Thursday, September 2, 2010

The lady doth protest too much.

I just finished Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner on Ethan's recommendation. It has a good story about the New York City volume wars on the radio, and an interesting bit about the mastering compression in the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Californication (it was so compressed it tended to sound quieter on the radio than other songs).
There are times digital is clearly worse.

Perfecting Sound is otherwise an interesting book with fun anecdotes about the history of recording, marred by the author's seeming need to be hip in what constitutes good audio and bad. His anti-digital stance is just... silly. He wears his prejudices on his sleeve. Digital = bad. Music from the late 70's and all through the 80's = bad. Punk = good. SSL consoles = bad. Etc. OK, I get it.

Milner gives a lot of time to anti-digital audio crusaders. Like all ideologues, they're universally morons. Ideologues are incapable of having sophisticated independent thought -- by definition, somebody's already done their thinking for them. The problem is that with the differences between analog and digital systems there are people in the world who have lots of very interesting things to say about digital audio, analog recording, compression, mastering, and the like. He just didn't interview any of them. Instead he interviewed blowhards like Bob Katz. Heck, if we wanted an arrogant and obnoxious guy who actually knew something he could have talked to Stephen St. Croix (who had an interesting idea about the noise around notes in an analog system and how that differentiates analog from digital).*

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In the late 70's Sony started selling the first practical digital recorder. Here's Millner's take on that:

"Herbert von Karajan, Hitler's favorite conductor and a friend of Sony cofounder Akio Morita, pronounced it the best-sounding audio device he had ever heard."

Oh gimme a break Millner. Your point against digital audio is so weak you have to bring Hitler into it? Nice. How about all the other classical guys who fell in love with digital because it eliminated wow and flutter (which makes violins sound like gooey mush)? I'm sure you could have found at least one Holocaust survivor who was pro-digital. Meh.

And now seriously -- when your lead witness in the anti-digital brigades is some quack psychiatrist who has a "test" which shows that people listening to music from digital sources makes they physically weaker but can't do a double-blind study to prove it? Um? Really? This is where any rational person calls bullshit. Millner, maybe you should re-think your prejudices.

And that's too bad because there's a lot of very interesting things to talk about. How radio evolved. The anti-compression/pro-digital world of 90's classical music, the conservatism of music directors and the evolution of the big radio networks -- all of these things and how they affected sound recording could be very interesting.

What's another thing to get short shrift in the book? Music for film. Anybody who does music-for-picture would say "well duh" but for the longest time film was way ahead of music technically. There's a passing mention about how Fantasia had a multi-track recording made of it back in 1940. That's a big freakin' deal. The "music" world couldn't do that for another 30 years. After that, sure, film spent all its time up 'till the 2000's to catch up with music but that's the way it goes.

To finish up, Milner takes what must be the ultimate in hipster attitudes in proposing that the best recording system for the human voice is the Edison wax cylinder. You'd think that every recording studio in Williamsburg would run out to get one if that were true. Or, if Milner could convince them it were true. I'm just waiting for the next wave of hipper-than-thou groups: "We only record on Edison wax cylinders, man."

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All of which is too bad because he has some interesting things to say about the Lomax recordings of Leadbelly and the history of recording.
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*Although St. Croix died in '06.

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