Wry exploration of the social meanings behind vintage and modern audio technologies.
Krukowski, a founding member of Galaxie 500 and recipient of fellowships from the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation and Harvard University’s Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society, comfortably discusses both rarefied aesthetic theories and gritty rocker realities. Arguing that the promise of constant digital progress as represented by Moore’s law has promoted acceptance of mediocrity, he notes, “you needn’t be an audiophile snob to conclude that today’s MP3 downloads, or their streaming counterparts, sound worse than 1965’s LPs—MP3s are designed to sound worse.” The book is less a study of older formats’ current popularity and more a survey of the struggles between permanence and ephemera, as well as artists’ visions and the consumer marketplace, playing out over decades of technological and industry changes. Krukowski turns the basic dichotomy of audio engineering, the ratio of signal to noise, into a complex metaphor for the loss of history and ingenuity represented by the replacement of analog recording and culture with digital media. He makes this argument via a discursive, in-depth structure in seven chapters labeled after phenomena obsessed over by audiophiles. In “Headspace,” he links so-called headphone records like Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” (and our current plugged-in public lives) to the disdain initially directed toward stereo recording: “stereo limits the perfect place for listening to a space big enough for only one at a time.” In “Proximity Effect,” Krukowski considers the vanished world of POTS, or “plain old telephone service.” By replacing a massive yet technologically simple network with smartphones, the nature of audible communication is changed, and “communicating distance itself becomes a challenge.” Elsewhere, the author considers the unintended consequences of digital innovation, from the “loudness wars” in studio engineering to the controversies around downloading: “is music free? That simple question provoked by Napster still seems unanswered.”
Krukowski’s writing is witty and generally accessible, though his detours into recording minutiae and avant-garde ideas about sound and art may lose some readers.