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Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music

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In 1915, Thomas Edison proclaimed that he could record a live performance and reproduce it perfectly, shocking audiences who found themselves unable to tell whether what they were hearing was an Edison Diamond Disc or a flesh-and-blood musician. Today, the equation is reversed. Whereas Edison proposed that a real performance could be rebuilt with absolute perfection, Pro Tools and digital samplers now allow musicians and engineers to create the illusion of performances that never were. In between lies a century of sonic exploration into the balance between the real and the represented.

Tracing the contours of this history, Greg Milner takes us through the major breakthroughs and glorious failures in the art and science of recording. An American soldier monitoring Nazi radio transmissions stumbles onto the open yet revolutionary secret of magnetic tape. Japanese and Dutch researchers build a first-generation digital audio format and watch as their "compact disc" is marketed by the music industry as the second coming of Edison yet derided as heretical by analog loyalists. The music world becomes addicted to volume in the nineties and fights a self-defeating "loudness war" to get its fix.

From Les Paul to Phil Spector to King Tubby, from vinyl to pirated CDs to iPods, Milner's Perfecting Sound Forever pulls apart musical history to answer a crucial question: Should a recording document reality as faithfully as possible, or should it improve upon or somehow transcend the music it records? The answers he uncovers will change the very way we think about music.

432 pages, Hardcover

First published June 9, 2009

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About the author

Greg Milner

4 books38 followers
Greg Milner is the author of Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His forthcoming book, Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture and Our Minds, will be published by WW Norton in May 2016. Milner is also theco-author, with filmmaker Joe Berlinger, of Metallica: This Monster Lives. A former editor at Spin, his writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Wired, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, New York magazine, Salon, and the Sunday Times of London.

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177 (13%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 100 reviews
144 reviews8 followers
September 2, 2012
Usually with 400 page facty books you enjoy them but are happy to have got through to the end. With this, I was disappointed when I got to the last few pages. So much fascinating detail, so many fascinating stories, and hundreds of answers about the recording of sound, none of which Milner is arrogant or foolish enough to call definitive.

This starts off with the Big Bang, obviously, and how the universe spread out in waves of sound and light. Then we get a little more specific, with technical but clear explanations of what sound is and how it generally works. After that it's Edison and his rivals working sound vibrations onto discs and tubes trying to reflect back the reality of sound. Right away, with roadshow Tone Tests held to demonstrate the veracity of recording, with crowds amazed at singers singing, then closing their mouths and the record 'taking over', we learn that the idea of recorded sound was bending what we thought sound sounds like.

In this case, the singers sang closer to the sound of the record to make the tone test work better. And then on through recorded history with engineers and audiophiles claiming to have made and heard a true or truer sound, then fakery and trickery being just as popular and often far more fun.

We learn about studios going from huge rooms where groups locked in tight with each other, to recording in separate spaces to stop bleed, then recording at separate times on different tracks, bouncing down and along via Dub and overdubs and loudness wars and pro-tools, aligning everything and making your drums sound like drums are supposed to by supposing other drums over yours.

There's loads of great stories throughout this, Geoff Emerick telling the distraught Kaiser Chiefs they couldn't cheat on a recording and their subsequent shock revelation that they were crap musicians tells you a lot about why Landfill Indie is Landfill Indie. The stuff about King Tubby inventing Dub and one of his proteges coming up with Sleng Teng, where electronics took over. Stories about the invention of synths and sampling, going from megablocks that could heat a whole room while sampling one and a half seconds to being able to hold half the world on a crappy laptop.

The central thing I learnt from this book is that music is a string of information, and truth in sound is an unachievable aim, because truth is subjective, even with something fixed like a recorded sound wave. There's a chapter of the book about the different audio file formats. Essentially, to get the entire range of sound frequencies into a reasonably sized file is impossible, so they chop off a lot of the sound at either end, and our minds fill in the blanks.
A lot of people claim to have 'Golden Ears' (and have through the history of audiophilia), where they think they can hear the minute different qualities of files, CDs, records. The testing facility that checks peoples reactions to different sizes and qualities of music files never tells the subjects how 'right' they were in identifying different qualities of sound, because if they got it 'wrong' it might fundamentally affect how that person thinks of themselves.

There is a big dissection/discussion about digital v analogue, with the pioneers of digital, Old Grumpy Grits Stevey Albini and more throwing in on it. There IS a difference in quality between the two, and the pitch and power of digital means, for me, it has far more capacity to annoy. But maybe I just prefer tapes and radio as that's where my brain got taught about sound? I know John Cale's Fear Is A Man's Best Friend sounds better on a D90 than on the CD I now have of it. But maybe that's just how I learnt it.

