'Perfecting Sound Forever': A History Of Audio In his book, Perfecting Sound Forever, Greg Milner explores the evolution of sound. His history covers the analog days of Thomas Edison through the present day of digital recordings, and the quest for sonic perfection.
NPR logo

'Perfecting Sound Forever': A History Of Audio

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105762127/105762115" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Perfecting Sound Forever': A History Of Audio

'Perfecting Sound Forever': A History Of Audio

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105762127/105762115" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Every recording ever made from Edison to Eminem is inherently artificial. Engineers and producers and musicians have to make choices. Do you try to get as close as possible to the way music sounds at a concert hall or a nightclub? Or do you use all the tricks of technology to make a recording where the musicians don't have to be in the same room or the same city or even alive at the same time? The most accurate reproduction possible or the most enhanced? Now that might sound like an abstruse argument and to some extent it is. But it is also raises some very interesting questions.

How has the recording industry changed the way we hear the world? What matters more, the best possible sound or convenience? What is truth? And is it live or is it Memorex? In his new book "Perfecting Sound Forever" journalist Greg Milner addresses those questions as they arise in the history of audio recording. And he begins with a turntable that costs $90,000. So how far do you go for great sound? Tell us your story. Our phone numbers 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now from our bureau in New York is Greg Milner, the author of "Perfecting Sound Forever." It's good of you to be with us today.

Mr. GREG MILNER (Author, "Perfecting Sound Forever"): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And I should point out immediately, the caliber and turntable really only costs $65,000. There's an additional fee though.

Mr. MILNER: Exactly, you don't have to buy it. But the extra what, $35,000 will get you something called the Castellon, which is a stand which is as much of a high-tech creation as the turntable itself.

CONAN: And it uses magnetic levitation devices to make sure that the turntable is completely isolated from any possible vibration.

Mr. MILNER: Yeah, it's amazing, I mean, if they could make the turntable float in space, you know, completely disconnected from everything, I think they would. But they found the next best solution, I suppose.

CONAN: And it is worth the money?

Mr. MILNER: Well, I mean I guess that's debatable. But I have to say that when I listened to it was just an incredible experience. I mean, it was just - it was, I hate to say mind-blowing. But that's really what it was. I mean it was really, really amazing to hear sound like that. Even though I kept wondering whether I was influenced by the fact that I knew how much it cost. And I can't rule that out. But having said that, it was an amazing thing to hear.

CONAN: And that goes back to an experiment that the Edison Company did back, well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...a long time ago, I guess about a hundred years ago, where they had a record playing. This was their diamond disc and they had a record playing and then turned out the lights and say, can you tell whether that's the record or whether it's the singer? And people were, I guess, conditioned a little bit to expect that they wouldn't be able to tell the difference. And they couldn't. And it sounds ridiculous to modern ears, because well, recordings in those days were pretty primitive.

Mr. MILNER: Yeah, it's I mean, it's one of the reasons I was so interested in, they were called Tone Tests, is that for those of us alive today, like you say, it's literally impossible to understand what kind of cognitive experience those audiences have. I mean, we literally cannot fathom how they could have made that mistake. And I'm sure it didn't fool everyone. And I am sure that lot of the audiences who were fooled kind of liked the idea of being fooled. And so they kind of let themselves to be fooled. And there were also tricks involved in the Tone Tests that I think, you know, influenced, kind of made them be fooled easier. But it's - yeah, I mean, a lot of them were definitely fooled. And it's hard for us to understand how that could be.

CONAN: And that foolery is something that you call part of our language of recording, a language that we've all learned since Edison first did Mary's little lamb. You call it the recording consciousness.

Mr. MILNER: Yeah, that's actually a term coined by a sociologist named H. Stith Bennett, and it's the idea that we sort of - we have a language of recording that we learn. Which is I think why the Tone Tests could work because people did not have any sort of recording consciousness. I mean, obviously most of them had probably heard some recorded sound, but they weren't saturated with recordings the way we are in our lives today. And so, really we kind of come into the equation knowing that we're supposed to hear a record and kind of translate it into something that sounds like real life.

CONAN: Well, I want to - we're gonna play lot of examples of music. We're mostly talking about music recording for the purposes of this broadcast and the purposes of your book, in terms of how music has changed the way it sounds and through the process of recording. And we're going to hear first one of Thomas Edison's cylinder recordings back in 1907. This is by a guy named Billy Murray and the tune is called "He Goes to Church On Sunday."

