The Power of Reading

A year or so ago, I started casually searching on-line for a book about the history of recording.

Last June, in a spur-of-the-moment, while-I’m-in-the-neighborhood visit to Kramerbooks (1517 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, D.C.), I found exactly what I was looking for: Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History Of Recorded Music by Greg Milner.

The 2010 trade-size paperback has a very graphic, pink, light blue and white front cover and the usual array of excerpts from good reviews that appeared in high-profile publications on the back cover. One of these quotes though was attributed just to “Jarvis Cocker” and reads like a challenge as much as a recommendation. (Jarvis, I have discovered, is a British musician, former frontman for the band Pulp, host of the BBC Radio 6 Music show: Jarvis’s Sunday Service and not the son of one of my favorite singers, Joe Cocker.)

Jarvis said: “Very, very, very few books will change the way you listen to music. This is one such book. Read it.”

Really?

Well, I did read Perfecting Sound Forever and I have to admit that Jarvis was right. This book did indeed change the way I listen to music.

How so?

Well, here’s some of what I learned from Perfecting Sound Forever.

In the history of recording there have essentially been only two “systems” for recording sound: analog and digital.

Analog recordings are everything from the wax cylinders that were played on the original Edison phonograph (introduced commercially in 1888) to 78-rpm shellac discs to magnetic tape (as found in cassettes and 8-tracks) to vinyl LP’s (1948) and 45’s (1949). Digital recordings are CD’s (first produced commercially in 1982) and MP3’s, the latter being the usual format for digital downloads.

In an analog recording, sound waves are “captured” in one of two ways.

The first way is in an uninterrupted, variable-width (or depth) groove etched into the surface of a rapidly spinning cylinder or flat disc.

The other way is in an uninterrupted stream of “patterns of varying magnetic polarity” electronically created in a layer of highly magnetic material – such as tiny particles of iron or nickel – that has been adhered to one side of a thin and flexible ribbon, or tape.

In the 1950’s, terms like “high fidelity” and “audiophile” were preeminent in the blossoming commercial world of analog recorded music. “Presence” was the ultimate goal of the best music recordings and most sought after by those audiophiles.

Presence is defined by Mr. Milner with a quote from John Urban who said that it is: “the aural illusion of being in the same room with the performers.” In Mr. Milners words: “A recorded sound with presence did more than just capture the music perfectly. It captured the sound of music made in a specific space.”

In other words from Mr. Milner, in the early years of analog recording “the fundamental ethic governing recorded music” was “to document reality.” The word “presence” implies “capturing everything.”

S0, in 1982, when CBS/Sony released Billy Joel’s album 52nd Street in Japan as the first commercial CD, they were hoping that listeners would find that this new digital format captured everything of Mr. Joel’s music even better than the vinyl and tape analog versions did.

However, can the idea of “capturing everything” ever apply to a digital recording?

Here’s Mr Milner again: “A digital system is the ultimate negation of this idea. The system begins with an idea of perfection and works backwards. The CD system ‘knows’ that the entire world of sound can be accurately depicted using a set of 65,000 building blocks, as long as 44,100 of them are used each second.”

Mr. Milner quotes Ivan Davis saying “Analog is about ‘approximating perfection,’ while digital is about ‘perfecting approximation.'”

Hmm?

In the process of recording music digitally, the music or sound waves are translated into a “binary language” and stored as “information.” Binary language uses “binary code” as its alphabet. Each letter of this alphabet is a number with 16 places, or “bits.” Each place or bit in this long number can be either a 0 or a 1. (Binary is defined as “consisting of two things or parts.”)

This is what one of those 16-bit numbers would look like: 1001101011001101.

There is a total of 65,536 possible variations on this number, starting with all 0’s, which would be silence.

A digital recorder analyzes or samples an incoming signal and starts translating it into binary language using one of those 65,536 numbers. The digital recorder repeats this process another 44,099 times during the first one second of signal or music. So, if my math is accurate, a 3 minute song would eventually become a dominoes-like row of 7,938,000 16-bit numbers.

Whew.

What then, did this sound like? Could enough of everything be captured? Did the recorded music in this new format have presence?

Mr. Milner quotes musician Neil Young: “Listening to a CD is like looking at the world through a screen window. If you get right up next to a screen window, you can see all kinds of colors through each hole. Well, imagine if all that color had to be reduced to one color per hole. That is what digital recording does to sound.”

Regardless of how they sounded to Neil and many others, CD’s soon took over the world of commercially recorded music and rewarded that world with great financial success for many years.

