September 8th, 2010 1:00am
Interview with Greg Milner, Part One
Greg Milner is the author of Perfecting Sound Forever, an excellent book surveys the history of recorded sound, and thoughtfully examines the way technological advancements change the way we make and experience music. It’s incredibly informative, but not overly dry. Milner is an exceptional storyteller, and so whether he’s writing about public “tone tests” for Thomas Edison’s early phonographs, the creation and marketing of early synthesizers, the “loudness war“, the innovations of King Tubby, or the complex recording process that yielded Def Leppard’s Hysteria, it’s page-turning thrill. It’s a must-read for anyone who makes music, writes about it, or just listens to it. In the first part of our conversation, we discuss whether or not people care about sound today, the resurgence of lo-fi and cassette culture, different approaches to recording music, and the changing role of producers in modern music.
Matthew Perpetua: What led you to write extensively about how music is recorded?
Greg Milner: Well, for a long time I did write about music directly, but I often thought that something was missing. I’m not really a musician, and I’m not very tech-savvy, but I always liked reading musicians talking about how they actually made their music. When I was a kid, I was a big fan of the now-defunct Musician magazine. It always seemed to me that how a record sounded was an intrinsic part of its appeal or lack thereof. And this was something that was just not covered in most music journalism. It seemed like everybody was writing/talking about “music” without really getting at what music — as most of us consume it — really is.
Matthew Perpetua: It seems like people write a lot about music in terms of production style, but not necessarily understanding the processes and technology.
Greg Milner: Yeah, and to a certain extent that’s understandable. I mean, I’m the first to admit that the number of people who really care about that stuff is somewhat limited. But I do think it adds to the appreciation of music.
Matthew Perpetua: Do you think people think much about sound these days? It’s not like in the era when people were really concerned about high fidelity, that’s kinda gone over to the realm of television sets. I feel like people just turn the music on and it’s there and the nuances of its reproduction aren’t scrutinized much as long as it’s not skipping or something.
Greg Milner: Yeah, I think that’s right. It’s not so much that people don’t “care” about sound — it’s more that they just don’t reflect on it — especially as pertaining to making sure they are experiencing sound in the optimal way. And I hesitate to use a word like optimal, because it all depends on what your needs are. An iPod is “optimal” in terms of convenience, and I’m the first to admit it’s pretty amazing being able to carry around so much music at once. But it isn’t necessarily optimal in terms of good sound. In general, the difference between listeners now, and say, 50 years ago, is that more people then were obsessed with making the sound coming out of their speakers as perfect as possible.
Matthew Perpetua: Right. I’m not sure if I can even totally trust my ears to know what good sound is sometimes, since I’ve only ever had mediocre speakers and headphones, and I’ve been listening to digital so long that it’s just my frame of reference. I only recently got a turntable — nothing fancy — and I can tell the difference only in extreme examples. Like, the new LCD Soundsystem and of Montreal albums both sound far better on vinyl than cd or mp3. The LCD just sounds like it was mastered specifically to be flattered by vinyl, and the of Montreal CD has really hot bass that is smoothed out and deepened on the vinyl. A lot of the time I just wonder if the pursuit of “good sound” is just this placebo effect thing. You can tell when something is really bad, but when it’s good enough, it’s usually just good enough.
Greg Milner: I can’t speak about the of Montreal record, but from what I’ve read about James Murphy’s views on sound, I wouldn’t be surprised if the songs were mastered with vinyl in mind. I’ve long felt that way about a lot of Albini productions. But I think you hit on something correct in terms of individual perception of sound. A point I tried to get across in the book is that there is no such thing as “perfect” recorded sound, there never has been, and there never will be. We all have our own reference points. I’m just old enough to have had a few prime getting-into-music years before CD’s became the norm, so I think my tastes were shaped by vinyl. It’s what I hear in my “mind’s ear,” so to speak. That said, I do want to emphasize that things like MP3′s and other modern examples of lossy compression really are technological marvels. Considering how much they process sound, it’s pretty incredible how decent they sound.
For me, the difference between analog and digital formats — e.g. a vinyl a record and a CD — is much greater than the difference between, say, a CD and an MP3. I can’t explain why, and I’ve gotten into a lot of arguments about that, but it’s just the way I hear things.