This is a GREAT book. If you like music, read it. If you like science, read it. If you like people having big fights about things for ages, read it. If you don't like any of those things, who are you and what is your fucking problem?
Profile Image for Ero.
193 reviews15 followers
October 15, 2009
Absolutely one of the best things I've ever read about recorded audio. The chapter on Leadbelly's discovery/exploitation/celebration/creation is splendid, and the rest of the book is pretty well done too.

Occasionally this lurches a little, from almost-stale college-research-paper historical bits into magaziney "then I went to his house to hear his $5,000,000 speakers for myself" bits. But all in all it sustains a high level of intelligence and ease, and occasionally rises to truly high levels of clarity (and "presence", maybe even "tube warmth") on what is sometimes a very abstract and subtle subject matter.
Profile Image for Michael Lindgren.
158 reviews58 followers
March 10, 2010
This is a well-researched and intermittently fascinating look at the history of recording technology. Music geeks will like it because they get to learn a lot of semi-technical stuff about compression and waveforms and the like. Milner is not a natural storyteller and occasionally gets himself crossed up; the book could have been substantially shorter. Audiophiles and vinyl snobs will find ammunition for defending their Luddite ways.
Profile Image for Kaitlin.
123 reviews2 followers
August 25, 2013
This book took an incredibly long time for me to finish. I found the topic interesting, but the writing was a little hard to read for extended periods. I believe this was primarily due to being sort of repetitive and circular in sections.

Still, it was nice to know how the recording process has changed over the years. The book made me wish I had been around before music was compressed to within an inch of its life.

I'd probably recommend the book only to those highly interested in the subject matter. It isn't captivating enough for a more casual reader.
Profile Image for Andrew Horton.
150 reviews11 followers
November 29, 2011
Probably the first accessible "general audience" book about the history of recording music, it perfectly balances the sociocultural context behind the history of different recording practices and technological advances without skimping on either front or capitulating to an elusive mainstream audience. As a recording engineer, I was surprised that even I learned new things and yet I'd still feel comfortable recommending the book to my Mom or anyone looking for a general pop-nonfiction read.
Profile Image for Douglas.
574 reviews32 followers
February 19, 2023
I truly like books that explain science in an entertaining fashion. I learned so much, and have many things to contemplate whenever I hear a sound.

I also truly enjoyed his previous book about GPS. I'm still finding ways to drop tidbits of information into my conversations.

Honestly, I got a bit weary of the last few chapters about the volume wars on radio and lots of talk about compression.
January 7, 2022
How we make music and listen to music today is a compromise between quality and flexibility. This is the story of how we got there, and it's fascinating, inspiring, and sobering.
Must-read for all music lovers, musicians, and music producers.
18 reviews3 followers
October 31, 2010
Starting with Thomas Edison's invention of the Gramophone, it traces key developments in the world of music, including the development of analogue tape, the high fidelity years, multitracking, digital, the Loudness Wars and finally the emergence of Digital Audio Workstations such as Pro Tools which instigated the widespread closure of the legedary recording studios of the world, such as the Power Station in NYC.

If you're a music fan of any kind, this book is simply a must-read: one of those works you can only be all the better for reading. Jarvis Cocker is quoted on the front cover stating that "very very few books will change the way you listen to music. This is one such book. Read it."

I heartily concur.

Whilst reading the book I put together a Spotify playlist of releases that represent for one reason or another key developments in the history of recorded music. I've re-ordered some of the tracks here if only to avoid jumping back and forth through time and confusing you, but only where absoutely necessary. Rather than just present you with the playlist here, I thought it might be worth annotating the tracks with the year of release and the reason for their inclusion. This won't play well in a sequential manner as the reason for the tracks' inclusion is based on technology rather than genre, but even so I hope it can provide a sonic companion piece to the book if you read it - which I highly recommend you do. Enjoy!



Profile Image for Emeraldia Ayakashi.
88 reviews49 followers
September 7, 2016
« Très, très, très peu de livres changeront votre façon d’écouter la musique. Celui-ci est l’un d’eux. » Jarvis Cocker

Obviously this Jarvis's sentence terribly given me want to read this book!

Here is a book for lovers of music. More than 400 pages to revisit the history of technology that helped save the music (which seems so obvious now), and yet it only goes back to 1877.

