Every time you reproduce a piece of art
you remove some of its aura & that’s why
your mix-tape didn’t impress me much,
it was so fucking aura-less
—Elisa Gabbert, “Blogpoem after Walter Benjamin”
“Talking machines and phonograph records,” wrote Theodor Adorno in his 1927 essay “The Curves of the Needle” (slightly revised in 1965), “seem to have suffered the same historical fate as that which once befell photographs: the transition from artisanal to industrial production transforms not only the technology of distribution but also that which is distributed. . . . Artisanal compensations for the substantive loss of quality are at odds with the real economic situation.”
Eighty-two years later, we might claim that phonograph records, a once-ubiquitous industrial medium for the mass transmission of music into the private home—put out, we say, by the record industry, as we still refer to it—have again become something of an artisanal product (although, in our current cultural moment, what isn’t marketed as artisanal?).
Industrial economies of scale have shifted so much that most vinyl pressing plants are long shuttered, and yet, in a familiar postmillennial narrative, a purist has opened Brooklyn Phono, a relatively new pressing plant that has received the same sort of press coverage as that borough’s locavore and slow-food restaurants, artisanal cheese-makers, nouveau speakeasies, and boutique bicycle frame builders. Robert Baird, in the December 2008 issue of Stereophile, describes this purist: “Brooklyn Phono’s proprietor, Thomas Bernich, with his nearly shaved head, thick oversized glasses, spattered painter’s pants, and flip-flops . . . [is] clearly a representative example of the obsessive small businessmen, quality freaks, and oddballs who have powered vinyl’s new life.”
Those same economies of scale, despite vinyl’s recent annual sales growth—according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), there was a 46 percent increase in vinyl LP and EP sales in the U.S. market from 2006 to 2007, and a 147.7 percent increase in sales from 2007 to 2008, although the best-selling LP of 2008, Radiohead’s In Rainbows, still sold fewer than 30,000 copies—mean that many vinyl records are pressed in editions of as few as five hundred copies; some records’ sleeves and jackets are handmade or otherwise customized (some months back I bought a seven-inch single with a sleeve that had been hand-sheathed in grip tape, the sandpaperlike stuff used for traction on skateboard decks), or made by outdated mechanical processes (such as letterpress or screen-printing) rather than industrial processes; all of this attention to packaging is designed to convey the idea that the record has become an artifact rather than just another throwaway consumer good. In New Zealand, Peter King has for years now been turning out individually lathe-cut polycarbonate records, each one inscribed by a cutting needle in real time rather than stamped from a master plate; each record released in his tiny pressings (generally about a hundred copies each, but sometimes as few as twenty) is indeed a unique work of art, since no two are exact duplicates.
We could read vinyl’s renaissance—since the declarations of its obsolescence when the compact disc was introduced to the marketplace—as part of a cultural nostalgia for products of perceived quality and with the status of the limited edition, or for a product that, perhaps because it has the appearance of having been redeemed from some dustbin of history, or because so many of its purveyors are do-it-yourselfers such as Thomas Bernich, has acquired the character of the handmade despite its origins as a petroleum commodity of the industrial age. Or, as Charles Bernstein puts it, in his essay “Frames of Reference”: “Oddly, in the electronic age, mechanical reproduction takes on the aura that handcraft had in the mechanical age; witness the antique shop fetish for old photographs or old labels, which when they first appeared seemed free of this type of nostalgia (much as xerox copies are free of any such aura at the present time).”
After invoking the Big Bang (and Guglielmo Marconi’s “epiphany” that “no sound ever dies. It just decays beyond the point that we can detect it with our ears,” an idea that, we’re told, “survives as a low-level urban legend, bandied about in dorm rooms and Internet forums”), Greg Milner offers us, in his meticulously-researched—and, at times, engaging-to-the-point-of exhaustion—book, Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music (Faber & Faber, 2009), a detailed account of how sound has been recorded, shaped, reconstructed, marketed, received, theorized, and debated as it has evolved from tinfoil and wax paper to “digital waveforms on a computer screen . . . [movable] with the click of a mouse.”
