In the moment when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, music began a trajectory of change that Edison himself never imagined. From recording the sounds of live performances for later playback, a process in which “fidelity” was key, to today’s recording studio where tracks are sliced, diced, and spliced, distorted and transformed, purified and re-processed, and where the recording engineer creates music as much as he records it – where fidelity to a live performance is no longer an issue because there is no single live performance to be true to – this journey of a hundred and thirty-odd years has gone some unexpected places indeed. Greg Milner gives us in Perfecting Sound Forever: The Story of Recorded Music a history of that transformation. On the way, his narrative itself diverts into some interesting and unexpected by-ways. For example, he reveals the experiments or “fidelity tests” performed with a supposedly live performance before a live audience in which the performer walked off stage while the music continued to play, and the audience appeared astonished to discover that they had been listening to something recorded.
From recording music to making it in the studio
Readers interested in the history of music will also appreciate some of the side-trips Miller goes on in the context of music recording. But the main story is the interaction of recording with music itself and the transformation in popular music as recording has become an art form. By necessity, Miller neglects modern jazz and classical recording in which the new sound techniques have a less prominent place, but his revelations about the impact of recording technology on other music are eye-opening. Perfecting Sound Forever includes interviews with important figures in the field of sound engineering and firsthand accounts of Miller’s own experiences, such as his exploration of an industry-standard listening test facility for digital compression. The technical detail is profound and the treatment of the way that recording technology has impacted the evolution of music itself thoughtful and thought-provoking.