Sunday, 24 February 2019

The New Analog

Sound Advice

The New Analog -
Listening and Reconnecting
in a Digital World

by Damon Krukowski
The MIT Press ISBN: 978-0-262-03791-4

Damon Krukowski is, so the inside of the dust jacket tells me (beautifully designed and spot varnished to look like an old standard, non-picture sleeve housing a 7” 45RPM single), a former member of the indie rock band Galaxie 500 and currently one half of the folk rock duo Damon and Naomi (the second member being Naomi Yang, who designed said dust jacket and took the photo of the author located inside). And I had never heard of him at all until I flicked through this book on the shelves of the Institute of Contemporary Arts last year and was lucky enough to receive it from a family member this Christmas.

What I do know about him now, of course, is that he’s an absolutely fantastic writer, able to both enlighten and entertain with a breezy and easy to digest writing style... for which I am grateful. And I’m certainly better off for having read it.

The New Analog - Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World is not just a book about the way the transitioning from analog to the digital realm has robbed us of certain irreplaceable elements in the world of sound... although, to be fair, the book does concentrate on audio which, given the author’s background, is to be expected. However, he is also able to demonstrate a load of other realms in which the loss of analog processes, both physically and metaphorically in some cases, is less than beneficial in some ways... although he does point out that he’s not necessarily anti-digital in that gung ho manner that some of us may be. He does though, point out that people have been throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, quite a lot and, in a modern society where businesses in control of the means of access to the digital world are more interested in profit margins, how this is sometimes done quite deliberately.

After a lovely opening where he gleefully expounds the many positive properties of the 'printed on paper format' you are reading the book on (I don’t know how this chapter works on the MP3 version you can buy but it certainly makes sense to me that there is no kindle edition of this book at time of writing this review), he then goes on to explain about Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law is a phenomenon which started in the 1960s and refers to the rapid development of integrated circuits (which are a component of most of the things the average human being uses on a day to day basis) and the pattern of them doubling in power and capacity (while everything gets smaller) roughly every eighteen months. This is a law which he applies to quite a lot of the things which he talks about in this book and I now wonder why I hadn’t come across such an important term before.

He then goes on to talk, not necessarily in a totally chronological fashion, about the history of the world in terms of analog to digital development and progress, carefully mapping out the things which are lost as much as gained and, frankly, giving a journey to the reader which is definitely something you can learn a lot of new things from (well I did anyway). For instance, he starts off highlighting how the hot metal presses of printing gave way to the ‘cold type’ of computer made letters which sped up the process and cheapened it greatly but at the expense of sometimes unreliable, distorted and broken letters. This loss of consistency and clarity reminded me of the number of different photocopiers I’ve seen come and go at work over the last quarter of a century and how they seem to increase greatly in the amount of different and new things they can do while, almost always, churning out a lot less quality prints and problematic colours than each previous model of a machine. This kind of quality versus scope problem can be seen in a lot of modern devices of course, from televisions to the mobile phone (and he talks quite a lot about phone technology in at least one of the chapters).

He therefore talks about MP3s and why they sound much worse than physical media, for example... and that they were actually designed that way. And this is where conspiracy theorists or just people who are not fans of huge corporations will start to get the little spidey sense going in the back of their brain... we’re very much into that profit versus quality way of life here again.

He also talks about concepts like the way in which headphones have changed over the years... not technology wise (although I’m sure they have... he highlights just how bad the popular Beats headphones are) but in the way they are used by people. He reminded me of the times when I too used to use them and that they tethered you to one place by a wire... they were not meant to take you out into the streets but into a different headspace where you could experience the journey of what you were listening too without distraction. It seems he came to this realisation when he saw a woman have an minor accident because of the inner journey she was having on her headphones while riding her bicycle. So yeah, even just this reminder of the way in which we were free in a different way with a pair of headphones was worth the price of admission for this book to me (which was even more worth it when the book was a present, of course). Heck, even the discovery of the late 19th Century device known as the Th√©√Ętrophone, which let subscribers listen to the performance at the opera house in stereo as it was being performed... from a distance... was worth it to me. I’d never heard of this thing nor imagined it was possible in the 1890s, to be honest.

And this quality versus progress theme is one of the things he talks about all the way through. Such as The Beatles and The Beach Boys making great advances in the recording studio but, again, not without sacrifice. So, yes, he talks about multi-track tape freeing artists in recording studios and making albums like Revolver (one of my favourites) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band possible. He also talks about terrible modern day sound engineering and the difference between, for example, loudness and clarity. There’s a lovely little story about pop group KISS and something they used to do with a big bank of speakers on stage but, I won’t spoil it for you here. He also goes on to talk about Napster, iTunes and the death of CD (which I really hope is a premature prediction, to be honest, although it seems to be dying now and, frankly, what we have to replace it... just like all those new photocopier models we’ve had over the years... is frankly just not good enough).

One of the things I learned from this, as it’s quite a prominent feature of a lot the things the writer talks about, is the difference between ‘signal’ and ‘noise’ and how the constant reduction of noise versus signal is resultant in a catastrophic loss, in some cases. One of the things which really sparked a ‘me too’ moment was his description of the way an iPhone works. I never knew they had three different microphones in different places but that two of them are used to gauge the ‘noise’ which it then uses to counteract and discard from the ‘signal’ which is being transmitted. He talks about the way old analog phone systems used to give you a sense of distance from the person by noise and volume on the line and how that has been completely obliterated. So, how many times have you thought the person at the other end of the 'line' these days had vanished or been cut off? Indeed, Krukowski says that one of the most common phrases in the age of the mobile phone is “Are you there?” This is because the noise cancellation has been totally successful and you can no longer pick up any ambient sound whatsoever from the other end of the phone... just a dry silence until that person speaks.

Other ways he highlights the things we’ve lost is to highlight that Spotify and iTunes etc completely throw out all the information that you would get from, say, sleeve notes. So you might have the name of a group but you won’t be given the individual names of the members, the song writers, the composers etc... they are left off. And the royalty cheques are an issue too now, obviously.

He also talks about how the time lag between, say, radio and digital TV are so great that, if you are listening to a live broadcast of a ball game on the radio and simultaneously watching it on TV... the radio broadcaster will describe things to you that haven’t happened yet because your ‘live’ digital signal is quite delayed and, also, they have quite different delays even if you are comparing exactly the same brand and models of devices. I know myself, from when various family members have TVs on in two different rooms showing the same channel, how out of phase like an old Steve Reich recording they are. This is, perhaps, somewhat troubling too.

But not as troubling as to how advertisers, despite being legally required now to not turn the noise up on television advertisements, are able to use the digital technology used to measure such things... which isn’t as accurate as analog (surprise, surprise) or, at least, not functioning in the same way... to get around the legal requirements and present a mix of the sound much more booming and present than the TV programmes themselves. This is something I noticed decades ago... before I stopped watching adverts and allowing them on my airwaves. And don’t get me started on the difference between ‘analog time’ and ‘digital time’ (other than it makes me more confident of my realisation, some many years ago, that time doesn’t actually exist).

So... that’s all I’m going to share about this particular book, I think because, out of the many books I read a year, The New Analog - Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World is something I think that everybody should read or, at least, be interested in. There are lessons to be learned from this and, though I’m not naive enough to think that anything which this brilliant writer illuminates by way of this book is ever going to change how things are moving forwards (and simultaneously backwards), I think people should educate themselves on some of the concepts and realities contained herein. This is an absolutely wonderful tome, it’s easy (and fairly quick) to read and it also has some nice photographs coupled with a nice, clean design. What more could you want form a lovely, analog book? Give this one a go.

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