Milner describes technological advances in sound recording not only as part of a “fundamentally quixotic” attempt at “perfection” but also as driven by obsessive, idiosyncratic personalities—from Edison and his devotion to the cylinder instead of the disc (culminating in his development of the “Blue Amberol” cylinder, “a bright blue celluloid surface wrapped around plaster of paris,” even as his market share dwindled to “2 percent of the industry total”); to culturally prescient composer Leopold Stokowski, who wanted recorded music to be louder, who married it to visuals (in Walt Disney’s Fantasia), and who embraced stereophony “to correspond,” as he wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1935, “to our method of hearing with two ears and [to] give us the tonal spaciousness and beauty of sound that make music so satisfying in a large and well-planned auditorium”; to Public Enemy’s Hank Shocklee, who, with an early digital sampler, “stretched time” by “play[ing] [a] record at 45 rpm, rather than 33 1/3—thereby fitting a bigger block of sound into [the sampler’s capacity of] 2.5 seconds.” As much as (or more than) the desire for “perfect” sound, Milner suggests, these originals and their attempts to realize their own specific ideas about how recorded music should sound were responsible for many of the changes in how we’ve heard music since Edison; indeed, as Milner points out in his book’s “Intro,” the $90,000 Caliburn turntable built by Continuum Audio Labs (part of a “system with a total value of more than $200,000”) that he listens to at the home of Stereophile magazine writer Michael Fremer is simply an extreme refinement of Edison’s basic technology. Milner shows how, at each step of the evolution (and devolution) of sound recording technologies and equipment, despite the industry’s ever-advancing claims of fidelity and accuracy, we are still no closer than Marconi to capturing a “real” sound—the very idea of which, Milner writes, is impossible:
Tape’s capacity for editing spelled the end of the quaint notion that recordings were only linear recordings of real-time events. Multitracking destroyed the idea that recordings documented actual performances. The creative use of multitracking—all the myriad effects you could apply to individual tracks—ended the idea that the sound of recordings bore any relation to a real-world event. . . . In the digital age, playback technology began to deviate from the high-fidelity arc of progress. CDs arrived and “perfect sound forever” became the new “high fidelity”—the buzzword of the age. But the only ways in which CDs were undeniably better than records were the lack of surface noise and the dynamic range. . . . [T]he proliferation of iPods means that much of the music we hear is literally compressed, into digital formats such as MP3 and AAC. Much of it is heard through cheap ear-bud headphones or small, tinny computer speakers. . . . Digidesign cofounder Peter Gotcher, whose company gave the world Pro Tools, [claims that] “. . . the generation coming up may never own a stereo.”
More than anything, Milner’s book charts our changing relationship with the idea of the real as that idea has taken form in the sound of the music we listen to every day and the machines we’ve made to record and replay it.
My earliest home recordings were live, direct-to-tape. In a ritual common to my generation, but which now must seem unfathomably absurd to anyone under the age of thirty, I would hold my portable cassette recorder to the speaker of a portable radio and record the songs the DJ was playing. While some friends captured huge swaths of a DJ’s set, letting the tape run until it was full, I was an editor from the beginning, waiting patiently for a specific song to come on, then hurriedly pressing buttons and hoping the DJ didn’t talk over too much of the song’s introduction or fade its ending into another song’s beginning—especially one I didn’t like, since that combination would now become part of my own version of the song, the same way, hearing a song today that was once recorded for me on a mix-tape, I still hear ghost sequences of songs following it. Fidelity was irrelevant, given the cheapness of both the source and the recording devices, and given the media: FM radio and cassette. As Milner writes of the earliest phonograph Edison created, the uses imagined for this machine “emphasized the act of preserving information, with little regard to how that information actually sounded. Fidelity wasn’t the goal; permanence was.” And certainly what mattered to me as I taped music from the airwaves was what I might learn from those songs—about music as pop-cultural entry point and schoolyard currency, or about myself as auditor.
I graduated to a tapedeck by junior high school, and, like the engineers at the warring New York radio stations z-100 and wplj that figure in one of Milner’s narratives, I would always crank up the line-level adjustment bars to flirt with 0 db—where the bars turned from blue to red—so that the mix-tapes I made sounded as loud as possible when played back. (I cranked up the treble and bass tone controls, too, failing to realize that these were meant to correct or compensate for poor recordings, not to augment my own; the first amplifier I bought without tone controls stuck me as somewhat inconceivable, disempowering, since I was now beholden to someone else’s vision of how a record should sound.)