Personally, I found some of the first CD’s that I bought back in the late-1980’s to be nearly unlistenable, “A Hard Day’s Night” from the Beatles being particularly annoying. But in recent years, I think that the sound of many re-released and “remastered” albums – such as those from the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and the Beatles – has been simply spectacular.

Well, in all things technological and commercial, there eventually has to be something new. 

On October 23, 2001, Apple introduced the iPod.

The iPod allowed music listeners to pack all of the music on all of those rack-filling, space-hogging CD’s into a pocket-sized, battery-powered, completely portable and very cool… device. With this device, and a computer, music consumers could also now purchase recordings on-line, from the comfort of their homes, “downloading” their tunes in the formats of “MP3” and “AAC” digital audio files.

How does this work?

Mr. Milner explains: “When music on a CD is converted to MP3 or AAC (the iPod format), between 80 and 90 percent of the music is simply discarded.” This compression is the only way “to really shrink music enough to stuff thousands of songs on an iPod.”

And how does this sound?

Here are two thoughts.

Drew G., a friend and colleague of mine, compares the sound of an MP3 recording to a dry sponge.

To me, an MP3 recording is like a fresh rain puddle on the street: it’s all shiny and pretty on the surface and fun to splash around in. It’s just not a sound that you can immerse yourself in. 

Finally, I will leave you with one more quote from Greg Milner and Perfecting Sound Forever.

“High fidelity barely exists today, not so much because recordings don’t attempt to document reality anymore but because the fundamental ethic governing recorded music 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.”

There you go.

All of that (and more – I’ve gone on long enough) is why reading this book changed the way I listen to music.

Forever.

Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music by Greg Milner. Highly Recommended.

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2 Responses to The Power of Reading

  1. TPS says:

    Eric,
    Interesting post. Sadly, I believe that the move from analog to digital music is yet one more example of how little people pay attention to what is “quality” anymore. Yes, analog had presence, but it was also supported by generations of devoted collectors of vinyl and tape. You see recently that vinyl has had a mini-resurgence just because of this, though I am doubtful that vinyl will ever be more than a very minor segment of what is on the marketplace.
    Think about it…. How many younger folks do you know that collect music with the same zeal and excitement that we experienced back so long ago? I don’t know many, if any, who actively collect “albums”. Hell, many artists now have to team up with single retailers to get new product on the market. Record stores are all but gone, other than the used market. Audio equipment, at one time a major expense for a household, is now priced like a commodity. Why? Because there are really no real “collectors” anymore, save for a few of us boomers and audiophiles who still have hearing left. What used to be such a part of us, “soundtracks of our lives” if you will, no longer exist for the last several generations of music consumers. In many genres, there is now a resurgence of the “single”. There is no real loyalty to a band or artist anymore. I believe for many, music is now background noise, or something you hear when you watch a movie or video. It’s not something that is anticipated anxiously, like it was for us. We could hardly wait to get our hands on the next Led Zep, Beatles, Stones, Springsteen album, because it meant something to us. I don’t really see that unbridled loyalty today.

    I said all that to make a point about something else. Very few people really care about the quality of the recording anymore. If it sounds good on the ipod, PC or in the car, that’s “good enough”. Music is in the background of other things we’re doing – driving, riding the subway, exercising. For all that, “good enough” is good enough. It’s all about convenience. Why collect hundreds of CD’s when you can store all the music on a couple of flash drives or an ipod? Also, there is so much bootlegged music on the web that who needs to buy CD’s? And with digital recording, “bootleg” isn’t some poorly recorded version of unreleased work. It’s the original recording, just as good as the one you can pay for on the CD.

    Bottom line, people care more about convenience and cost than they do about audio presence. How many people even take the time to decompress mp3’s into WAV or CDA files which are uncompressed? “Why do that? Then you can only get 10 or 25 songs on a CD instead of 200.” And for the average Joe on the street, they can’t tell the difference. It’s “good enough”.

    Want to hear presence today? Go to a club. Live music is about the only thing that’s honest anymore. And, the good thing is that it gives both older and newer musicians an opportunity to show their stuff. That’s a good thing at least….

    TPS

  2. Pax Tecum says:

    Thank you for such a clear and direct explanation of the regression of technology driven by the profit motive. Forgive me, but how many of today’s listeners would know quality sound if they heard it since most of the modern sound I happen by is mostly drums and screaming. Sadly enough, there is little money in quality be it sound recording or music presentation.

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