Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music

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9780865479388: Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music

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.

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About the Author:

GREG MILNER has written about music, media, technology, and politics for Spin, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Slate, Salon, and Wired. He is the coauthor, with the filmmaker Joe Berlinger, of Metallica: This Monster Lives. He lives in Brooklyn.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Perfecting Sound Forever
Acoustic/Electrical 1 The Point of Commencement The chain reaction began in the White House. Shortly before noon on February 20, 1915, Franklin K. Lane, the secretary of the interior, was concluding his remarks in praise of the pioneer spirit, in front of 50,000 people who had gathered at the Tower of Jewels in San Francisco to wait for the start of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. "The waste places of the Earth have been found and filled, but adventure is not at an end," Lane said. "Here will be taught the gospel of an advancing democracy--strong, valiant, confident, conquering--upborne and typified by the important spirit of the American pioneer." When he finished, a telegram was sent to President Woodrow Wilson. This was Wilson's cue to press a key covered with gold nuggets, which completed an electrical circuit over a telegraph line with a navy radio telegraphy station in Tuckerton, New Jersey. A relay key was automatically activated, causing powerful electrical waves to emanate from an 835-foot tower. They traveled across the continent and were received by two antennas 400 feet above the ground, on top of the Tower of Jewels. From there, the current traveled through insulated wires to a delicate receiver in the grandstand, near the speaker's platform. The receiver activated another electrical signal that traveled through the expo grounds. It opened the door of Machinery Hall, made water flow from the Fountain of Energy, and triggered several explosions. Back at the White House, Wilson's guests, who included the California congressional delegation and several members of his cabinet, burst into applause. Wilson himself was more reflective. He said, "This appeals to the imagination, rather than to the eye." The Tower of Jewels was the centerpiece of San Francisco's new walled city, carved out of 635 acres and 76 square blocks, for which 200 buildings had been demolished. The irony of this urban clear-cutting was that although the expo officially commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal, everyone knew its real purpose was to celebrate the rebirth of San Francisco from the ashes of the devastating 1906 earthquake. To do so, the city had effaced itself once more, beating nature at its own game, just as surely as the Panama project had laughed at geography. The expo's city was right on the bay, a setting that had been carefully chosen for its symbolism. "It will be set actually beside salt water," William D'Arcy Ryan, one of the fair's planners, had declared in 1913, "on the ultimate frontier of the race's march eastward from its cradle in Asia, on the final coast where only the sea intervenes between it and what the surveyors call 'the point of commencement.'" Uniting the oceans in Panama, building a city on a restless fault line--progress obeyed no frontiers. One local reporter called the expo nothing less than "the height of the tide of modern civilization," like the canal itself "an idea that was really a product of the consciousness of the whole West." The Palace of Machinery and the Palace of Fine Arts occupied opposite edges of the grounds, symbolizing the expo's exhaustive celebration of science and industry, art and culture. Measuring 1,000 feet long and 136 feet high, and containing a fully functioning industrial plant, the Palace of Machinery was the world's largest building forged from wood and steel. The expo's largest exhibit, built by U.S. Steel, followed the path of iron ore as it was wrested from the mines and forged into steel. When fairgoers grew tired of the relentless march of progress, they could retire to the Joy Zone, site of all manner of amusements, including the Bowls of Joy, a terrifying attraction that launched riders around the inner surface of two enormous cones. The Joy Zone also pointedly contained many of the exhibits devoted to non-Western cultures, such as the Mysterious Orient. The expo felt global in scope during the day, but thanks to Ryan, the director of General Electric's illumination lab, it was otherworldly at night. Angled lights concealed in foliage threw beams off the palaces at skewed angles. Submerged lights made the pools on the Court of the Universe glow an eerie green, while statues of the "rising sun" and the "setting sun" were lit on top of sixty-foot poles. The fountains of the Court of the Ages were adorned with serpents that appeared to spit green steam. Out in the bay, abattalion of U.S. Marines operated the Scintillator: forty-eight searchlights in seven different colors that shone through a veil of steam created by an actual locomotive, imitating the aurora borealis in the sky above the city. The real center of light was the Tower of Jewels, hung with 102,000 actual jewels, barely visible during the day but breathtaking at night. These Novagems--cut glass in ruby, emerald, white, pink, purple, and aquamarine--swung in the breeze from the bay, refracting the beams of strategically placed lights. Each night, crowds gathered to witness "the burning of the Tower." Red lights mixed with fires lit along the colonnades to make the metal structure look like it was melting, a graphic reminder of the city that burned in 1906. The Panama-Pacific Expo took over San Francisco for ten months in 1915, and then simply vanished. Every structure was razed, except for the Palace of Fine Arts and its weird staircases to nowhere. The demolition was the expo's final symbolic act, the planners' ultimate demonstration that the fair was barely corporeal, more like the hallucinatory product of a collective dream. (William Saroyan, who visited the fair as a child, remembered it as "a place that could not possibly be real.") During those ten months, 18 million people visited the expo. They came not just to see palaces and exhibits but also to catch appearances by famous Americans. William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, and George Washington Goethals--the famous "canal genius" who oversaw the work in Panama--attracted huge crowds, but one man outdrew them all. He was the man without whom those Novagems might have twisted in a dark night, "a white-haired man of peace," in the gushing words of the San Francisco Chronicle, "epitomizing more in industrial achievement than any other in the world's history."  
 