On a shelf in my closet, along with other vestiges of former lives, are several shrink-wrapped Maxell cassette tapes that I’ve been carrying around with me through at least three moves—I likely purchased them as part of a ten-pack brick of cassettes such as I once commonly saw at every record shop, electronics store, or CVS pharmacy, even into the first years of the twenty-first century, at which point they became a little rarer, and were often heavily discounted. In 2003 I bought a professional-grade CD-R recorder and connected it to my stereo system—and while it coexisted with my old tapedeck for a while, I eventually ran out of rack space, boxed up the tapedeck, and carried it down to the basement. Inveterate mix-tape makers like me used to buy cassettes in bricks for convenience, and I’d routinely send friends several cassettes at a time. These last few reminders of my mix-taping life seem too valuable simply to throw away, even though I doubt I’ll hook up my tapedeck again anytime soon, if ever.
For a few years, my friend Will and I allowed media self-consciousness to creep into our tape-swapping, wondering aloud which tape each of us made for the other would be the last. On November 20, 2001 (I delete old e-mail as often as I throw away old cassettes), a message from Will notes the arrival of my latest “tapes . . . [which] will provide the soundtrack for our drive to and from the San Juans over the holiday,” but continues in a more ominous vein: “And I am working on a CD for you.” By February of 2002, Will was referencing his “CD-R[,] . . . a Philips. It hasn’t gotten much use this year, partly because it was malfunctioning, and partly because my G4 at work has a CD burner in it. The iTunes software makes it pretty fun and easy to design and burn CDs. The problem is, you have to get the music into the computer first.” In 2004, Will gave me Mix-Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, an anthology of various musicians’ ruminations on mix-tapes come and gone, with reproductions of doodled-on J-cards listing hipster songs of the 1970s and ’80s, though at that point the gift was, like the anthology itself, mostly an act of nostalgia.
Milner’s book is put together in a manner analogous to the multitrack recording techniques he spends the second half of the book describing (Les Paul’s “painstaking” layerings of “sound on sound,” the development of the Solid State Logic studio console and its “automated mixing capability”); throughout its pages, narratives parallel each other, emerge and decay, overlap, and recur. While the book pursues a chronological sequence, time in its pages is fluid, and Milner ranges through it easily to edit and amplify earlier discussions. If multitrack recording is the blending of diverse sounds into a single track, then one of the strengths of Perfecting Sound Forever is in the way Milner has followed his argument into various corners of musical taste to unite the disparate. The book thrives on the anecdote as much as on the description of technological process, and throughout its pages we’re treated to countless engaging moments: a description of the earliest magnetic tape, made of steel and running “at a crisp 1.5 meters per second, making it akin to a running band saw. BBC engineers operated their machine from a cage”; the story of how “a former electronics repairman in Jamaica named Osbourne Ruddock, known to most of the world as King Tubby,” became, as a reggae producer, responsible for the development that “mixing (and editing), as opposed to recording (and letting it be), is the dominant mode of music today”; a “parable” about Lead Belly and the Lomaxes—including an account of Lead Belly’s performance at an early Modern Language Association annual conference (John Lomax “was amused to see that ‘Bryn Mawr intellectuals in evening dress listened curiously to “Dicklicker’s Holler” and “Whoa, Back, Buck!”’”); an explanation of the origin of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which “began as a demo banged out on keyboards and recorded onto a boom box,” but, “[b]ecause [the demo] was saved in Pro Tools, . . . became the literal seed of the song”; a treatise on Def Leppard’s fear that, no matter how “honest” one of their studio recordings sounded, “‘to a kid in Boise, Idaho, it sounds out of tune’”; the testimony of John Diamond, M.D., who believes that “listening to digital audio is . . . a violent act” and offers a test to prove it; and a report on the consequences of the 1980s “Loudness War” waged by programming directors and engineers for New York radio stations WPLJ (“‘Anytime you turned on WPLJ, it just had to pour out of the radio’”) and z-100 (“‘I wanted it raw, powerful, and immediately identifiable. When somebody hit that place on the dial, I wanted them to say, “Holy crap, what is that?”’”).
The music Milner treats ranges from classical to punk, from the Beatles to the Red Hot Chili Peppers; no style or genre is elevated over any other. And the succession of anecdotes suggests that such a detailed history required the pursuit of countless opinions and memories, rescuing them from the silence into which they would otherwise decay. Milner treats all of his subjects with an infectious enthusiasm that led me, at least, to track down and purchase one of the records he discusses (Cook Laboratories’ Sounds of the Ionosphere LP).
