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February 4, 2007

Filed under: music»recording

Book Review: Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, by Mark Katz

I've made no secret of my obsession with digital audio and its effect on listening habits. When David Byrne mentioned that someone had written a scholarly book exactly about that topic, I went looking for a copy as soon as I could, although I expected to be disappointed by it. But surprisingly, Capturing Sound is an interesting and accessible--if lightweight--look at the history of interaction between recording technology and music.

Those expecting an immediate leap into the intricacies of MP3 and DRM will have to be patient: Katz basically proceeds in chronological order, beginning with the first phonographs and how they were meant to make America "more musical." Subsequent chapters explore the ways in which jazz musicians altered their style and timing for recordings, how recordings began to emphasize violin vibrato, "grammophonmusik," and DJ turntable battles. In each of these, Katz's goal is not too show that technology irrevocably led to a specific cultural output (determinism), but to show that the musicians and the machines interacted.

There's a lot of emphasis on phonographs and old recording styles in the book, material with the potential to be boring or overly nostalgiac. But Katz has a deft hand for anecdotes and revealing stories that liven up his subjects. For example, when discussing the spread of the home phonograph, he talks about the Graduola--basically a volume control switch attached to the playback mechanism. Although it sounds silly to modern sensibilities, the Graduola apparently gave phonograph owners the feeling that by controlling the volume, they were "conducting" the record, and by extension lent a feeling of "musicianship." Then again, anyone who has watched an exuberant game of Guitar Hero may not think it's so silly after all. Are music games the new Graduola?

Katz's chapter on DJ battles was, for me, one of the most fascinating in the book. He explores the background and social culture of turntablism, then spends several pages on a step-by-step description of a winning turntable battle track. It's an impressive glimpse into a maligned musical genre, although he warns that the track itself (included on the CD in the back of the book) will not sound as interesting to untrained ears, and indeed it's barely comprehensible. Capturing Sound also gets off to a strong start in the final chapter, on digital sampling and audio, where he examines Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" at the same critical level of detail. It falls slightly short when he begins discussing MP3 audio, but peprhaps this has more to do with the preponderance of discussion around MP3 lately (there's little new anyone could say about it at this point), and less to do with Katz's focus.

Capturing Sound is carefully nonpartisan when it comes to its subject matter. Katz is no technology apologist, and although he may be an enthusiast he seems to be a cautious one. It's thought-provoking and, at 190 pages for the main text, a short read. After putting the book down, I felt like I had new tools to compare and understand the differences between live and recorded music, and obviously I think that's a good debate to be having.

Future - Present - Past