Perfecting Sound Forever

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 November, 2009, 12:00am

Perfecting Sound Forever
by Greg Milner
Faber and Faber

Here is an experiment for rock fans. Find your vinyl version of Led Zeppelin IV, retrieve your old record player from under the bed and listen carefully to When the Levee Breaks. Then play the CD version and listen hard. Finally, convert the CD version to an MP3 file and listen to it on an iPod.

The three versions sound like different recordings. Not only does the quality of the recording change - vinyl and CD both have their merits, while MP3 sound is appalling - the tones, textures and dynamics differ considerably. This is because the different formats radically change the sound.

When the Levee Breaks would sound different again if you could hear it at the original recording session at Headley Grange in 1971. So what is the real, true sound of the song? This idea of true sound lies at the heart of Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, Greg Milner's extensive exploration of the art of recording music.

Since Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, technicians have been searching for the most satisfying way to represent music. Some, like Edison, have sought to reproduce the pure sound of the instruments in isolation. Others have tried to reproduce the sound of the music as heard at a concert - the mythical idea of a 'concert in your living room', complete with approximations of the acoustics and reverberation of a live space.

Still others, like Def Leppard in the 80s, dispensed with the ideas of pure and live sound altogether. Leppard built up their recordings architecturally from minute sonic fragments. Milner's task is to explore which method, if any, is truest to the actual sound of music.

Milner, a journalist, knows a lot about music and happily throws himself into the science, psychology and history of the art form. He has researched the history of recording in depth and interviewed key participants wherever possible. He also proves adept at explaining in non-technical language the science and mechanics of recording.

His love of music means his descriptions and ideas are passionate, so the book is lively rather than dryly academic. Musicians will find it a page-turner, while audiophiles will have no trouble tackling it.

Milner delves far and wide - he even talks about the sonic aspects of the Big Bang - but key moments emerge. Edison invented sound recording in 1877 by recording sound with a stylus on a tinfoil sheet on a cylinder. Discs became popular shortly after with the Victrola system, even though this delivered inferior sound. Electrical recording, which changed sound into voltage and stored it on tape, was invented in Germany and exploited in studios in the US during the 1940s. Digital recording came in the 1980s with the CD, which replaced vinyl. The MP3 arrived a few years ago and sounds worse than just about everything that came before it.

Much of Milner's book will be news to all but the most ardent audiophile. He also brings scientific analysis to the long-running battle between CD fans and lovers of vinyl. If vinyl discs are well made they can deliver a greater tonal range than CDs, he says. And vinyl does sound warmer, as aficionados claim. This is because the recording process produces a soothing 'pink noise' tone in the background. CDs, by contrast, offer clearer reproduction and have lost much of the harshness they used to have.

Milner's search for true sound is inconclusive. Does such a thing even exist? He believes sound may ultimately be a construct that involves the brain of the listener as much as the musical source.