While the tagline “Is it live, or is it Memorex?” (and Ella Fitzgerald’s glass-shattering voice) is more memorable than “Maxell: it’s worth it,” no one who came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s can forget the image accompanying the latter advertisement: the dude getting blown, g-force style, into his Le Corbusier armchair, listening to heavy metal, we presumed, despite his martini and the tie flipped over his shoulder by the sonic gale. (In the television commercial that followed the print ad, the music was Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” though the martini was stepped down to a glass of white wine.) The ad—blown up to poster-size, I saw it displayed on the bedroom walls of my pubescent friends—reveals the “pleasures” of “[m]odern bachelorhood, with its staunchly defiant pose of individuality,” as David Colman has written in the New York Times: “Awesome speakers, a big television, hard liquor and a manly leather chair are foremost among them. En masse, they can induce the manly fugue state famously illustrated by the 1980 Maxell audiotape ad.”
The narrative of hi-fi, of the worthwhile pursuit of excellent sound, is, to hear self-professed audiophiles—or Milner—tell it, one of endless disappointment, of format wars in which media offering better sound quality inevitably lose to those that are cheaper or perceived as more convenient by most consumers, of money spent chasing some unquestionable goal of perfection, and of a great deal of buyer’s remorse (cruise the classified listings of the audiophile website Audiogon.com, where, in the active stereo equipment marketplace, every “minor scratch” is measured in millimeters, photographed beside a coin for scale, and described in excruciating detail—e.g., a turntable rated 9/10 “may show slight wear where the cover is lifted, but no visible wear on the top of the cover, or the plinth. The headshell should have no scratches from cartridge mounting”).
Milner’s history of hi-fi’s golden era offers some of the most absurd and enjoyable evidence of the mania of those of us who spend too much time thinking about music, the way it sounds, and the equipment that will make it sound “better”:
Life published a glossary of hi-fi terms like “golden ear”; told stories of cops getting called to homes because of noise complaints, and staying when they found the source of the “noise” was a high-class hi-fi . . .
On the heels of high fidelity, the word “audiophile” entered the parlance, describing the men (always men; the “hi-fi widow” was a much-lamented figure) whose obsessive commitment to high fidelity seemed to preclude any possibility of actually enjoying their hi-fis. . . . In “The Ultimate Fi,” a short story published in The Atlantic Monthly, a hi-fi obsessive removes everything in the house that could be a potential sound absorbent—which is to say, everything in the house, save for a rug . . .
It could be difficult to separate satire from reality. . . . Dr. Henry Angus Bowes, clinical director of psychiatry at Sainte Anne’s Hospital in Quebec, diagnosed audiophilia as a neurosis, characterized by a “tendency to become preoccupied with and dependent upon the bizarre recorded sound” and “the urgency of the need and the final insufficiency of all attempts to satisfy it.” “One addict told me he would not be satisfied until he could hear the drop of saliva from French horns,” Bowes said. He noted a sexual component to audiophilia, a desire for “sterile reproduction without biological bother; in severe cases, the audiophile’s record collection becomes a symbolic harem.”
Milner cites innumerable examples of listening tests in which an audience—like that watching the Memorex commercials in which either the voice of Ella Fitzgerald or a recording of her voice shatters a glass—was asked to distinguish between a real sound and its representation, often in the ever-popular format of live performer vs. machine, and found itself unable to do so. As Milner notes, “People heard . . . tinny, fragile sounds, and remarked on how natural they were and how little noise they contained,” which might serve as a summation of most of these tests.
But our “sophisticated” ears, Milner suggests, may still have difficulty in distinguishing recorded sound, especially when music doesn’t “document and preserve something that [has] happened.” While listening to that $90,000 turntable (yes, there are in fact more expensive models—such as the $125,000 Clearaudio Statement, the $150,000 Basis Audio “Work of Art,” and the $300,000 Goldmund Reference II—most of which look like modern art sculptures, dental machinery, or both), Milner writes, “I wanted to have a transcendent experience, and if I didn’t have one, didn’t that reflect badly on me?”
