Books on music: implications of recording

Recordings have always been my medium of choice for experiencing music: a little rough math tells me that I've heard roughly one new (at least to me) album every single day for the last 20 years.  When you grow up in a small Midwestern town and become obsessed with music, recordings are largely your only option for musical experiences--not many folks stopped even remotely close to my hometown on tours.  Lack of population density affected my own musical efforts as well.  In my early days of wanting to start bands, I never found enough like-minded musicians to start proper bands.  Instead, I wrote music myself, and recorded it either alone or with two or three friends.  Though we found the means to perform a few times, most of our efforts were purely recordings, which my dear friend Stu & I would often drive around and listen to in his car for hours on end.

In college and beyond, I've had many more opportunities to play music with others, and I've had the chance to see lots of my favorite composers/bands perform in the flesh.  But old habits die hard, or never die, probably, and I still prefer experiencing music through recordings.  I can listen repeatedly, create my own conditions for listening, make quick references to other recordings, no long lines, etc etc etc.

As a person who grew up in a world of recordings, I never thought much of the cultural or philosophical implications of recordings versus other forms of sharing music, from live performance to "amateur" home performances, sheet music, player pianos, and so on.  Intellectually, I was aware of some of the cultural implications, but I didn't "feel" them myself and didn't care to give the issue much thought.  I imagine this is how the youngest generation today will feel about how the internet is integrated into our society.  I'm just old enough to have lived a touch of grown-up time on both sides of that line, and I think I've given that issue more thought simply because I've personally experienced the positives and negatives on both sides.

I remember reading David Byrne's mini-review of Capturing Sound a few years ago, and I remember finding the notion that post-recording-era classical performances became a lot more vibrato oriented kind of interesting.  But the rest of the book sounded kind of obvious, and I never checked it out.  For some reason, though, I've read two books on the general topic of recordings lately, and noticed that there are another dozen or so on the market.  Here's a little mini-review of the two I read, along with some of my own brief thoughts on the matter(s).

Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner is a fairly large and comprehensive tome that seems to cover most of the same issues Byrne mentions from the earlier Capturing Sound by Mark Katz.  And honestly, I wouldn't recommend it.  Read Byrne's blog post linked above, and I think he gets into enough depth about the issues involved to satisfy most folks' need for information in this area.  You'll find discussion of acoustic versus electric recording, analog versus digital, the implications of various media formats for the marketplace (different cylinder and record speeds holding different durations of sound, etc), sampling, the implications of early multitrack recording, the implications of non-linear digital recording and editing, and so on.  Maybe this stuff would be interesting to somebody who hasn't used a lot of these devices firsthand, but the philosophical implications show up at a very practical level when you're problem-solving during a recording session yourself.

Even for people who haven't used recording devices and might find these issues new and interesting, I'd still have reservations recommending this book, because I found what I'd consider to be too many factual errors for a book of this size and scope.  I don't want to turn this into a detailed scholarly critique of the book, but here's a few things off the top of my head that I'm pretty sure are inaccurate in this book:

--p. 64 Stokowski and sticking a mic in the bell of a french horn: I doubt Stokowski specifically ever did this.  He may have been manipulating his mixes, but the horn is by design a distant-sounding instrument whose bell points away from the audience.  It's a bad analogy, in my opinion.  Mentioning literally any other instrument except the horn would have made the point without heading into sketchy unmusical territory.

--p. 106 the idea that there is no physical contact between a recording head and the tape: I've used many tape-based devices in my life, and I still work with recording/duplicating cassettes on a daily basis, and I can guarantee you that there is plenty of physical contact between recording heads and tape.

--pp. 134-135 lots of mentions of the creation of the 33 1/3 RPM format for records: in all of this talk, I couldn't help but notice that there was no mention of the actual origin of the 33 1/3 format.  RCA may have marketed the Vitaphone in 1931, but the American Foundation for the Blind and the Braille Institute of America had been working on the 33 1/3 format in the late 20s.  Coincidentally, Columbia finally started successfully marketing LPs of that speed in the mid 40s, and in the late 60s talking book records had gone all the way down to 8 1/3 RPM for maximum data on each record.

--p. 151 Sun Studios slap-back echo: Having heard a lot of those Sun records, I can't imagine that they were splitting a signal between consoles to get that sound.  It's just tape echo, which DOES require tape in the 2nd machine contrary to what this passage details.

--p. 238 phase rotation: I don't think phase rotation is used to "smooth out" the signal.  My understanding is that radio stations were simply using it to make things louder.  Phase rotation is used on television commercials for the same reason, and that's why it often seems that the sound on a TV gets louder during commercial breaks.  But on recordings that are already compressed/limited to the max, the phase rotation just makes things get quieter via "inversion" as he later details on p. 283.

--p. 297 Reason: To my way of thinking, Reason isn't really a true DAW.  It's a softsynth/sequencer that isn't able to track "real" instruments by itself.  Some of the definitions in this section get a little sketchy, but to my mind the ability to sample tiny passages of real audio doesn't make a device into a true DAW that can act as a normal recording device in addition to various nonlinear editing possibilities.

--p. 330ish DAWs: This information is generally good and interesting, but I noticed the lack of coverage of the many small workstation DAWs that were marketed to the home recording community in the late 90s and early 00s.  Most of the old analog recording device manufacturers made these things as the evolutionary step between cassette multitracks and computers, and some still do: Fostex, Tascam, Roland, Yamaha, Kawai, and so on.  It might not have been a long period in recording history, but I know a LOT of records that started life on devices like the Yamaha AW4416 or the Roland VS2480.