Matthew Perpetua: Well, a CD and an mp3 are pretty closely related, it’s both digital and the major difference is just the “loss”, and I don’t think most people have the talent to hear that kind of difference. How do you feel about audio tape? All of my early experience with non-radio music was on cassettes, I didn’t have CDs until 1995. Except for making mix tapes and appreciating side divisions, I don’t miss cassettes at all.
Greg Milner: One of the big audio revelations for me in my youth — before CDs — was that if I taped a vinyl album it sounded a lot better than that same album heard on a pre-recorded commercial cassette. Magnetic tape itself is an incredibly robust and musical format. But those pre-recorded tapes were just awful in terms of quality. But I agree – -aside from mixes, there isn’t really that much to miss about music heard on cassettes.
Matthew Perpetua: Why did prerecorded cassette sound bad? Was there a particular reason?
Greg Milner: I’m not positive, but first of all I think the mass production of those things had a lot to do with it. You can “stamp” out a vinyl record — or a CD, for that matter — but with tapes you actually have to spin those reels to get the music down. That’s a time-consuming process, so I think they were probably done in a way that very crudely transferred the music.
Matthew Perpetua: Oh, right, like high speed dubbing. Man, I haven’t thought of high speed dubbing in forever.
Greg Milner: Exactly.
Matthew Perpetua: What do you think of cassette tapes making a comeback recently as this super indie sort of thing?
Greg Milner: It seems kind of gimmicky to me. I mean, vinyl making a comeback makes a certain amount of sense — they sound great, it’s a way to get back to the idea of cover art, liner notes, etc. Cassettes, though — how many people even have cassette players/tape decks anymore? I know I don’t. Didn’t Cheap Trick release an 8-track tape or something a few years ago?
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, I think it’s just a cheesy gimmick. I get sent cassettes from cassette-only labels sometimes now. I think it’s just a way of being super indie and super obscure in an era that totally resists that, since mp3s inevitably get around. This severely limits people’s chances to hear your album in a way conducive to snobbishness. I haven’t owned a working tape deck since maybe 2001.
Greg Milner: Yeah, they may as well be sending you stuff on player piano rolls. That’d be mega-indie!
Matthew Perpetua: How about the return of lo-fi aesthetics? Why do you think there’s a generation of 20somethings trying to emulate the sound of bad cassettes and shitty speakers? Especially when anyone can make a half-decent sounding recording in ProTools or Garageband.
Greg Milner: Well, for one thing, I think that things that are considered “lo-fi” are so ingrained in pop music that it’s natural for people to start missing them. I mean, tape hiss does arguably add something, and it’s interesting to see digital tools that try to mimic things like tape noise. But it’s easy to go too far. Intentionally trying to make music sound lo-fi instead of letting the production aesthetic sort of naturally unfold is usually a mistake, in my opinion.
Matthew Perpetua: I feel like a lot of this nu lo-fi is a combination of covering up flaws in performance and/or composition, and tapping into a sound that is evocative and ingrained in critical culture as being unassailably cool.
Greg Milner: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. And I’ve talked to musicians who have told me that the 1970′s super-clean “dry” style of production — Steely Dan et al — really challenges your musicianship because flaws aren’t covered up at all.
Matthew Perpetua: Who do you think makes good-sounding records right now? Like, albums from 2010.
Greg Milner: The one that really stands out is the LCD Soundsystem record. In fact, I’ve always liked the way a lot of DFA records sound, even when I’ve found the records themselves irritating or boring. Listening to his records, I think you can really tell that James Murphy has thought a lot about what a record is, and what the relationship between a live experience and a recorded experience should be.
Matthew Perpetua: What do you think of “Dance Yrself Clean”? I know a lot of people hate how that song starts so quiet before kicking in. I didn’t mind it so much, but the impact was so much stronger on vinyl. The dynamic shift is like stepping into full color. It made me think about how people expect everything on albums to be an equal level of loudness now.
