Music and technology journalist Milner (co-author: Metallica: This Monster Lives, 2004) unravels the expansive saga of documented sound.
The author begins in the late 19th century, tracing the evolution from Edison’s invention of the phonograph to the contemporary use of digital music files. Broad in scope and steeped in detail, the book strikes a mostly well-maintained balance between the history of the technological development of recordings and the more approachable accounts of the people and events surrounding it. This occasionally makes for an erratic read—one chapter begins with some humorous notes on the absurd production and mixing process for Def Leppard’s Hysteria, then plunges into a discussion of 12-inch LPs versus 7-inch singles. Yet Milner provides insightful commentary and possesses a solid grasp of pacing and a light touch with the technical aspects. Only in the final chapter, which examines remixing and MP3 encoding, does the author get bogged down in dry, esoteric passages. Milner especially excels at revealing the human side of each story. In particular, his portrayal of American folk-music collectors John and Allan Lomax and their relationship with the legendary Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter provides a fascinating window into the early days of musical documentation. The account of embattled New York radio stations WPLJ and Z-100 is a comical narrative of the wars to increase volume on the air, and it signals an unfortunate development in the way we hear broadcast songs today. This loudness issue is central to the later chapters—specifically in the author’s discussion of the mastering of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication, an album so compressed that much of its dynamic range is lost. Milner’s examination of several contemporary songs, from such diverse bands as Massive Attack and Black-Eyed Peas, imparts an unsettling image of current production techniques.
While the considerable breadth and length may stave off casual listeners, audiophiles will be rewarded.