(Soundbite of song "He Goes to Church On Sunday")

Mr. BILLY MURRAY (Singer): (singing) He goes to church on Sunday, he passes 'round the contribution box, but meet him in the office on a Monday, he's as crooked and as cunning as a fox. On Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday he is robbing everybody that he can. But he goes to church on Sunday so they say that he's an honest man.

CONAN: And that's a recording made in an acoustic process. There was a giant horn and musicians and a singer stood around at various distances from the horn in a very, well, dry room and tried to reproduce the sound, well, it was all mechanical energy, no electricity involved.

Mr. MILNER: Exactly, it was just - I mean, I kind of think of it as like when you make a handprint in cement, I mean, you know, when you record acoustically the sound waves are impacting right, you know, onto the medium. They are making a diaphragm vibrate, the diaphragm is attached to a stylus, the stylus makes indentations in a waxy surface and that, you know, and that's an analogue of a sound wave. It's a very, very basic process and its kind of ingenious when you think about it.

CONAN: When electricity was introduced into the process, it enabled the use of microphones, among other things. Well, Thomas Edison hated this idea.

Mr. MILNER: Yeah, he thought it was kind of an abomination. He thought that, I mean this is really difficult for us to understand because how could you not want to, you know, capture more, the way a microphone does? But the way he saw it, it was kind of adding an unnecessary step into the process, so you were augmenting the sound when you really should just be recording it. And he really felt that the acoustic process was on its way to perfection and that he was on the road to perfection, he was almost there.

CONAN: And it's almost difficult after reading your book to believe that there aren't people today saying, look, acoustic recording is the truth, the light and the way.

MILNER: Well, there actually is an engineer who I interviewed for the book named Peter Dilg who is, who works with wax cylinders and he's still, he is one of the few people I think left who can really speak - preach the gospel of acoustic recording. I mean just, that it really was an art that, you know, even if Edison was wrong, and obviously he was on many levels, there is something about acoustic recordings that just capture something. I mean, he's had a lot of musicians like Wynton Marsalis make recordings with him just to see what it sounds like.

CONAN: And let's see if we can get some callers in our conversation. Our guest in Greg Milner, he is the author of "Perfecting Sound Forever" and joins us from our bureau in New York, and 800-989-8255. How far do you go in pursuit of the absolute sound? Email us to talk@npr.org. Chris(ph) on the line from Modesto, California.

CHRIS (Caller): On yeah, I kind of take the opposite tack. In the mid to late '90s I was in college at Georgia State University and had the opportunity to deejay. We were in the process of - we had a lot of vinyl, but a lot of CDs. And I don't know if it was playing - I used to do a specialty show about Frank Zappa, and it was all vinyl. Now these days I have an iPhone, I have all my music at the highest possible quality that I think I can get it in but I still enjoy instead of playing it directly through my deck, I have one of those tape adaptors that goes into the tape player, because I still get that crackle, the pop and the hiss, and the staticky. And for some reason that just sounds a little bit more comfortable and more organic to me than the purely highest digital form of music.

CONAN: In other words, you get your old records and you play them on a turntable into a device that translates them into ones and zeros and puts them in your iPod.

CHRIS: Yeah, and then I turn around and I plug my iPhone into an analog tape device that goes into my analog tape deck in my car, older car, so I can hear the pops and crackles and stuff. And its just, I don't know if it was just me but there were a couple of people at the radio station who were audio engineers who really explained to me the difference between the sine wave of analog audio versus the ones and twos in the steps. I think it just put something in my head because I remember being really excited about Neil Young coming out with his recent package of audio because for the longest time artists like him held out because they really were, I think they really held the belief that digital really couldn't quite do it yet.

CONAN: And Greg Milner, Chris is hardly alone. In fact, the acoustic-versus-electric argument is replicated today in the digital-versus-vinyl argument.

Mr. MILNER: Absolutely, and I agree with him that there is something about analog. I mean, I try to tread lightly in that because I always worry about being called some sort of analog snob, which I have been, but that's the way it goes. But there is something about analog.