Extremely well documented, concealing technical details (complex enough for some), but also anecdotes from the world of music (I have those Beatles passionate Pavement on those too), this book will tell you all about recorded music.

It starts with the famous Edison phonograph and it ends with the dematerialization through the cassette and compact-disc, the digital revolution, not to mention the eternal vinyl. It talks among other analog and digital, "High Fidelity" or "High Fidelity" (the famous hifi) but also "level wars."

Exciting and challenging!
Profile Image for Taffnerd.
167 reviews4 followers
January 24, 2010
This book is outstanding. The cover (and title to a lesser degree) might lead one to believe that it is a dry academic work but that couldn't be further from the truth. The mechanical and cultural impact of recorded music read like well-paced fiction.

Milner writes about the whole history of recorded sound with humor and insight. His retellings of Edison's efforts and the field recordings that john and Alan Lomax did in the 1930's illustrate the conflicts between fidelity and reality that have shaped much of what we think of as music.

He does get fairly technical at times but his examples use familiar recordings - Led Zeppelin, Bing Crosby - and his writing is so clear and engaging that I think anyone would find much to love about this book.
45 reviews
November 20, 2018
An excellently written, thoroughly researched and absorbing history of recorded sound. The author is clearly something of an audio geek, in a good way, and his passion for the subject shines through. There is a well judged balance of technical detail throughout; accessible but not over simplified. What really adds value though are the accounts of the personalities and politics that shaped the way recordings have been made all the way through from wax cylinders to MP3s. It is possibly not surprising to know that quality of sound has not always been the primary driving force. I'd recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in sound recording.
Profile Image for Bram.
14 reviews
July 8, 2020
This took me 4,5 months to read. Not because it was heavy, but because large parts of it were quite repetitive. And then I would just put it away and try to forget about it. But yeah, you’re like a 150 pages in, it would be a waste to just throw it out, right? And admittedly, I did enjoy the whole synthesizer history lesson, which I would’ve missed out on if I would’ve given up at 150. But mi gado, this could’ve easily done with half of the pages.
Profile Image for acb.
19 reviews3 followers
September 12, 2012
An illuminating history of recorded music and the developments and conflicts of its past. It brought home the artificiality and contingency of something we take as natural, and the processes by which the status quo formed.
Profile Image for Steve Yetter.
43 reviews3 followers
December 15, 2020
Great, just great. This book will change the way you listen to music. Greg Milner is a gifted storyteller and very good writer.
Profile Image for Aaron Arnold.
428 reviews130 followers
February 11, 2014
It's easy for a 21st century music listener to forget that for the majority of human history, music appreciation has been an exclusively live, ephemeral, social affair - the serious music nerd with a vast album library, arcane tastes, and expensive headphones and speaker setup is purely an creature of the fruits of technological progress. Milner shows how the invention of sound recording technology had a transformational effect on how people interact with and appreciate music, from the early Edison era to the modern period of Pro Tools, covering recording, production, and reproduction.

The first era of sound recording was the acoustic/electric era, and many of the arguments that figures in the era made about recorded sound seem to resonate today in some way. The increasingly deaf yet still innovative Thomas Edison was one of the pioneers of recording, and, as was his wont, got into yet another standards war with a competitor - this time, it was his wax cylinders against the disc records of the Victor corporation's famous Victrola. Right from the start there was a fidelity debate, with electric partisans claiming that electrical recording systems, aided by microphones, could record sounds better than purely acoustic technology, and acoustic partisans arguing the opposite, that acoustic technology was more faithful, more pure than their opponents' systems. Important musical figures weighed in; the famous tenor Enrico Caruso gave Victor a boost by recording a number of performances that were supposed to demonstrate their superiority to the original sound over Edison's setup. In the other direction, Conductor Leopold Stokowski had great enthusiasm for the ability of electrical sound recording to "improve" music; disdaining the idea that a concert experience could truly be duplicated by a record played in someone's living room, he used every means at his disposal to make recordings sound larger than life (he was also one of the primary creative forces behind Fantasia, to this day one of the best and most innovative unions of sight and sound).

