25 September

David Byrne's How Music Works is certainly a bold work, not afraid to proceed from basic information and assumptions about how humans make and experience music. He covers a great deal of the history of modern music, and sound recording in particular. Sure, at times I'm annoyed by the McSweeney's-approved elementary-school reading-level style of writing, but generally it's a charming read, melding Bryne's personal observations with important insights from recent scholarship. Hopefully, this book will make its readers aware of crucial historical facets that don't seem to be common knowledge (for example, the central role Bing Crosby played in the development of tape recording or how different periods of European Classical music were effected by the spaces--gothic cathedrals, large concert halls--where the music was performed).

Unfortunately, though, in the chapter, 'Technology Shapes Music: Digital', Byrne spouts frequently-heard, and contradictory and misleading, complaints about the limitations of digital sound recording. He states, "The spectrum of sound on analog mediums [sic] has an infinite number of gradations, whereas in the digital world everything is sliced into a finite number of slivers. Slivers and bits might fool the ear into believing that they represent a continuous audio spectrum (psychoacoustics at work), but by nature they are still ones and zeros; steps rather than a smooth slope. [...] I can't help thinking that the psychoacoustic trickery used to develop [C D's and M P 3's]--the ability to cause the mind to think and feel that all the musical information is there when in reality a huge percentage has been removed--is a continuation of this trend where we are seduced by convenience."

First of all, in the pages leading to this concluding piss-off, Byrne speaks with enthusiasm about Bell Labs developing that "psychoacoustic trickery"; his tone has changed. Is this where non-electronic musicians become little more than your typical anti-science American numbskull? More importantly, precisely because digital sound never was an analog of the recorded sound, "a huge percentage of sound" was removed not in the original recording (analog or digital, or perhaps a mix). Rather, the listener loses sound due to insufficient playback mechanisms (digital or analog, since so many of our "vinyl sounds betters" hipsters listen to digital recordings on L P, arguably a pointless endeavor) or weak loudspeakers. M P 3's, or bad optical-disk players, do not give the listener all the information found in the original recording. If we say that the original recording removed sound, we're setting up an impossibility: perfect reproduction of sound, which of course everyone knows does not exist. Without that digital recording, all of the sound would have been "removed"--because it would have disappeared into air. 

Moreover, Byrne acknowledges elsewhere that digital sound might capture a wider range of sound frequency. In other words, apparently analog's "infinite graduations" aren't so infinite after all. Nonetheless, despite the vague, unqualified statements he makes about the analog-digital divide, such as how with digital sound "something ineffable was missing," plus some selective quotations of others' observations, Byrne does indirectly make the primary argument in favor of analog sound. That is, that it does a better job of presenting to the human ear the narrower range of frequency it does capture; that the human ear doesn't need to hear digital's high-end and low-end extremes, they'll just annoy him. Byrne also arrives at this argument by way of his discussion of the "ambiguity of low-quality signals and reproductions," which invites the listener to "fill in the blanks," so to speak, becoming a part of the process (which of course could also bring in philosophical arguments about "reception history" and deconstruction of texts). Just don't expect Byrne to acknowledge that analog sound, relative to digital, would ever be the lower-quality option.

Even more unfortunate is that Byrne seemingly fails to recognize the similarity of his argument regarding the "smooth slope" and "infinite gradations" of analog sound to Thomas Edison's argument, discussed in the previous chapter 'Technology Shapes Music: Analog', regarding the superiority of mechanical recording over electrical recording. As Byrne explains, Edison claimed his recordings, wherein the sound traveled through a large horn to the needle via a diaphragm, concentrating the waves, vibrating the diaphragm, and moving the needle, which in turn cut the groove into the cylinder or disk, were recreations, and thus superior to recordings made via microphones, wherein the sound, often amplified, traveled through wires. Edison seems logical here. So do Byrne and other analog partisans when they suggest that analog sound is closer to the original, that digital recording merely takes a bunch of pictures of the sound, the resulting gaps--that crucial jaggedness--agitating poor listeners accustomed to analog's soothing hiss by a sort of magical or metaphysical process, since they cannot actually hear those gaps. In adjudicating the claims of electrical and mechanical recording, Byrne rightly concludes, "both technologies color the sound, but in different ways. 'Neutral' technology does not exist." Unless of course it's vinyl, which current received wisdom stupidly holds up as a godsend.

We could instead ask some logical, revealing follow-up questions. If, as Byrne notes, some have argued [he doesn't say who] Edison might have been correct about the superiority of mechanical recording, but only with regard to the human voice, not musical instruments, perhaps analog recording is superior for certain kinds of music, such as those with steady rhythms, while digital works best with other kinds, especially modern Jazz and Classical genres that lack steady rhythms and often makes use of a wider range of frequency. My preference with Rock music is Neil Young's approach: record with high-quality analog tape and mixers, then accurately transfer the sound to digital for playback, whether via Blu-Ray or high-definition computer files. 

As noted above, in much contemporary Rock and other song-oriented genres, the approach taken is exactly the opposite. Byrne makes the crucial connection between digital recording and the "loudness" war that has decimated the sound of contemporary mass-marketed Rock. More important, though, is that the convenience of digital sound, supposedly driving us away from analog playback, more importantly is pushing artists toward digital recording even when they claim to love analog. In turn--and I repeat this point only to try to convey how absurd the current situation is--they make fools of themselves by claiming that the listener should hear those digital recordings on vinyl.