'Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music' by Greg Milner

And in the beginning, there was no recorded sound. For millennia, music lovers had to play songs for each other in order to hear their favorite music. Because of this, perhaps -- as Greg Milner points out in his exhaustive, technically precise and fascinating survey "Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music" -- the primary objective of the earliest sound recording was verisimilitude.

Hence, the term "high fidelity," created for the listener who might fret about impurities that could arise as a consequence of reproducing music.

"Perfecting Sound Forever" frames the divide between authentic reproduction and the willful manipulation of sound as the 100-year dialectic that has spurred every new technological advancement in recording. Certainly, it has stoked an ongoing debate among fans and industry professionals, like a fractal tape loop.

For Milner, it all starts with Thomas Edison, "the first human being to record a sound and reproduce it." In 1915, he sang "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into a mouthpiece; the sound waves were etched onto wax paper and played back by a stylus moving across a cylinder.

The first phonograph, Edison assured his listeners, was guaranteed to "hear" as sensitively as the human ear. He even went so far as to mount "tone tests," where he filled auditoriums full of credulous listeners who beheld famed contralto Christine Miller mouthing along to a phonograph recording of herself.

These lip-sync performances provided a stark example of how closely Edison's recording aligned itself with live performance, and sure enough, "audible gasps" could be heard from audiences up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Edison had a solid 20-year run with his machine, until a German immigrant named Emil Berliner brought out the Gramophone, which used an electrically recorded disc that sat flat on a turntable. Edison loyalists couldn't fathom how a microphone could capture sound as nature intended.

And it has been ever thus: "The electrical era," Milner notes, "began a process, still being investigated today, of transforming music . . . into 'information' to be manipulated, edited and transformed at will."

"Perfecting Sound Forever" is best when it takes readers on the labyrinthine journey through the tiny warrens and corporate-sponsored laboratories of the inventors, musicians and hustlers who helped advance sound recording. We learn, for example, that microphone technology was perfected at Bell Telephone Labs in the early 1920s, as part of an extensive experiment to improve the reception of telephone transmissions.

Soon after, Bell Labs became the most important incubator of recording technology in the world, aided in no small part by the barnstorming efforts of a classical maestro named Leopold Stokowski.

Milner describes, in compelling detail, how Stokowski became the world's great proselytizer of microphone recording, producing the first commercial electrically recorded performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1925, then enthusiastically cooperating with Bell Labs when it separated the orchestra's high and low frequencies in two separate channels -- the first example of Stereophonic sound.

Another important innovator was Valdemar Poulsen, a Dutch medical school dropout and telephone company employee who liked to perform electromagnetic experiments in his spare time. One day he screamed into a transmitter attached to a wire strung between two walls in his office. When he placed a telephone receiver in a trolley attached to the wire, he heard his own scream -- and discovered the principles that led to magnetic recording tape.

"Magnetic recording taught music how to lie," writes Milner, and indeed it was a super-charger for every subsequent development in recording technology, which is in fact the history of aural manipulation. In less than two decades, Edison's unadulterated cylinders yielded to guitarist Les Paul's fanciful "sound-on-sound" recordings, perfected thanks to his Ampex Model 300 tape recorder.

Paul would record a track, "then add another part by recording onto the second track while simultaneously dubbing his first part onto the second track." It's not hyperbole to state that Paul's commercially successful overdubbing experiments changed the way the world heard itself.

If the first half of "Perfecting Sound Forever" tracks a fitful trajectory toward the apex of analog recording glory, the second half -- at least by Milner's lights -- maps its decline and fall into the garish hyper-realism of digital recording. Cannily using Def Leppard's "Hysteria" as a swan song for the analog era, Milner describes a recording process, overseen by producer Mutt Lange, that was marked by "the desire to fix everything, down to the individual note . . . spending years building a sonic edifice and deciding which bricks to remove, and tailoring the record's sound toward saleability rather than a traditional 'capture the performance' idea of fidelity."

From there, it's a quick decline into the fussy manipulation of the digital realm, a move originally met with stiff resistance by record labels, which feared the format would fall flat.

Milner tends to treat digital technology as a death knell for all that is good and righteous about recorded music, but perhaps the seeds of the record industry's decline were sown in its early resistance to this new format. As online downloading colonizes the market, one can only wonder if the industry that spawned Stokowski and Les Paul will soon go the way of Emil Berliner's Gramophone.

Weingarten is the author of "Station to Station: The History of Rock 'n' Roll on Television."

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