I remember speaking with Bob Woods, who was one of the founders of a classical music label called Telarc that was one of the first labels, probably the first label, to release digital recordings. These were on vinyl, but it was before CDs. And he was saying, you know, what people - they realized something is that if you take vinyl, and you just cut - you know, just have a blank vinyl disk and cut some grooves in it, and you put a needle on it, you'll hear, you know, a hissing sound, like (hissing). And everything you hear on vinyl is being heard through that filter of pink noise, and it kind of gives it a warmth. The way he put it is it feathers the edges.

And so there really is something about that analog distortion. It might not actually be accurate, but there's something about it that we love.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Chris. And if you doubt that things have changed, here's a test that Greg Milner offers you in his book. Turn on the radio and listen to the first singer you hear, really listen to the voice. Try to edit out the sound of the other instruments and concentrate on how the voice sounds.

Now turn down the volume, and imagine what it would sound like if the same person was standing in front of you singing an a cappella version of the same song. Think about the grain and texture of his naked voice as it plays in your head. Now turn the volume back up, and you'll probably be amazed at how inhuman the voice sounds coming out of the speakers.

Well, we've picked an extreme example, but here's Cher.

(Soundbite of song, "Do You Believe")

Ms. CHER (Singer): (Singing) So sad that you're leaving. Take time to believe it. But after all is said and done, you're gonna be the lonely one. Do you believe in life after love? I can feel something inside me say I really don't think you're strong enough, no. Do you believe...

CONAN: And Greg Milner, there is so much technical wizardry in that song.

Mr. MILNER: Absolutely.

CONAN: But the artificiality of it is astonishing.

Mr. MILNER: Yeah, I mean, that was one of the first songs that I think made people really notice that software program called Auto-Tune, which is a voice-correcting software. But the irony is that the producers of that song used it as an artistic tool. I mean, the voice sounds so artificial because they were playing around with the really aggressive settings on Auto-Tune, so her voice was being, quote-unquote "corrected," you know, really brutally.

Auto-Tune is usually used, you know, to actually make singers sound supposedly perfect, although my point about telling people to do that test, and I apologize in advance for anyone who does that test and whose enjoyment of the song they're hearing is kind of ruined forever, but is that it really makes it sound somewhat inhuman, even as it's making it sound perfect.

CONAN: Our guest is Greg Milner. He's the author of "Perfecting Sound Forever." He writes on music and politics and technology and a bunch of other stuff, all of it in a new book called "Perfecting Sound Forever: An Oral History of Recorded Music."

If you'd like to get in on the conversation, how far do you go for the absolute sound? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about recorded sound from Edison cylinders to the vinyl LP to enhancements, like Auto-Tune, all of it changing the way we hear the world around us.

Greg Milner addresses the subjects in his new book. It's called "Perfecting Sound Forever." One of the stories he tells in the books is how Led Zeppelin recorded the song "When the Levee Breaks," you can read why they put John Bonham and his drums at the bottom of a stairwell and hung the microphone three stories above. There's an excerpt at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So how far do you go for great sound? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can share those stories on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And here's an email from Mark(ph) in Frankfort, Kentucky. Where does your guest see the state of the loudness war and the effect of dynamic range compression and makeup gain on recordings? What are we missing that our predecessors heard?

And first Greg Milner, if you would, tell us what the loudness war was.

Mr. MILNER: Well, and it's still going on. I mean, first of all, it's just a brief description of what loudness is. Loudness is - this sounds cyclical, but loudness is how loud something sounds independent of your volume control. So in other words, a record that sounds loud even if your volume control is low, you know, has a lot of loudness to it, for lack of a better term.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We have an example of that. This is from 2003, the Black Eyed Peas, "Let's Get it Started."

(Soundbite of song "Let's Get it Started")

THE BLACK EYED PEAS (Musicians): (Singing) Inch by inch with the new solution. Transmit hits, with no delusion. The feeling's irresistible and that's how we moving.

Everybody, everybody, let's get into it. Get stupid. Get it started, get it started, get it started. Let's get it started, ha, let's get it started in here. Let's get it started, ha.

CONAN: And I think we know how the rest of the tune goes. How is that an example of the loudness war?

Mr. MILNER: Well, if you - basically, that song has next to no dynamic range. Dynamic range is the difference between the softest element of the music and the loudest element of the music.

Basically that song fires on all cylinders at all times. And if you were to look at a visual representation of the wave forms, you'd see that sometimes it gets so loud that the system can't even handle it and just basically just cuts off the top of the wave.