It was billed as Edison Day--Thursday, October 21--a celebration of the thirty-sixth anniversary of Thomas Alva Edison's invention of the incandescent lamp. By 1:30 in the afternoon, ninety minutes before Edison was to be honored in Festival Hall (home of the world's second-largest pipe organ), its 4,000 seats were filled, leaving 10,000 people stranded in the streets outside. "From the day that he first made an incandescent lamp glow," Charles Moore announced from the stage, "his name has been stamped on history'spages in a plane by himself. It is fitting that he should come here and we should burn incense to him." As Moore read a series of telegrammed tributes, Edison, by this point in his life nearly completely deaf, whispered to his wife, "I'm glad I can't hear him. I'd feel so foolish." When Moore finished speaking, it was time for Edison to receive an honorary medal. As his wife attempted to pull stray threads off his coat, Edison rose and walked slowly to the stage, trailed by Thomas Insull, his secretary. The crowd was surprised to discover that Edison had nothing to say to them. That had been one of his conditions for participating in this tribute, that he not have to say a word. Instead, he let Insull do the talking. As Insull delivered a speech praising his boss, Edison sat with his head down, occasionally cracking a small smile. When it was over, as he left the hall, a riot nearly broke out, as people jumped over barricades and sprinted past guards to try to shake the old man's hand. (In the confusion, Edison somehow lost his hat.) He was driven to the Court of the Universe, where he was named Man of the Century. Then it was on to the AT&T exhibit at the Palace of Liberal Arts. Back in West Orange, New Jersey, where it was already evening, 162 of Edison's friends and family were gathered at his home, waiting for a connection to San Francisco to be made over the recently completed transcontinental telephone line. Outside, 5,000 tiny lights were strung along the street, and spotlights swept the sky. Edison perked up a little. He'd been looking forward to this part of the day, ever since Miller Reese Hutchinson, the chief engineer at Edison Laboratories, had come up with a novel way to show off the Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph. At 5:15 on the West Coast, 8:15 in the East, the chief engineer of Edison Labs announced from West Orange, "Mr. Edison is on the wire." The guests in West Orange picked up telephone receivers fastened to their chairs and heard Edison confirm the connection. Hutchinson delivered a speech without opening his mouth or tapping a telegraph. He'd prerecorded it onto a Diamond Disc, which he now placed on a phonograph next to his phone. The disc spun and Hutchinson's voice was heard:
We are all distinctly Edison. This address, for instance, is being made to you by your greatest favorite, the Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph. An Edison Granular Carbon Telephone Transmitter istransforming the sound waves into electrical impulses which, after following the tortuous paths of copper beneath rivers and bays, over valleys, deserts, plains and mountains, are being reproduced in San Francisco as articulate speech ... By the invention of your friend, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, speech may now be transmitted all over the world, and through the intermediary of your invention, the Edison Diamond Disc, permanent records are being made of the voices of great statesmen, wonderful human songbirds and the renditions of famous musicians, all of which will be transmitted down the ages to future generations of men and women whose great-grandsires have not, as yet, been bor...

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