Greg Milner: I didn’t realize people found that dynamic shift on that song so jarring, but I guess I’m not surprised. I like that kind of thing, myself. The first time I ever heard about a record being criticized for that was PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me. I kind of think that people should take dynamic shifts where they can get them, since the whole idea has largely disappeared from music. To me, it’s kind of like complaining about it raining so hard after a drought. Yeah, it sucks to get caught in the rain, but shouldn’t we be glad it’s raining? This analogy is of course problematic, given the recent flooding around the globe…
Matthew Perpetua: Right. But that happened in New York just recently — no rain for weeks on end, and then a couple days of rain and everyone complained. Anyway, yeah, I feel like a lot of the most exciting records in my life are the ones where the sound really pulls you around and knocks you around, plays with your senses. That seems like a natural part of making art out of sound, I don’t get why most people don’t have more fun with it, or try to do something other than just lay down the tracks.
Greg Milner: I think the reality of the way a lot of music is made these days is that it’s easy to not see the forest for the trees. I mean, you have so many choices at your fingertips, and so many ways to tweak sounds that it’s very easy to lose any sense of spontaneity. One class-rock example that a lot of people have pointed to is the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly.” When Keith Moon comes in at the beginning, he is all over the place rhythmically for a few bars. Today, that would definitely be “fixed.”
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, so much of what comes out on major labels now has that inhuman sound, everything running through filters and it’s sterile in the worst way. I remember you pointing out in the book, or someone you interviewed, that thing of everything getting corrected and the pitch just sounding weirdly like a car horn. And then it’s mastered far too loud, and the songs themselves aren’t particularly dynamic on a musical level.
Greg Milner: Yeah, I love that car horn comparison. That was one of the Lord-Alge brothers who said that, I can’t recall which one. Another good comparison — can’t recall if it made it into the book — is that Auto-Tuned voices sound sort of like seals.
Matthew Perpetua: Is there an upside to any of this Auto-Tune overuse, or the Loudness War? Do you think anyone has flipped these things into something positive and interesting? It seems like every technological shift in the recording industry is accompanied by someone running with that and making something exciting and new.
Greg Milner: Well, I think over the past few years there’s been a lot of creative use of Auto-Tuning. Like a lot of technological innovations, it’s been put to uses that–if not totally counter to what the creators of it imagined–are at least very far afield. Instead of using it to “normalize” voices, it’s become a way to do very creative things with voices. And that sort of use goes all the way back to the early days of AutoTune, with Cher’s “Believe.” The loudness stuff is a little trickier. I don’t see a whole lot of positive developments there.
Matthew Perpetua: Well, I was thinking about the Sleigh Bells album as being an example where you have a band really embracing that absurd loudness and clipping, fetishizing it and making it part of the music.
Greg Milner: I am embarrassed to say I haven’t heard the Sleigh Bells album, but someone else mentioned it to me recently in the same context. In fact, I’ll listen to it today and let you know what I think. I am intrigued.
Matthew Perpetua: I bought that album twice — it was released on iTunes cheap and early, and then I got it on vinyl more recently. It’s kinda perverse, but it’s so much better to hear that really loud on mp3 on bad speakers. It’s just how it’s intended to be heard!
Greg Milner: I understand completely. It’s a good sign that bands have an innate understanding of this sort of aesthetic experience.
Matthew Perpetua: I guess you could make an argument that a guy like Dr. Luke is making singles that are best heard in the context of loud radio and bad speakers.
Greg Milner: I think a lot of hip-hop and R&B sounds better on crappy speakers. There’s so much distortion on the drums especially that the crackle of cheap equipment meshes well.
Matthew Perpetua: So, reading between the lines of your book, it would seem like you’re pretty partial to the “dry” Steely Dan-ish approach, and the style of Steve Albini, which is kinda dry too. Is that about right?
Greg Milner: Yeah, not exclusively, but I have a soft spot for that sound. In general, I prefer it to what came next–that reverb-heavy bombastic ’80 sound. Albini and his ilk aren’t necessarily always dry. I think if you listen to something like Surfer Rosa, it kind of splits the difference. It’s “dry” in that it sounds very immediate and close to the ear, but it also has a live-r — and livelier — kick than a lot of that super-dry stuff.
Matthew Perpetua: Right. When I think of Albini, I think of really nice sounding drums and a good “room sound.” I am definitely of the opinion that Steve Albini and his cohort are the best in the biz when it comes to recording rock bands.
Greg Milner: Yeah, and it’s funny you should mention that. I interviewed Bob Weston, who used to be Albini’s main assistant engineer, for the book, and he told me that he rarely gets asked to record bands anymore. What he does just doesn’t jibe with what a lot of bands are looking for.