The second era of analog involved a switch from cylinders and discs to tape. A hidden legacy of World War 2 is the invention of magnetic tape - the Magnetophon was a German invention used in high-power radio broadcasts. Brought back to the US after the war by a curious radio hobbyist, he eventually teamed with the company Ampex to record Bing Crosby, whereupon tape became a rapidly more popular standard. Another driver was the unsuitability of discs or cylinders as media for field recordings. Father-and-son team John and Alan Lomax hated using bulky and cranky cylinder machines to do field recordings, especially when they happened on talents like Leadbelly. The two fought creatively with Leadbelly, as did later collaborator Moses Asch, since their visions of "true American popular music" didn't always coincide, but they were the first true producers in the modern sense, liberated by the greater possibilities of tape. Les Paul also made pioneering experiments in multi-track recording, when he realized you could simply rewind tape and record over it. Of course, the disc format didn't sit still either - there was yet another format war between the old-school 78s, the "hi-fidelity" 45s, and the long-playing 33 1/3s - and the discovery that different studios seemed to affect performances in different ways both helped artists and helped companies making money off of them, as in the big debates over Elvis moving from Sun's studios to RCA's, and Motown sold many records on the strength of their own unique sound. This also resurrected the debate over the role of the producer - to record "live in the studio" with as few alterations as possible, or to take advantage of newer technology like SSL consoles to help make the sounds bands like Def Leppard had always dreamed about? Both Phil Spector and Steve Albini have their points.

The digital era didn't really settle any disputes, it just made the stakes bigger. Digital technology, in theory allowing for greater fidelity than ever thought possible, also allowed for much greater manipulation of "natural" sounds. Much like in earlier eras, aficionados of the past immediately began arguing that newer technology removed some important element from the music-listener equation, while enthusiasts used that same technology to do things that hadn't been possible before. Sound engineers like Jamaica's King Tubby invented entire new genres like dub, thanks to their mixing boards' ability to manipulate sounds and give artists the chance to do new takes on old material, and the invention of the synthesizer and sampler gave artists almost limitless new options for creating or manipulating sounds themselves. There was even a political angle, as groups like Public Enemy used specific samplers like the SP-1200 to give their records unique, immediately identifiable atmospheres (something that contemporary artists still do, like Kanye West with the 808). New software like Pro Tools made editing far easier than it had been before, and yet, when the conflict between radio stations to draw and keep listeners spilled over into the studio as the CD loudness war, or Auto-Tune began to be applied to music in increasing amounts, the backlash against digital technology got stronger and led to the creation of determinedly low-fidelity movements. However, the economic changes that digital technology unleashed weren't reversible, and the increasing freedom it gave artists to record anyway for far less money than previously eventually led to waves of legendary studios like Muscle Shoals or the Hit Factory closing. Perhaps even more than in previous eras, the implications of new technologies were transformative.

While this isn't a technical book, Milner includes enough background on concepts like clipping, frequency modulation synthesis, and sampling rates to give the reader a solid background in the issues discussed. He's also good about drawing connections between the different eras and showing when the same issues get repeated in new contexts. While it's not strictly a music book either, Milner also has enough passion for what these technologies do for music - his enthusiasm for Led Zeppelin, in particular - that he had me looking up songs to try and hear what he was talking about quite often. Definitely a solid read for anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes work of getting music on disc, or, these days, in the cloud. It'll definitely put a smile on your face the next time you hear anyone go off on what a "warm, more human" sound vinyl has.
Profile Image for Arjun Ravichandran.
221 reviews135 followers
December 16, 2022
This book unfolds along two main axes - firstly, it is an engagingly written history of recording technology, covering its' beginnings in uncomplex acoustic recording, to the revolution of electrical recording, and finally into the digital era - where sound waves have, like most everything else, been translated into a universal code.

Secondly, the book also muses upon an ancient philosophical bugbear - the relationship between the real and its representation. What does it mean to record music? What aspects of the recorded performance are retained when we play a record, and what has been irretrievably excluded, and was there something that did not admit of recording at all?

But the reason that this book is well-written is that these two axes are woven smoothly through the narrative. Interviews from pioneers of recording technology, anecdotes from its convoluted history, dovetail into a diffused meditation regarding the chimera of 'perfect sound forever', the utopic rallying cry of techno-optimists - and a slogan whose appropriation morphs with every new generation. The idea of perfection, aided by alternatively imperfect or too perfect technology, changes.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The writing is conversational and engaging, with just enough technical detail to appetize.
Profile Image for Christopher.
177 reviews
April 19, 2018
I purchased this book probably around 2010. It has a different cover than what is shown here. I wanted to delve more into audiophile topics and investigate technical aspects of recording and Hi-Fi sound production. Parts of this book were fascinating, but in other areas I got lost in detail that seemed too finely grained for the breadth of this survey. It's the kind of detail you have to slog through and will promptly forget. Overall, I found the book rather interesting, but sometimes lost interest and put it down for long periods.

