Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The New Analog by Damon Krukowski - Book Review

Damon Krukowski is a musician, poet, and publisher who has written a book exploring the ways that the move from analog recording and distribution of music to digital has effected the way in which music is experienced. In The New Analog:Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World (The New Press, 2017, 224 pages, $24.95/15.48) he examines, in some detail, the history and development of transmitting both print and recorded versions of sound to make it available to those wishing to reproduce and hear it. From printed notation to player piano rolls, wax cylinders, records, CDs, to broadcast from radio signals to streaming digital, he examines copyright issues as well as the complex nature of sound and its reproduction. Along the way, he discusses copyright issues as they affect those wishing to make a living from recording (musicians, writers, engineers, recording companies, sound distribution) providing the most cogent explanation of “mechanical royalties” I've ever read.

I'm not a techie. I haven't understood what's meant when my more knowledgeable friends talk about the compression or lifelessness of CD's as compared with earlier vinyl recordings. I've even suggested double blind listening tests to determine whether even highly sensitive listeners can actually tell the difference, but I've never read or heard of any being conducted. Krukowski, almost talking in two languages, techno speak and fan, makes these issues clearer for me. He writes about context, signal, and noise in ways that make sense to me. Krukowski is able to make most technical issues clear, only loosing me a few times. Written with an eye to clarifying certain issues in recording and hearing the distribution of those sounds, The New Analog helped me to understand much of what I have been missing, in trying to understand this revolution.

According to Krukowski, human beings hear in stereo sound. Having two ears allows us to make the minute mental distinctions placing us in space and providing context for the world around us. He describes a woman bike rider falling down while riding a bike with earbuds because, focused on the sounds being delivered to her ears, she was unable to integrate other cues. Our stereo hearing is remarkably accurate at providing context for what we hear while our brains separate signal from noise.

Signal is the foregrounded sound we are supposed to concentrate on...the music. Noise is the supposedly unnecessary sound that interferes with our being able to focus on signal. The role of the technology in separating signal from noise gives us the purer sound that comes to us through digital transmission, eliminating noise. But is music without noise what we really wish to hear?

The studio itself becomes a character in this dichotomy. A wooden studio provides a warm, wood-like sound. But a completely baffled and sound-dead studio, for a listener inside it, is still filled with sound, as one's internal functioning – respiration, heartbeat, blood flowing in the veins – can be heard. There is no silence. But the digital studio seeks to eliminate noise, while increasing and layering signal. The work of the studio technician is to take a series of signals, layer and sequence them, and create a larger complex work that turns out to be all signal with no differentiation about what to foreground or background – no sense of context. Loudness has become a substitute for subtlety.

Along with the changes in sound have come a change in the delivery system of those sounds. The invention of file sharing, though Napster, while only lasting for two years, spelled the end of record stores and will soon sound the death knell of the compact disk as a means of distributing music. All our music will be downloaded to digital devices to be heard through ear-buds simulating stereo sound, but actually have no separation and providing no contextual cues. Furthermore, those features record lovers, and even CD purchasers no longer have available the kind of information once provided by liner notes. Planned noise has been substituted for by social media, a very noisy place. However, the algorithms of FB, Twitter, Snap Chat, Goodreads, etc) quickly limit exposure to only the noise you wish to hear, increasing isolation and tribalism. We are not fully exposed to the range of noise that once took place in the record store, or other gathering places where people discussed and debated the values of content. However, the algorithms of FB, Twitter, Snap Chat, Goodreads, etc) quickly limit exposure to only the noise you wish to hear, increasing isolation and tribalism. Older mail lists, for instance, were relatively unfiltered, providing more choices of what to consider for the receiver. Who decides what the noise surrounding the signal will be?

Damon Krukowski

Damon Krukowski is the editor/publisher of Exact Change, an independent publishing house, along with Naomi Yang, with whom he performed as David & Naomi. He has been a member of rock band Galaxie 500, a 1980's and early nineties indie band, as well. He attended Harvard University and lives in Boston. He blogs at International Sad Hits.

The New Analog:Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World (The New Press, 2017, 224 pages, $24.95/15.48) by Damon Krukowski examines the physiology, acoustic science, and effect of the changes from analog to digital sound in the rapidly changing media environment. By placing our audio experience of recorded music into a larger context of how human beings interact with the world, he offers a more nuanced view than many who decry the emergence of digital music as it's experienced through devices like head phones and iPods. He recognizes that digital delivery of music has been responsible for the loss of community represented by the teeming record store where people could hang out and discuss the music, as well as the quickly developing death of the CD as a means of delivering music. He calls for the re-introduction of the noisy environment once surrounding music, which would lessen the isolation with which people now experience it. While he sometimes gets caught up in the tangled weeds of detailed technology and psycho-physiology, he nevertheless delivers a thoughtful and readable examination at how rapid technological change leads to unanticipated social disruption. I received the book at an Advanced Reviewers Copy from the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle app.

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