us through the era of the "tone test," when the pioneers of sound technology would blast concert audiences with Ted Nugent–level recordings of choirs and symphonies ("The engineers knew they had done their job when a woman at Monday's dress rehearsal had doubled over during Elijah, as though she'd been kicked by a horse"), to the ethnomusicological forays of John Lomax and his more famous son, Alan, to the innovations of Les Paul, whose breakthrough 1947 recording "Lover" featured himself playing jazz-manic tweety-bird guitar on eight separate tracks. Milner parses the boom of the "high fidelity" concept in the 1950s and notes the emergence of "audiophilia" as a diagnostic category: "One addict," records a psychiatrist, "told me he would not be satisfied until he could hear the drop of saliva from French horns."

We meet Phil Spector, whose reverb-drenched Wall of Sound "actively courted high infidelity," and the great Joe Meek, the English home studio wizard who recorded "Telstar" before going potty and murdering his landlady. Tony Bongiovi, superstar producer, alludes with pride to the timpani drum he added to the chorus of the Ramones' "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker": "If you really, really listen, you can pick those things out." Steve Albini, anti-superstar producer, takes umbrage: "If he thinks the reason the song is good is that he put a timpani on it, he can kiss my ass."

And then we're in it: the Digital Age, when recorded sound reaches our ears not, as the Muses intended, in the form of waves but as strings and chunks of data; when the Red Hot Chili Peppers release a single (1999's "Scar Tissue") so artificially and impossibly loud that by a kink of circuitry it techno-rebounds on itself and comes out of the average radio sounding quieter than the songs around it. Compressed, clipped, boosted, flattened, stuffed, pumped, and polished to an appalling dead sparkle, today's songs -- in the words of Bob Dylan -- "have sound all over them." A ghastly bargain with immediacy has been struck, and the ancient hi-fi ideal of presence, of a recording that summons the acoustic glamour around a note of music, has fallen away. More, writes Milner, it has "been reversed. Presence implies capturing everything. Today, we try to capture as little as possible while fostering the illusion of everything. We don't want everything. We want just enough."

Milner is not militant about this stuff, merely clear-eyed and sad. Psychiatrist John Diamond, on the other hand, is very militant indeed. Digital audio, he tells Milner, by violating the ear's contract with nature, disturbs the listener and puts him "into a state of hatred. That's the word for it: hatred." Visiting with Diamond, Milner submits to a strange test in which his left arm, going up and down, stylus-like, appears to be weakened by exposure to digitized music. "That's what this fucking stuff is doing all the time all over the fucking world!" insists Diamond. And yes, he sounds unhinged, but I think I'm with him. Ladies and gentlemen, like Morrissey says: Hang the DJ!

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