On the way out of my local library last week, I spotted The Revenge of Analog by David Sax on the “new books” shelves. The sub-title is “Real Things and Why They Matter,” which is oddly confusing. I guess I had no idea that real things had ceased to matter or that analog was particularly “real.” Design Magazine did a brief review of this book a while back and I was entertained by the gushing over vinyl records, as I usually am. Revenge spends the first chapter raving about how and why vinyl records have made a big comeback. I think Sax has the how down pat, but is a little fuzzy on the why.
Jack White, the big proponent of vinyl who has yet to make a record that doesn’t sound like shit, has a quote in Revenge that seems to sum up his philosophy, “With vinyl, you’re down on your knees. You’re at the mercy of the needle. You watch the record spoin and it’s like you’re sitting around a campfire. It’s hypnotic.” I have not problem imagining X-geners and Millenials wanting to be down “on their knees” to mediocre technology, but “romance” and messing with cleaning records and putting up with manufacturing defects and high prices don’t seem compatible to me. White, like his idol Neil Young, claims “the actual sound of analogue is ten times better than that of digital.” If that were true, Young would have made a second decent record and White would have made at least one.
If you read Revenge, don’t expect technical competence. Statements like, “Digital music takes an analog sound wave and translates it into 1’s and 0’s, inevitably sacrificing chunks of information, and sound, in the process. Usually, digital files are compressed to a smaller size to make them easier to download and stream, and their volume levels are jacked up to compensate. But none of that really matters to the vast majority of music listneers, who aren’t really that concerned about sound quality.” You might think Sax would have passed something this stupid by someone who knows something about audio engineering, but you’d be wrong.
The book does make one solid point in the chapter on vinyl, though. In explaining why “digital data” is at fault for devaluing popular music,:the ease at which decent recordings can be made with digital technology put the lie to the idea that artists are a rare commodity. With 8 billion people on the planet, it’s pretty hard to imagine that world wouldn’t produce twenty to fifty million musical geniuses. With access to professional quality recording equipment available to most of those few hundred million musicians, the result is a flood of brilliant, original popular music (and hundreds of millions of dramatically lessor talents) and a swamped buying public.
Sax’s take on the studio recording process is even more open-mouthed baffled and impressed. He is so enamored with the past that he didn’t even bother to ask if analog tape and vinyl have any sonic drawbacks. Likewise, when he finally discovers live music, he writes, “a great live band is a bolt of lightning, and an iPod is a lightning bug.” Imagine what he would think if he were to attend an orchestra concert?
The 2nd chapter is titled “The Revenge of Paper.” You’d think it would be about books and magazines, but it’s about a fashion accessory called the “Moleskine notebook.” There is a chapter for “The Revenge of Print,” but since I’m reading this book on my Android tablet it may not carry the appropriate clout, at least in my case.