One early spring afternoon some years ago, in Westport, Massachusetts, at a hi-fi shop into which I’d ventured after years of listening to music played on mass-market equipment, a salesman indulged my request to play some records on his system—I was ostensibly auditioning the Michell GyroDec turntable, then about $2000 but still far beyond my means, a detail that I don’t think the salesman had any difficulty discerning. (In the rhetorically abusive terms of hi-fi, a “budget” component is one that generally costs up to a few thousand dollars; the prices I nonchalantly quote here formed a system whose total retail price was some multiple of what I earned that year.) Still, he patiently explained the associated equipment—a $1500 SME tonearm, “only a cheap” $300 moving-magnet Grado phono cartridge, a Conrad-Johnson phono amplifier (the models then ranged in price from $1500 to $4000), a Conrad-Johnson preamplifier (again, I don’t remember the specific unit, but possibilities include models costing between $4500 and $15,000), two very expensive-looking tube monoblock power amplifiers, and a pair of seven-foot, $25,000 Sound Lab electrostatic speakers, plus, most likely, several thousand dollars’ worth of cables—and proceeded to play some LPs for me. The Daniel Lanois record he began with sounded good, but, perhaps reading my facial expression, the salesman suggested that it probably wasn’t to my taste. (No.) He then pulled out a copy of Beck’s Odelay, a record I’d heard played at every grad student gathering I’d ever attended, enough so that, while I’ve never owned a copy, I know the record intimately. But what the salesman played for me sounded so pure, so detailed, so rich, so unlike the record I thought I knew that, as I wrote to Will later that week, “the experience kind of made me hate my entire stereo system.” Will’s response was more resigned: “I think audiophilia is a losing game. It’s best just to get used to the way things sound and never change.” Maxell, of course, despite the white-gloved butler in the television ad, was never a high-fidelity product. So why should anyone have believed that two spools of magnetized ribbon inside a cheap plastic case held shut with tiny screws would leave us unable to distinguish reality from its shadowy representations? Shortly after that ad’s release, the phrase applied to CDs—“perfect sound forever” (not a single slogan, as popular lore has it, but a conflation of the slogans from two different campaigns, as Milner reveals)—built upon the claim of perfect reproduction and fidelity, but added that of permanence, of endless accessibility. But music, even recorded music, isn’t endless, it’s entirely fugitive, transient, as are its pleasures. I still have yet to figure out how or why I can listen to a song hundreds of times—or why I can then suddenly tire of it.
The Memorex slogan—and the Maxell image—also suggested, as did virtually all stereo ads before them, that quality analog tape made the question of authenticity moot; if the original and the copy are precise replicas, why should authenticity matter? And if we can have the same experience at home, in our own chairs, as at the concert hall, why leave the room? Twenty-five years later, now that almost all of the music we listen to is a selection of binary code, these questions are truly moot. But I don’t know that most people are any longer uncomfortable with the idea of the inauthentic, if they ever were. Stereo components have always been “voiced” in specific ways, whether to suit the manufacturer’s ear, spec sheet, or market research, and every hi-fi salesman or reviewer will proclaim the importance of careful “system matching”—using a certain kind of amplifier with certain speakers, so that the “warmth” of one tames the “brightness” of another, or contributes to a whole sound approaching the neutral or “transparent.” (One common theory suggests that stereo components are voiced to the middle-aged male ear, by which time the presumably male audiophile has sustained some environmental or age-related hearing loss—through loud rock concerts or stereotypically masculine pursuits such as working on car engines or running power tools—but has also acquired the wherewithal to purchase thousands of dollars’ worth of stereo equipment, and a good-sized house in which to store it.) In one of many such examples from Perfecting Sound Forever, Milner quotes one of Phil Spector’s engineers: “‘See, it was not truthful at all,’ Larry Levine, Spector’s engineer at Gold Star Recording Studios, once said about the sound coming into the control room during a Spector session.” “Authenticity” as applied to records has always been as much a floating signifier as “transparency.”
When Stephen Colbert recently grabbed a wireless microphone on his television show in order to address Kanye West—by shouting Kanye’s name in the warbling AutoTune voice that has, in the eleven years since Cher introduced it with “I Believe,” become a pop cliché and the subject of countless YouTube parodies, even as Jay-Z recently declared its death—he claimed to be speaking “in a language [Kanye West] understands” and received knowing laughter from his audience (for both the AutoTune joke and the old Star Trek film reference). Such moments of crisscrossed cultural referents filtered through a sound-altering software suggest that while it is doubtful that many people contemplate the processes, many of them virtual, through which music reaches their ears—studio manipulation, digital sounds, digital mixing on a hard disk, compression into an MP3, and so on—it is also doubtful that many people are much troubled by the idea of whether this music might be called “authentic.”