--p. 344 Synclavier: Mike Thorne is not "the first--and only--musician to buy the Synclavier I." Frank Zappa purchased and made extensive use of the Synclavier I throughout the 80s, using it in both his "pop" and "serious" compositions including his final magnum opus, "Civilization Phaze III."

All minor quibbles, perhaps, but a few of them like the slapback echo (mis)information make me pretty skeptical that this book was thoroughly researched and/or edited.  To mention something positive, I do like the writing style.  Milner makes the timeline of "recorded history" read like a series of fun challenges.  It's not a dry, technical book.  And maybe some of those debatable technical points could be forgiven in light of that.

I had no technical issues whatsoever with Evan Eisenberg's The Recording Angel, and I would happily recommend this book.  Originally published in 1987, it's primarily about the various philosophical and social implications of consuming recorded music.  It's not media-specific, and it's written at the end of the vinyl era--CDs are barely mentioned.  The focus is on people listening to records, collecting them, building elaborate hi-fi systems, etc, and how these folks relate to recordings.  It's also worth noting that there is a heavy emphasis on classical recordings--jazz is mentioned infrequently, and pop music is hardly mentioned at all.  If you're looking for someone to analyze your obsessions over Phil Collins records, this won't be the place to look (but trust me, it's the hair).  That limitation aside, though, this book is a collection of great conversations among music (and recording) lovers, all of whom have insightful things to say about music-as-object through recordings.  The last few chapters of the book expand the scope to more general philosophical issues related to the connections between humanity and music, recorded or otherwise.  At times it's dense, but I found every bit of the density to be worth reading.

A few observations of my own about recordings and our culture:

I suppose it's understandable that this issue doesn't come up directly in books about recordings, but I think it's useful to look at the history of the player piano and how it developed around roughly the same time as commercial recordings.  One of my favorite novelists, William Gaddis, was at times consumed with documenting how the player piano's rise and fall heralded the beginning of the age of mechanical reproduction, the beginning of information coding (the punched piano rolls match the way early computers worked), and a sort of end of the artist as the focal point of art, replaced by either physical consumables of art works or programmatic dissemination of art via radio and later technologies.  You can look into his ideas yourself either via his final novel(la) Agape Agape, or through several essays related to the matter in his Rush for Second Place.

Concerning both the player piano and making recordings, many of my favorite composers/musicians are folks who found ways to use aspects of evolving technology to make entirely new kinds of music that wouldn't have been possible before.  Conlon Nancarrow's player piano music is absolutely stunning and couldn't exist without the player piano.  And I wouldn't know where to begin counting the many people whose musical ideas grew along with evolving recording technologies.  A few of them were mentioned in these books, like Les Paul's "sound on sound" approach and various early "phonography" works made of multitrack-based compositions assembled in recording studios.  And sampling-based music is everywhere now, in almost every idiom of popular music and also in classical/academic music.  As I mentioned above, growing up in a world already full of recordings, many of which already took advantage of these possibilities, makes some of these implications fairly obvious, the epiphanies of the past becoming the presuppositions of today.

When I read about the effects of recording on society, either in these books or through other essays or online discussions, I've noticed that folks tend to focus on the perceived negative aspects.  There is much more to it, though. The "isolation aspect" of these new-ish technologies waxes and wanes.  CD sales are plunging as the x/y gen folks begin to age out of the music-artifact buying, and the millenials "appropriate" the music they want online for free. 

Are some isolated with their iPods? Perhaps at times. But another part of the equation is that "the kids" and some of us older folks are listening to more music than previous generations by volume, a more diverse selection of music in terms of variety, have begun to usurp the entertainment industries' marketing attempts toward them by simply communicating directly with one another about things they find and like, and seem to be attending live performance events at every opportunity. As music-artifact sales plummet, concert attendance seems to be going in the opposite direction (or at least I remember reading a lot to that effect just before our recent recession took hold). 

Maybe the kids don't understand what's going on viscerally, but I have a suspicion: as their forms of communication become more heavily mediated, they are on some level biologically compelled to split the difference, making up for the isolation of the media at hand by taking the chance to see the artists they've discovered in person (which is, of course, the least-mediated way to consume art). Ditto for live theatre, meetups, flash mobs, etc. 16 to 30-year-olds are back in the streets. Forgive them the ear buds.

You can use technology to improve your life or to hinder it. The choice is mostly your own. I have an iPod full of longer-form music that I listen to on my lunches as I walk around a downtown area. It's an important part of my day, and it leaves my evenings open to compose and perform, instead of feeling as though I'm disconnected from the musical world around me and need to take time out for more listening.  But sometimes I go though phases where I stop using it, or I don't listen to many recordings at all, and that's okay in its time, too.

Standardized media formats don't necessarily lead to standardized consumption.  The youngest generations are intuitively more media-literate than older generations, and they often see through marketing hype and find and share things they want much more smoothly amongst themselves in person or through social media interactions. The unique change that seems to be most dominant in the millenials is that they don't consider intellectual property to be so fiercely an independently-owned asset as generations before. They share the work of others freely, which may irritate some artists, but consider too that they modify/edit/mashup/build upon and innovate, too, with great fluidity.  The implications of this are beyond wildest dreams for the arts: LautrĂ©amont/Ducasse may one day get their wish in "poetry should be made by all." If art can be consumed by all more or less equally, poetry might indeed follow. I find this exhilarating!

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