When the system can't handle it, it just, it inserts a tiny bit of distortion there. So really there are thousands upon thousands of tiny little black holes in that song where the system just kind of said I don't know how to process this and just put a little blip of nothingness in there, essentially.

CONAN: Doesn't that, in a sense, replicate the way pop music, rock 'n' roll, R&B, Motown, was recorded in the 1960s for AM radio, amplitude modulation? The louder it was, the further the signal went, so they made sure it was loud all the time.

Mr. MILNER: Yeah, I mean, in terms of - right, exactly. For AM radio, they did some of that, but basically playing around with loudness means compressing the signal. You essentially make the softer parts more like the louder parts, and you cut off the peaks of the louder parts so that everything is kind of in the same - sort of the same, because we perceive loudness based on the average sound level of something. So if there's no peaks, and everything is just basically the same, it's going to sound loud to us.

That was much harder to do in the analog era. I mean, it really took some skill on the part of engineers. Now, digitally, pretty much anyone can do it, and therein lies the problem.

CONAN: Let's talk with Lonnie(ph), Lonnie calling us from Nashville.

LONNIE (Caller): Hi Neal, hi Greg. I look forward to reading your book.

Mr. MILNER: Thank you.

LONNIE: The subject that you're talking about right now is something that - I went to school for film sound, and I had a silver age Hollywood sound mixer who was teaching us, and he would talk to us a lot about compression. And it wasn't until I had enough experience to really be able to hear the difference in things. And I feel like they ought to start taking children on more school trips to hear a symphony play because I think the loudness wars have sort of bullied people's ears into a point where I'm afraid humans might evolve to where they won't even be able to hear certain frequencies at some point because they just don't need to, or they have no reason to.

And I think that, you know, for people that are audiophiles and think about these kind of things, you know, I think that - or people that just like music generally, they seek these different kinds of listening out. But you know, with all the technology, the explosion of things, I do worry that it has sort of changed the basic way people listen to things and MP3s.

And the original question, how much are you willing to pay or sacrifice for fidelity, I would say for me, it's just, I sacrifice less room on my hard drive so I can get higher resolution MP3s when I download them.

CONAN: It's interesting, Greg. Isn't it - you quote Glenn Gould at one note, the famous pianist, he was saying back in the '50s, I think it was, that you know, eventually people aren't going to go to concerts anymore because the recording is the product.

Mr. MILNER: Yeah, I'm not sure he went that far, but I think what he said was something like that, which is basically that the idea that live, you know, symphonic concert experience as sort of the baseline, is disappearing and someday will disappear completely. And I think what the caller said about people's perception being changed is absolutely true. And if you talk to engineers, especially engineers who have been around long enough to, you know, to have done a lot of work in the pre-digital era, they'll say pretty much exactly the same thing, that you know, there's just certain things that people who haven't - who aren't accustomed to analog recordings and the way it used to be just don't even really know what they're missing necessarily.

And look, I want to say, you know, there's a lot of great things about iPods and MP3s, whatnot. They're very convenient. I have one. I don't listen to it that often. But, so I don't want to sound like I'm a Luddite, but there is something that we've sacrificed. That's just the way it is.

CONAN: And again, that convenience-versus-fidelity argument goes back to Edison again. He insisted that his cylinders put out better sound than the newfangled gramophone disks, and he was probably right. But the disks were a lot more convenient, easier to make and more durable, and people bought them by the millions.

Mr. MILNER: Yeah, I mean, that's the thing. He was the first of many people who would make that same mistake, although I kind of sense that that mistake is not being made as much anymore, but this idea that people would really pay for audio quality, that that was the be-all and end-all of the audio experience, and it just has rarely proved to be the case for most of the general public.

CONAN: Lonnie, thanks very much for the call.

LONNIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye bye. Let's see if we can go now to Steve(ph), Steve with us from Cleveland.

STEVE: Yeah, it's Steve.

CONAN: Yeah, go ahead. Yeah, go ahead.

STEVE: Yeah, hi. My suggestion is you guys fasten your seatbelts over there because you're about to get an earful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEVE: The point is there's an old saying in the recording business, having been a professional musician for years, you can't polish a - well, let's just say a thing that you find floating in the toilet. And it all starts with the beginning product.