Concerning Hi-Fidelity music, I find it essential that everyone do two things in life.
1. Go to some live performances of the classical variety and learn to experience live music at its best: this is a reference point.
2. Invest in some headphones of at least moderate quality - those that cost at least 500 dollars, and listen to quality recordings. You owe it to yourself to experience quality music, both live and recorded, in hour lifetime. This young folks who have not done this - you will thank me later.
April 6, 2019
Simply brilliant. All the reviews on the covers actually do it justice. Hands down the best non-fiction book I’ve read. It flows week from start to finish and throughly and passionately well researched and explained. Unlike other non-fiction books, even though Greg Milner is a true and opinionated audio geek, he’s done really well to tell the story from all sides and leave room for the reader to think for himself.

Long story short, I can honestly say this book changed the way I view recorded music and has given an extra dimension of appreciation and understanding of my record collection. If you’re in any way interested in music and recording, read it!
Profile Image for Adam Osth.
156 reviews8 followers
March 10, 2020
A really fascinating look at the history of recording and production from the beginning until today. The thesis is that the history of recording has been a tug-of-war between trends of capturing the spirit of a live recording versus making a recording that sounds good in and of itself. While it is a pretty complete history, the author is clearly an indie rock guy - he sure gives a lot of attention to Steve Albini throughout and comparatively much less to pioneers like Phil Spector, Sam Phillips, and Motown.
Profile Image for Chris.
140 reviews2 followers
March 23, 2020
There is no denying the author has a great deal of knowledge of music recording, but I do not think he wrote a book that is approachable for a casual listener.

I enjoyed the chapter about the Lomaxes and their quest to record the music of different regions, but otherwise I found this book way too technical. I knew I was in trouble when I struggled to understand the concepts in the Thomas Edison chapter, so much of the book was a grind for me to read in the hopes it would become more approachable.
Profile Image for Grant Ellis.
97 reviews
November 20, 2020
Not being particularly technical, I found this tough in parts but many areas more than made up for it. I can genuinely say that this book has changed the way I listen to music. Listening to cd vs vinyl and searching for 'presence' and being able identify production techniques now knowing the backstory of the major shifts in recording technology. The research was exhaustive and clearly a labour of love. An important and gratifying read for any true music fan.
Profile Image for Johnny.
6 reviews
July 20, 2022
For a book tackling such expansive and interrelated topics and eras, this one delivers on many levels to bring the history of sound recording to life by illustrating the intertwined effect of the people, equipment, technology, recorded media, and popular culture. While some sections venture rather deep into certain topics, most concepts are effectively related through stories that don’t require deep technical knowledge.
35 reviews1 follower
February 5, 2023
This is a well-researched, intermittently bland book about the history of recording. I was hooked through the first 200 pages where Milner takes you through the development of recording throughout the early 20th century. Things started to drag when he talked about more contemporary issues related to loudness and fidelity. Would love an update now that streaming is ubiquitous.
Profile Image for Vasil Kolev.
1,039 reviews163 followers
March 13, 2018
This book lacks depth. There are a lot of side stories and distractions, but stuff seems to be missing, or just explained without enough depth, without relevant details, and is mostly someone walking around and talking to people, even the structure is not as good as it should be.
938 reviews6 followers
May 3, 2020
After an exhaustive survey of the birth of recorded sound, things pick up with modern recording techniques including compression, which explains why music made in the digital era sounds SO BLOODY LOUD.
Profile Image for Brett.
25 reviews1 follower
January 30, 2021
One of the best books I've read on a single topic. Exhaustive and engaging. While his commitment to objectivity on matters of fact is evident and pervasive, Milner's voice and opinions shine through in flashes and enrich the experience. Truly excellent.
Profile Image for Joris Telgen.
10 reviews
July 29, 2021
Very interesting book about the history of recording techniques. It makes you aware about how albums were made in the different decades: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and early '00s. I learned some new things by reading this.
Profile Image for Brett.
29 reviews1 follower
August 21, 2021
Starts off interesting but goes off the deep end when it gets the digital era, where it gets very dismissive and partially hinges its argument, albeit with some skepticism, on some woo pseudoscience shit on how digital music affects muscle reactions(?!).
27 reviews
November 4, 2022
This is easy and enjoyable reading for a historical, and somewhat technical, book. It took me a little effort to power through it.

Some of the metaphors and conclusions are forced.

Overall, I enjoyed it and I hope I can remember some of the factoids littered in this book.

Now go trash your CDs!
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