“Even ‘live’ recordings are not tamper-proof,” writes Evan Eisenberg in his book The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa (Yale University Press, 2nd ed., 2005):
The liner notes to Odyssey’s reissue of Oedipus Rex under Stravinsky applaud his ‘wise decision to incorporate the author’s voice and to make of this first recording an authentic historical document’. In this case history has been doctored, for ‘the present recording was taped in . . . Cologne, in October, 1951. M. Cocteau’s speeches were dubbed in from a Paris performance eight months later’. So authenticity, too, is a tricky concept and gets trickier by the moment . . .
If Milner’s book focuses on technical minutiae and anecdotal histories to explore how technology has changed our relationships to music, Eisenberg’s earlier work (1987; revised and expanded in 2005) uses chapter-long character sketches and the lengthy excursions of the essayist to meditate less on our changing relationship to music technologies than on how recordings alter our senses of time and self; the focus on technology here is not the point of emphasis, but rather the means to initiate the inquiries he develops (“most of this book is written from the point of view of the listener rather than the phonographer,” he admits halfway through the book). References to recording technologies that Milner might have elaborated into detailed accounts are here tossed off in favor of aphorisms—such as this aside, from a discussion of credits on record jackets: “A record is twelve inches across at most and should not look like a big production. Since it is experienced in private, the appearance of intimacy should be maintained.” Or: “When it was disclosed that Jimmy Carter was in the habit of reading two or three books concurrently while listening to classical music, the vagaries of his administration might have been foretold.”
Like Milner, Eisenberg is fond of reading the minor moments that complicate our idea of the real or authentic sound:
One damp afternoon some summers ago I stumbled on a jazz concert at the bandshell in Central Park that featured some popular hard-bop-going-on-fusion musicians. It was being broadcast live on WRVR and had managed to lure to the bandshell’s muddy vicinity a sizeable audience that was mostly young, middle class and black. Some of the younger and less middle class listeners were carrying radios and some of the radios were on, turned to WRVR’s broadcast of the concert. This was odd, for though the sightlines to the stage were ragged the sound was loud and clear—unless you were standing near one of the radios.
This moment ends a chapter, and as Eisenberg doesn’t elaborate on the observation, I’ll attempt to do so. Anyone who’s ever been to a baseball game has witnessed those members of the crowd, usually sitting alone, who listen to the game on radio headphones while they watch it from the grandstand, as if to ensure that they experience it both as pure spectacle and as mediated entertainment (these same fans often track the game with pencil and scorecard, to preserve it in a coded form). Though Eisenberg’s scene at Central Park involves simultaneous broadcast rather than recording, and though it dates from a time when handheld recording devices—smart phones, digital cameras, hard-disk recorders—were far less ubiquitous than they are today, the urge he describes, to experience a single event through multiple sources, seems much the same as that urge with which most social occasions—and many newsworthy occasions—are now insistently documented. Log into your Facebook account and you have an up-to-the-minute narrative of how your various friends are spending their evenings, often with the immediate evidence of photos accompanying the descriptions. And ever since consumers have had access to handheld recording devices, they have been creating an archive of events that would otherwise not have existed: for decades now the most common reaction of the witness has been not to intervene but to begin filming, and for this reason we have photographs of lynchings and much amateur footage of contemporary events such as the World Trade Center attacks or the coordinated assaults on Mumbai. It often seems that we feel an experience is not certifiably real, has not been authenticated, unless it has been documented and preserved, even though no documentary record is ever more than a mediated version of an event, whether it is made from a willed attempt at memorializing the most banal night out or from a chance encounter with history.
If recordings were once seen as a way to capture a performance in pure form—Milner describes Alan Lomax’s disappointment when Lead Belly’s musicianship improved, in part from the experience of hearing himself on record, and his repertoire expanded to include “crowd-pleasing, more popular, and less folkie songs,” while “‘Lomax . . . wanted it rough’”—that naïveté quickly vanished in the face of the editing capabilities of the studio environment, which have led to ever-greater control over the processing and construction of sound. As Eisenberg writes, “studio recordings, which are the great majority [of records], record nothing. Pieced together from bits of actual events, they construct an ideal event.” Nostalgia, of course, is a similar act of reconstructing an ideal; nostalgia is not real memory, and does not describe an actual past but rather one that has acquired the sheen of perfection through desire and constant revisitation and selection, a past that is as mediated as a recording. Though nostalgia is often conceived of in both conservative and self-indulgent terms (signifying a desire to return to cultural or national roots; a marker of privilege; an escapist unwillingness to confront the present or the future), Svetlana Boym, in The Future of Nostalgia, parses that word’s two Greek roots to offer a “typology . . . that might illuminate some of nostalgia’s mechanisms of seduction and manipulation”:
Here two kinds of nostalgia are distinguished: the restorative and the reflective.Restorative nostalgia stresses nostos and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home. Reflective nostalgia thrives in algia, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming—wistfully, ironically, desperately. Restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition. Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging . . .
Restorative nostalgia is at the core of recent national and religious revivals . . . Reflective nostalgia does not follow a single plot but explores ways of inhabiting many places at once and imagining different time zones; it loves details, not symbols.
So while audiophiles spend great sums of money to build their dream stereos—the systems, like Michael Fremer’s, that transform music into what Milner describes as “an ideal world. This was the way life could sound. This was the way life did sound”—that will facilitate their acts of restorative nostalgia, these stereos still cannot offer their listeners whatever “truth” they crave, even when the listener can hear the subway rumbling through the background of a recording made at London’s Royal Opera House. Over the last decade, as I’ve gradually rebuilt my stereo system, I may not have believed my friend Will’s claim that the pursuit of better sound was in the end a “losing game,” though some audiophiles would likely characterize my set-up as “mid-fi”—because it’s built entirely around “budget” components, and because two of those components contain tubes, which many audiophiles deride for their inaccurate, euphonic qualities (and which other audiophiles revere for the same reason). Indeed, much of Milner’s argument in Perfecting Sound Forever is implicit in another of Adorno’s statements: “The moment one attempts to improve these early technologies through an emphasis on concrete fidelity, the exactness one has ascribed to them is exposed as an illusion by the very technology itself.”
Remastered LPs—the adverb generally applied is “lovingly,” as if to suggest the care and devotion of the restorer—are often strong sellers for record labels, especially if the LP is one that will have a large nostalgic appeal. The urge to hear the record may involve reflective nostalgia—a revisitation of college-age memories, an imaginative transport to a time when a listener was too young to have bought the record in question—but the production of such remasters is purely restorative. My friend Hua recently noted, on his Facebook wall, that he “will never be able to listen to the original/un-remastered version of the Stone Roses’ [first record] ever again.” I myself have never found that record particularly distinctive, less because of its murky sound than because I think most of the music is boring, and while I have not heard the remastered version, to read the review of the reissue in Pitchfork is to imagine beholding the soot and grime cleaned from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel:
[Producer John] Leckie teamed up with [singer Ian] Brown to remaster the LP, which, produced at the tail-end of the vinyl era, lacked some range at the low end and suffered from its tin-timbred late-80s drum sound, among other issues. Now, the infamous bassline that opens “I Wanna Be Adored” has an even more thrilling anticipatory deep-earth rumble; instead of slaps, “She Bangs the Drums”’ beats pack actual punches; and the originally muddy textures of a song like “Made of Stone” are brighter and broader-spectrumed, with crisp chiming guitars and lustrous basslines. The record industry has whipped itself into a frenzy of last-ditch, cash-grabbing CD reissues lately, but the original Stone Roses [album] actually merited a sound overhaul. And the results are brilliant, further supporting the case for classic album status—if support’s needed.
So the sound, according to reviewer Amy Granzin, has become intensified (“even more thrilling,” “brighter and broader-spectrumed”) and more believable, more true-to-the-actual; the language is that associated with every recording innovation that Milner and Eisenberg chronicle, and with all marketing in general: more, bigger, better. The act of revision that is a remaster (or a director’s cut, or an expanded edition) is often couched in the rhetoric of the full realization of artistic intention—what an artist would have done had time, money, technology, etc., allowed, or had editorial control been relaxed. And while I understand why an artist would want to modify a work after its original public reception, in order to correct what might be perceived as its deficiencies, I still invariably prefer the lived-in original; no matter how much a remaster “improves” a piece of music, I have already improved the experience of my own first encounter with it or my accumulated associations of it through idealizing and transforming those memories myself. Why would I want the accretions of my personal version replaced by someone else’s attempt at purity?