You have to have to have quality musicians, quality singers, and you know, no amount of technology is going to make something that's bad sound good.

My case in point, look at The Beatles' recordings, look at the Elvis recordings. These things were done on four-track, six-track, eight-track - zero technology, and they still hold up today.

CONAN: Zero technology, he says, to record The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" back at the Abbey Road Studios in 1967.

(Soundbite of song "A Day in the Life")

Mr. JOHN LENNON (The Beatles): (singing) I read the news today, oh boy. Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. And though the holes were rather small, they had to count them all. Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall...

CONAN: But do they know how many times they had to overdub on that four-track recorder to make all those tracks?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's hardly zero technology, Steve. Steve, are you there? Oh, I think Steve has left us. But anyway, that is hardly zero technology. This is the apex, maybe, of four-track technology, but nevertheless - and beautifully done by George Martin and others - but nevertheless, that's a lot of technology.

Mr. MILNER: Yeah, absolutely, a lot of technology. And it took a lot of foresight to make that because essentially what bands like The Beatles were doing is they'd have four tracks, so they could record four different things. And then if they wanted to keep going, they'd have to do what's called bouncing, which means they would mix all four tracks down to another track, on another four-track machine, leaving three open tracks to continue the song and so on and so on and so on.

And so every time you do a bounce, you're degrading the quality a little bit. And so you really, really have to be careful, and it's amazing what they were able to do.

I mean, in a way, it's been said a lot but on the other hand, maybe not often enough, just how, you know, how much foresight went into making those Beatles recordings.

CONAN: They were ahead of their time, and in fact, well, it takes a lot to do the same effects today. Nevertheless, if you're going back to stripped-down sound, go back to some of the earliest recordings. Here we have a song recorded by Leadbelly at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, recorded by John and Allen Lomax back in 1934, and this was I think on a portable cylinder. This is called "Take a Whiff on Me."

(Soundbite of song, "Take a Whiff on Me")

Mr. HUDDIE "LEADBELLY" LEDBETTER (Singer): (Singing) ...Take a whiff on me, take a whiff on me, and everybody, take a whiff on me. Ho, ho, baby take a whiff on me. Take a whiff on me, take a whiff on me, and everybody, take a whiff on me. Ho, ho, baby take a whiff on me.

CONAN: And there in the background, you could hear John Lomax acting, I guess, as the first record producer, asking Leadbelly some questions there in the middle of his tune, something you wouldn't even think of today. Nevertheless, I wanted to get to a question that you raise in your conversation about the Lomaxes and Leadbelly. You say that a record is always ideological. What do you mean by that?

Mr. MILNER: I mean that it's never transparent, that there's always decisions that go into making it. And those decisions reflect certain world views about, you know, how things are supposed to sound, what the meaning of accuracy is, what the meaning of truth is. And in the case of Leadbelly, I mean, it's - in the sense that he was really guided in what he could record.

You know, I called John and Alan Lomax some of the earliest producers because they were really doing what a producer does in the most basic sense, at least the way it used to be defined. They were controlling the access to the technology. And they wouldn't let Leadbelly record a lot of the stuff he wanted to record because they didn't see it as authentic. And so, that was - in a sense, they were really, really hardcore producers.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Eric(ph). Eric with us from San Francisco.

ERIC (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

ERIC: I really appreciate the conversation. I own an analog, I have a Studer A820 tape machine. I record with two preamps and stuff all the time, and people give me a bunch of money to do that. But I still appreciate the fact that probably the newest epic instrument is your big brother's laptop that has Pro Tools on it. People bring me stuff that I can't believe that they recorded with gadgets and big brother's old laptop from college last year.

And it seems like the whole thing has gone full circle to where people aren't making money off the recordings. They make the money off the live performance. So it's kind of going back to where it was. I see a circle. I used to mix the monitors at the Avalon Ballroom. I recorded with Tom Fly(ph) at the Record Plant, all analog. I've had some of the best features that can possibly be. And I just - I love analog sound and spent a lot of money to get those tubes to glow. But it's changing. That's all I wanted to say.

CONAN: Yeah. Eric - bands used to tour to promote the record and now they promote - put out records to promote the tour.

