Perfecting Sound Forever: the Story of Recorded Music

The tale of the tape

There's a fascinating clip on YouTube of the group Maroon 5 recording one of their songs, "Makes Me Wonder". Except they're not really recording it and it's not really a song. Instead, a harried engineer is trying to manipulate and assemble a collection of audio files in order to create something that will sound acceptably like a piece of music.

It looks like the exact opposite of fun. Where, you find yourself thinking, is the alchemy of the "performance in a room", or that unique moment of collective inspiration that results in recorded magic? The noun "record", after all, reflects Edison's original vision of the gramophone bringing the exact parameters of a musical performance - until then an achingly ephemeral notion, something that could be heard only once but never captured - into our living rooms. The record was to be a means of preserving the truth rather than tampering with it.

The music industry, however, has never embraced that definition. In reality, records are made the same way cars are built - piece by piece, laboriously, leaning heavily on the latest technology. Whether it's Maroon 5 or a supposedly more "organic" artist such as Tom Waits, precious little is left to chance. There is no pure source. We are hearing a carefully constructed artifice - and we always have been.

One of the joys of the American music writer Greg Milner's history of recorded music lies in debunking the rather tedious myth of a halcyon age when records were somehow "authentic". At its heart, Perfecting Sound Forever is an anti-nostalgia tract, a ritual smashing of rose-tinted glasses. Almost since its inception, the recording industry has, given the opportunity, sought not to preserve reality but to improve upon it.

As early as 1922, Edison's very first commercial rival, Victor, was offering a gramophone with a "bright, artificial" sound that acknowledged the ambience in the room instead of Edison's natural "dead" tone. This aesthetic tussle has been played out time and time again over the ensuing 90 years.

Milner guides us - not always seamlessly - through acoustic and electric, analogue and digital, from wax and tape to vinyl, CD and MP3, conveying how changing recording techniques have directly shaped popular tastes. Compare the dry, "presence"-less records of the 1970s to the cavernous, drum-led monoliths of the 1980s, or consider the ultra-stylised influence of Pro Tools, which in a decade has laid waste to expensive recording studios, and ensured that the bass drum sound you hear on most modern rock records is more likely to come from a triggered sample than from a drummer's right foot.

Throughout, Milner finds entertaining ways of hammering home his central point: nothing we are hearing is real. As soon as you capture sound, its very essence alters. Once tape arrived as the primary means of recording sound in the 1940s, the game was up. "Magnetic recording", says Milner, "taught music how to lie", offering limitless opportunities for editing and multi-tracking. Performances could be cut, reshaped, augmented. It was one of several seismic shifts, each allowing huge strides forward in artistry, though arguably as many steps back in aural and emotional clarity. Milner has some fun with this. He test-drives the world's most expensive turntable, at $95,000 essentially the last word in audio porn. This is what it now takes, apparently, to make a record sound like a "record".

Perfecting Sound Forever could easily have been a dry and overly technical fable (very occasionally it is: there is only so much you can do with the words "analogue", "digital" and "sound wave"), but Milner writes with knowledge, wit and enthusiasm, never losing sight of his quarry: music, and how and why it does what it does. He is especially good on the psychology of recording, deftly conveying the way in which an artist's awareness of his or her recorded self is inevitably corrupting but also hugely liberating. Muddy Waters never knew how good he was until he heard himself played back; more obviously, the Beatles would have been a vastly different band had they never realised they could use the Abbey Road studios as an instrument.

To be inspired by the idea of one's musical potential rather than limited by the reality - this is the great gift that recording has given to music-makers. It has made possible everything save the one thing Edison originally craved: to deliver the absolute truth of a performance. While preserving sound for ever, recorded music cannot help but distort the very moment it seeks to capture. It lies to us. Does it matter? There's no audio vérité in Phil Spector's euphoric Wall of Sound, nor in Chic's "Le Freak", nor in Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love", but each communicates an overpowering emotional truth. There is something to celebrate in the notion that most great music never actually happened in real time; that it is, as perhaps we suspected all along, attributable only to a kind of strange magic.

Graeme Thomson is the author of "I Shot a Man in Reno" (Continuum, £9.99)