Having interviewed hundreds of people for his exhaustive history of recorded sound, Greg Milner has been nothing if not meticulous. However, from his New York base, one item of news eluded the Spin and Village Voice writer. It concerned a peculiar little revolution currently taking place in Hayes Middlesex. Twenty years ago, not a shred of trend analysis that could have told you that the rhythmic clunk and hiss of the old EMI vinyl pressing plant would defy all odds and continue spitting out black vinyl well into the 21st century. Even as recently as eight years ago, the place seemed beyond reprieve. EMI sold the pressing plant. All that remained for its manager Roy Matthews to do was give a guided tour to the property developers who bought the premises. Had the new owners not fallen in love with the idea of owning the place where Beatles albums were , Matthews would have long retired.
Instead, business at the newly-named Portalspace has risen year on year. As download sales make incursions into sales of the CD, suddenly it’s not too fanciful to imagine – as sometime Nirvana and Pixies producer Steve Albini explains to Milner in Perfecting Sound Forever – black plastic may yet end up being the analogue tortoise to the digital hare. “The vinyl record will certainly outlast CDs. I don’t think we’ll see the end of vinyl LP manufacture in my lifetime.” Professor P.B. Fellgett echoes Albini’s point, suggesting that we approach the new dawn of digital music judiciously. “Progress is not always a straight line. Often we must go backwards.”
There are plenty of passionately argued books out there that suggest we down lasers and return to vinyl. Milner’s isn’t one of them – although by the time you reach the end of it, your feelings about the shortcuts made by digital technology in the name of convenience may have the same effect. Well before Milner reaches the present, however, a familiar dialectic asserts itself. The CD vs vinyl debate has, in essence, always been with us. Only the names have been changed.
In 1888, eleven years after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, Emile Berliner invented his rival gramophone. Edison styled his product as the more high-end artefact; Berliner’s had convenience going for it. Edison’s claims for the purity of the phonograph’s sound were not unfounded, but his purism exasperated his staff. He even sought to turn his near-deafness into an advantage, claiming that the human ear was an imperfect conduit of the sound captured by his Phonograph. When testing the quality of his musical releases, he sought to bypass his ears by biting into the wooden cabinet which housed his invention – all the better to mainline the vibrations. A modern-day equivalent might involve the head of Innocent testing his company’s smoothies by eating them intravenously, this bypassing the “subjectivity” of the taste buds.
By adopting a more populist approach, Victor trounced Edison. They made Berliner’s machine on a mass scale and they also made the records that went with it. Most cannily of all, they then they persuaded a high-profile recording artist – Enrico Caruso – to sell it for them. Milner calls it the “first synergistic relationship between [a company’s] hardware and its software.” Almost a century later, the Polygram-owned Philips did the same – bankrolling a advertorial supplement in Q magazine with Polygram-signed Dire Straits singer Mark Knopfler on the cover, espousing the virtues of their CD players.
If a single question underpins Milner’s historical excavations, it’s probably this. Does music have a “soul”, and if so how does an artefact best go about preserving it? “Presence” is a recurring theme in Milner’s investigations. He pre-empts the sense of evolved superiority we feel when reading about the public tone tests staged by Edison and Berliner, in which musicians “performed” only to stop halfway through as audiences gazed on aghast with wonder. How could they be so naïve, we might ask, as to mistake a scratchy old cylinder for the real thing?
The mind processes familiar sounds at lightning speed. It needs to if we’re to avoid getting run over on busy streets. Confronted with anything unfamiliar, the mind will shove it – once again, at lightning speed – into the most appropriate box. Milner makes the point that we have never stopped doing this – merely that our naivety has become more, well… more sophisticated. He’s absolutely right to draw an analogy between those early tone tests and the all-pervasive use of the voice correction software Auto-Tune in the last few years. The “human” voice extruded through Auto-Tune sounds far less like a human voice than that of Caruso on those early Victor recordings. And yet we almost never stop to question its veracity.
Is our enjoyment of a piece of music contingent on presence? Milner has landed himself with the job of marshalling such a huge amount of information that there are times where he can barely keep up with what it all means. At Sun Studios, Jack Clement had to manufacture “presence” to overcome the limitations of the available space. On those early Elvis records, he did it with the use of reverb. When Elvis signed to RCA, he had all the extra space he needed, but he couldn’t attain the mythical sound of Mystery Train. Presence was also the holy grail identified by the hugely popular sound effects albums released on Emory Cook’s label Cook Laboratories. As with the early tone test experiments, people’s desire to be “fooled” by a realistic sound knew no bounds. The advent of stereo meant that post-war audiophiles sat in their front rooms, listening to table tennis balls ping-ponging from the left speaker to the right and back again.