ERIC: I mean, you can see Madonna's last record, she sold a fraction of what she made on her tour. And all the artists - Springsteen, everybody. The - if you look at the numbers, the recorded piece is - doesn't figure in anymore. It's - everybody can get that for free. I mean, that's over. The selling of music is over. I mean, they can - they gave a $1.4 million fine to that girl, who's a housewife, the other day. The thing is so skewed that I can't believe it. I just - but I still just love music. I love to hear new recordings. I can't - you know, listening to a John Mellencamp album on my iPod or listening to, you know, Coltrane on my iPod, that isn't a listening experience to me.


ERIC: I mean, I got to hear it on speakers in a room. Analog is just better. People have forgotten. It's like they have a short memory.

CONAN: Eric, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ERIC: Yeah. Keep doing it.

CONAN: We're talking about recorded sound and how it's changed the way we hear the world with Greg Milner, the author of "Perfecting Sound Forever." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Eric, that last caller was talking about Pro Tools. And here's a recording of, I believe, the first number one song recorded entirely with Pro Tools.

(Soundbite of song, "Livin La Vida Loca")

Mr. RICKY MARTIN (Singer): (Singing) She'll make you take your clothes off and go dancing in the rain. She'll make you live her crazy life but she'll take away your pain like a bullet to your brain. Come on. Upside, inside out, livin' la vida loca. She'll push and pull you down, livin' la vida loca.

CONAN: A lot of boogying there in the control room. So before anybody puts a bullet in their brain, we're - Pro Tools, how did that change things?

Mr. MILNER: Well, Pro Tools basically - one of the biggest - well, first, I should say briefly what it is. It's an example of what are called digital audio workstations that are basically all-in-one computer software and hardware systems that that let you record everything digitally and mix it digitally, you know, right onto hard disk.

The main reason it changed everything is it really democratized recordings. I mean, you don't really have to depend on access to an expensive recording studio anymore. That's one. And it also changed things in that you now have - you have dozens and dozens of tracks at your disposal. You can - you know, you really have the world of sound at your fingertips. Sound is completely flexible, so recordings have become much less spontaneous. People tend - you can over-think things because they can just spend, you know, days or weeks making decisions, tinkering with things. So, there are various ways in which it's really changed the game.

CONAN: And in your book, you tell the stories of any number of individuals, including, well, of course, Ricky Martin there with the first song - number one song recorded on Pro Tools. But from Thomas Edison, you talked about Leopold Stokowski, who did so much to affect the way sound of classical music was changed. Then there's people you don't expect like Merv Griffin, who recorded - well, I guess his was the first album ever recorded on tape.

Mr. MILNER: Yeah, onto magnetic tape. It was - he - basically, the story with the magnetic tape is that it was quote, unquote, discovered. And I say quote, unquote because it had been around for a long time, but the Germans really kind of perfected it. And during World War II, an American G.I. heard German radio transmissions and couldn't figure out how they sounded so good.

Right after the war, figured out that it was these magnetic tape machines, shipped a couple of them back, rebuilt them in the United States. And he had a little studio in San Francisco, and you know, started recording people onto tape. But it just so happened that this - he called him the fat kid with the nice voice, came by one day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILNER: It just happened that that ended up being the first record recorded onto magnetic tape.

CONAN: And then other pioneers, you don't think of the great guitarist, Les Paul. Well, one of the reasons he could play all those notes was he layered them. He had the first four-track tape recorder.

Mr. MILNER: Yeah. I mean, well, Les Paul was doing that even before magnetic tape. I mean, it's - the legend of Les Paul is occasionally blown a little bit out of proportion. But one thing that is undeniably true about him is that he understood what you - could be done if you could layer tracks one upon the other. And - but this was before magnetic tape so he had to use two disc machines.

He'd have to record one part and then use the second tape to record his new part while playing back the first part and so on and so on and so on. Kind of what The Beatles and other groups ended up doing, you know, bouncing tracks. But because this is before magnetic tape, it was really a difficult, laborious experience.

CONAN: And other stories including Bing Crosby, who, because he wanted to play a lot of golf, put tape-recorded radio programs on the air for the first time -this program, of course, is live - that enabled them to lie with tape, compress time, change time itself. These stories and many more all in "Perfecting Sound Forever: An Oral History of Recorded Music." Greg Milner, thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. MILNER: Thank you.

CONAN: And coming up, we're going to be talking about the events going on in Iran, which some have dubbed the Twitter Revolution. Can we trust what we read in 140 characters or less? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.