Matthew Perpetua: Weston mastered that new LCD Soundsystem album!
Greg Milner: That’s right — I forgot about that.
Matthew Perpetua: What are bands looking for now?
Greg Milner: I’d say that if a band is at a level where they want a “producer,” they are looking for someone who can work all kinds of magic to “transform” their sound, as opposed to someone like Weston, who will basically give you a very good, clean, simple recording–basically, a very well-done demo. And that is kind of a lost art. I wish more bands put out their demos. One of my favorite albums of all time, the first Modern Lovers album, was mostly — maybe entirely — demos, and I defy anyone to show me how that album is lo-fi.
I should add, not just “transform,” but also to organize. My understanding is that a lot of big-shot producer/engineers these days spend a lot of time wading through the 100′s of Pro Tool tracks given to them by the bands they work with.
Matthew Perpetua: I think you need a lot of confidence and faith in your music to just want to record it in the Albini/Weston style. To really know “this is what it is.”
Greg Milner: Absolutely. And I have some sympathy for the opposite impulse. If someone told me, as a writer, “you should just publish your first drafts,” I’d definitely resist–even though I know that good things about first drafts are often lost in revisions.
Matthew Perpetua: Right. And then there’s the extreme, the part of the book where you’re talking about how Def Leppard make Hysteria to be this perfect sounding thing, it’s this idealized version of rock band made out of bits and pieces of sound. Which is pretty amazing! I didn’t know that about Hysteria, but then I put on “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and it was like “oh, well, yes.”
Greg Milner: Yeah, I like what Andy Wallace said about that album: “there isn’t a hair out of place” and “it could almost be any band.” Which is pretty striking, when you think about it: laboring to make a record distinctive actually makes it sound like anyone could have made it. Of course, a lot of people might level similar charges against Andy Wallace.
Matthew Perpetua: I think there’s a charm to that sort of thing. I mean, going back to LCD Soundsystem, but if you look at the liner notes, James Murphy is playing nearly every part on that album, so it’s kinda this hybrid of the two approaches. He’s building this perfect thing in a way not too different from Def Leppard or whomever.
Greg Milner: Good point. I think someone like him is probably just more aware of that inherent contradiction, and uses the tension in an interesting way?
Matthew Perpetua: How many records are just people playing in a room now? Almost everything is fussed around, or at least overdubbed.
Greg Milner: I think very few albums are made that way. Even bands that cut a lot of stuff “live” will do the vocals separately.
Matthew Perpetua: Right. The one album I can think of from this year that has that “person in a room” sound that is compelling is the new Joanna Newsom. That has some overdubs on it, but it is mostly just “this is Joanna Newsom playing her song.”
Greg Milner: Yeah, that’s a good example. But really, you can never quite tell just by listening what really went on in the making of an album.
Matthew Perpetua: Yeah, we’ve become good at building these things. It’s rare that anyone even expects anything to be a document now. It used to be a top priority and now I think people much prefer a processed, unnatural sound. It’s more modern and exciting to people. And you know, why not? Music is inherently abstract.
Greg Milner: The way I look at it, the emphasis isn’t really on “recording” sounds anymore–it’s more about manipulating them. Which, again, isn’t good or bad. It’s just the way things are.
Matthew Perpetua: Right, and we have enough history and different traditions that people now kinda find their zone and work within it, even when they have these totally new tools. You have people getting ProTools/DAW suites, and doing their best to replicate stuff like Phil Spector’s “wall of sound,” which is a product of its time, the transistor radios.
Greg Milner: Right, and it’s funny to think about how complicated a process it was for someone like Spector or Joe Meek to achieve those kinds of sounds. I mean, they were real feats of engineering, and imagination.
Matthew Perpetua: Right, and they were embracing the limitations of the music delivery system. I think there’s probably a lot of room for people to play around with the properties of mp3s, ipods, all the ways we experience music in this moment. Like, this isn’t specific to sound, but mp3s have metadata, and I can’t think of many artists who really embrace the possibilities of metadata.
Greg Milner: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s just a matter of time before they do.
To be continued tomorrow! In the second part, we’ll be discussing radio and the “loudness war,” and there will be a special mix cd featuring some of Greg’s favorite recordings.