Such bizarre behaviour needs a theory to explain it and Milner’s is that the increased urbanization of American post-war life created a need to experience the real world vicariously, albeit with a Frigidaire at arms-reach. He stops short of noting that this period wasn’t just restricted to music. This was also the golden age of food science where synthetic re-creation of the real stuff was something to take pride in. Why keep stocking up on the real thing when you could have a jar of the powdered stuff on hand at all times?
But while audiophiles pursued their “demented quest”, reaction and creation went hand in hand with the thrillingly unreal noises pioneered by Joe Meek and Phil Spector. Overseen by George Martin, The Beatles obsessed over the possibilities of “bouncing” the contents of what they had recorded onto four tracks of magnetic tape onto a single track – thus freeing up room for more bells and whistles. In their case, Milner suggests that the line between rampant creative genius and crowding out a good idea could be drawn straight down the middle of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, a song which took 29 takes and barely fitted onto eight tracks of tape. Its engineer Geoff Emerick said it never surpassed George Harrison’s original acoustic take.
As the years roll by, Milner’s book turns increasingly into a parable concerning the inability of musicians, record companies, producers and listeners to see the the wood for the trees. Suspended halfway between awe and bewilderment at the totality of Def Leppard’s vision for their second album Hysteria, Milner talks about the album’s multi-million pound journey from a bunch of four track demos recorded in a poky Dublin studio to its eventual completion. Frontman Joe Elliott’s driving conviction – that “a kid in Des Moines, Iowa” might care if a guitar was slightly out of tune – resulted in a rock album of unearthly universality. In striving to appeal to all humans, it ceased to sound human at all.
Ironically, given his truculently unstarry approach to the business of making music, the real star of the second half of Perfecting Sound Forever is Steve Albini. When technology serves the music, he is unfailingly withering. Bands who sign to major labels and find themselves lured by a producer into recording their parts separately, then wonder why the ensuing recording sounds so flat. They’re “doing a simulacrum of what they did every day.” It’s a process he compares to have a beautiful woman come into your room and disrobe, then having someone come in the following day and assemble her from various body parts.
On what basis, asks Milner, did the pro-digital lobby trumpet the imperishability of its products – be they DAT, CD or MP3? He speaks to mastering engineer Doug Sax, who claims there is no such basis. The bearings in hard drives dry out – and when they do, the information is irretrievable. By contrast, Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska was recorded onto a cassette using a ghetto blaster which had previously sank to the bottom of a river after being knocked off his canoe. Prior to mastering, the cassette had also spent a fortnight without a case in the back pocket of his jeans. Magnetic tape has proved remarkably durable.
The propaganda that accompanied the advent of digital technology – that until now we were compromising a musical experience by listening to it on vinyl or tape – has in time come to be true of digital. Milner isn’t surmising here. He reserves the most damning sections of Perfecting Sound Forever for the 21st century mania for musical compression. Pop songs used to have a dynamic range. The quiet bits were quiet and the loud bits were loud. If you want your single to be played on the radio, full dynamic range is no longer an option. A sonic picture of a recent hit – say Franz Ferdinand’s The Fallen – shows a thick band of sound seemingly designed to be heard over the rumble of car engines and traffic. A sound picture of Neil Young’s 1975 song Tonight’s The Night depicts a series of peaks and valleys. Increasingly, dynamic range is an anachronism. But the problems ushered in by compression have yet to be untangled. Loudness may ensure that a song played on the radio gets our attention. We may even buy the album. But once we have the album, loudness also accounts for why perfectly good music may start to feel oppressive after a while. Three tracks and we’re lunging for the off switch.
Perhaps the cumulative sense that music is ganging up on us, crowding us out with its very ubiquity and unprecedented availability, is contributing to its commercial devaluation. For many music fans who feel this way, analogue isn’t just a qualitative choice; it’s a symbolic one.
Between the last sentence and this one, I walked over to one of the shelves where I keep my seven-inch singles and picked up a record at random. It was The Young Rascals’ 1967 hit How Can I Be Sure. As if to honour Edison’s criterion, I asked myself if the sound of Eddie Brigati casting his fate to the whims of true love as pensive strings swirl around him was the real thing. Milner’s answer: “The analogue fan longs for the days when there was a clear boundary between reality and its representation, because maybe in the sound of their favourite records they hear a better world.” I’d say that just about nails it.