LISTENING AND RECONNECTING IN A DIGITAL WORLD
By Damon Krukowski. The New Press, 2017. 225 pages, hardcover.
Review by Francis DiMenno
If you have ever wondered why CDs and digital media sound different from vinyl LPs and live performances, and if you have ever marveled at how much the world has changed since the late 1980s due to digital media, then this book will go a long way in explaining the how and why.
Some noise, first: In high school I had a gifted English teacher named John Engel, who taught us, among other things, about the passage of the agrarian society, the dislocations of the industrial revolution, and how these developments affected everyday people. Hand-crafted materials, he told us, had given way to machine-produced items which were inferior in nearly every way. Except that they were cheap, and plentiful. This dilemma was explored on the Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music, in a song called “Peg and Awl,” recorded by the Carolina Tar Heels in 1928. We also find this opinion echoed in a 1936 Little Orphan Annie strip, in which Annie is befriended by the kindly cobbler Mr. Boot. When he finds himself temporarily outclassed by a flashy city slicker who undercuts his prices with machine-tooled methods, he is asked why he doesn’t follow suit. Mr. Boot proudly draws himself up and says “Good quality… the best leather…hand-crafting. I can’t do it any other way. None of these newfangled shortcuts for me!” And, with Annie’s resourceful help, he not only prevails, but becomes a millionaire.
We see the clash between the old and new begin to assume greater rhetorical prominence in the 1960s, in the world of Underground Comics.In touting the back to the land movement, Mr. Natural says: “The right tool for the right job!” “The old ways is the best ways,” says Mr. Natural’s father. Meanwhile, General Electric’s slogan was “Progress is our most important product.”
So: Old and new. Systolic and diastolic. Reaction and rebellion. And now, analog and digital.
Now for the signal: By giving us a thoroughgoing explanation of the term “signal to noise” and enabling us to understand how much we lose when signal is enshrined and noise is discarded, Krukowski’s book is a useful primer for thoughtfully navigating between the analog and digital worlds. Damon Krukowski, formerly of Galaxie 500 and currently of Damon & Naomi, is a natural teacher and leads the reader through his argument point by point, in much the same way as a gifted tutor or tour guide might explain relatively complex phenomena in ways a layman might readily understand.
Along the way, to further bolster his points and make for a fun read, the author takes us on many interesting side excursions. Sinatra’s fabled breath control. The vagaries of GPS, Google Maps, and Spotify Discover. Dark Side of the Moon in Quadraphonic sound. The studio wizardry of Brian Wilson and the Beatles. Carbon mics vs. electret mics. The children’s game of Chinese Whispers. Old-fashioned phone booths. The origin of the SIRI icon. Record Stores in Cambridge. (Stereo Jack, who defected from Cheapo’s and opened his own store, could sometimes come across as rather brusque.)
He also explains the origins of idioms and technical terms such as crosstalk, sidetone, latency, “put a sock in it,” and “His Master’s Voice.” Also, wow and flutter. K-weighting. Parlor guitars. There are also many interesting bits of trivia: the meaning of “Golden ears.” The audible sound of the air conditioning at the end of “A Day in the Life.” The once-famous comedy routine “Cohen on the Telephone.” The debut of the short-lived motion picture phenomenon of SENSURROUND, which relied on subwoofers to literally shake the seats of the moviegoers. What it really means to turn the Marshall amp “up to 11.” (Nothing, actually.) What zero on a VU meter actually signifies. (“An average pivot between a bit too little signal and a bit too much.”)
All of these side trips help to lead the reader inexorably to Krukowski’s conclusion: that the impulse to separate the signal from the noise, either as a cost-saving measure (as in digital media) or as a “strategy for the monetization of data gathered from users” (in social media), is misguided at best. Because “Noise has value… The value of space and time.” (Author’s emphasis.)
This is a book which every musician, especially those who are interested in recording technology, should carefully read. A person who specializes in information science will also find it immensely valuable. Don’t take my word for it. Read this incisive and entertaining book and see for yourself. It will make you smarter, and possibly even help you to see (and hear) the world in an entirely new way.