One LP collector I know jokes about acquiring the collection he wishes he’d been both wealthy enough and savvy enough to have owned when he was eighteen—and while this act may seem “a transhistorical reconstruction,” I read it as ironic and self-conscious, in part because this collector acknowledges the midlife-crisis aspect of his project, in part because he’s too intelligent and self-aware to pretend that the project is anything more than a minor fancy, and in part because he is continually discovering new LPs from the time he was eighteen that his younger self had not known, so the collection grows even from that point when he first set out to imagine it.
What better description is there of the reasons why we are moved to listen obsessively to the songs of our own individual pasts than Boym’s notation of the “ambivalences of human longing and belonging”? For the music lover ultimately more interested in the music than its reproduction—and I want my records to sound “good” far more than I want them to sound “accurate”; that is, I’m entirely willing for the way they sound, to me, on my stereo, to reflect my own subjectivity rather than insist on pretending to some impossible objectivity—for a music lover who listens this way, nostalgia becomes a tangible entity visible in the shelves of LPs in one’s home. The past can be returned to with a needle-drop, and whether or not this past is authentic—since even the most passive acts of memory cloud the past as much as the more active recollections of nostalgia—is irrelevant; music insinuates itself so easily into our memories that many songs are overlaid with the recollections of various times, rather than referring to any singular, inescapably defining moment.
One of the recordings that to my ears sounds natural is that of the snare drum as perfected by producer Martin Hannett on many of the early records released on the Factory label—a brisk, heavily processed snap that bears little resemblance to the real thing (Chris Ott, in his book Unknown Pleasures, which explores the Joy Division LP of the same title, describes this sound as both an “urgent, alien thwack” and a “crisp, trebly snare sound”). Because this drum sound was embedded in my brain at a time when I was determining what music sounded like in both visceral and nascently critical terms—i.e., adolescence—this particular sound remains a reference point even while I know that it ultimately refers to nothing real. (A real snare drum, by contrast, makes me blink involuntarily, which was a source of great entertainment to Brett Wiggins, the drummer in my second junior high school band—at practices, he almost could not stop himself from snapping his stick against the skin of his snare to watch my eyes jerk shut.)
For me, in any case, this is really the point: even if a record played on a $90,000 turntable sounds amazing, what I want from a record is less the presence of the recording hall than the presence of some personal memory—something that sounds like what I remember, or, given my inaccurate and self-conscious memory, like what I want to remember. Marconi’s idea about sound decaying past the point of audibility but remaining in the air speaks profoundly to my own imagination (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” as Faulkner notes); somewhere among all that undetectable music must exist some perfect song as I once heard it. (Perhaps this is why the LP that Milner’s description inspired me to purchase is a recording “featur[ing] twenty-six minutes of clicks and whooshes gathered from the solar-radiated upper atmosphere, punctuated by the ghostly sounds of radio transmissions sky-waving up to the ionosphere.”) While directing one’s creative nostalgia to the duties of recapturing one’s idealized teen self via a record collection may seem solipsistic and self-indulgent, it perhaps acknowledges what Janna Jones has emphasized in her essay “Consumed with the Past: Nostalgia, Memory, and Ghostly Encounters at the Picture Palace”: “products of mass culture play a powerful role in shaping identity and memory, yet people use [them] in highly personal, idiosyncratic ways.” Jones’s choice of the word “use” here is significant, for feelings of nostalgia can be stoked by the selection of a certain record, even as they can also come unbidden. “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories,” Walter Benjamin has famously written. And even if, as Benjamin has also famously declared, the mechanical reproduction of a piece of art divorces it from “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” since its copies now exist simultaneously in many locations, a recording (itself a copy to begin with, and a master intended for further duplication) still allows each listener to fix music to a particular time and context—not necessarily to a historically verifiable date when the sounds were made, but at least to a date when the sounds were issued to the public, or to a date when a particular listener heard them—and so each recording does attain some temporal presence that often delineates whatever it is for which the listener is nostalgic. But how does hearing the music soothe the longing, the algia? If listening to records becomes a way of reconstructing one’s past and/or one’s past selves, then, to return to Adorno,
[w]hat the gramophone listener actually wants to hear is himself, and the artist merely offers him a substitute for the sounding image of his own person, which he would like to safeguard as a possession. The only reason that he accords records such value is because he himself could also be just as well preserved. Most of the time records are virtual photographs of their owners, flattering photographs . . .
Listening to our records, we seek to re-create the selves that time and circumstances have obliged us to leave behind.