The song, an American classic, is instantly recognizable, and its recording in Muscle Shoals established the city as a power player in soul music in the mid 1960s. In fact, Alabama recording studios were so popular after the song’s release that many of the world’s most famous acts, including the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, wanted to record their music here.

Andre Millard takes a break from recording an interview with a production company developing a television series that explores the relationship between modern society and its digital gadgets. Millard, a professor of history, was interviewed as an expert on the history of sound recording.

Listen to Percy Sledge sing “When a Man Loves a Woman” and you can feel the angst. The passion of the vocals gives the feeling that Sledge’s heart is practically breaking as he belts out the painful lyrics.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” also is one of the worst sound recordings of a major hit record in history, says Andre Millard, Ph.D., professor of history in the School of Social & Behavioral Sciences and an expert on the history of sound recording.

“It is one of the worst recordings ever made,” Millard says, “but as a song, it will knock you over every time you hear it. You want to burst into tears because it’s such a soulful song.

“But if that was your final test for a class in music technology, you would flunk it.”

Recorded sound has improved dramatically since Sledge’s classic was cut 40-plus years ago, but no iPod can improve the quality of any of the oldies but goodies. Millard recently discussed the history and future of recorded sound with a documentary film crew from LaPalm & Company Productions, which is developing a television series exploring the relationship between modern society and its digital gadgets. Millard was tapped because of his knowledge of the phonograph, one of the first truly consumer electronic appliances.

Millard is a former Edison historian and editor of the Thomas Edison Papers, which has more than 3,000,000 pieces in its archive, and he has written a book about the inventor and two of his greatest inventions — the phonograph and motion pictures. (Thomas Edison constructed the phonograph in December 1877, and a patent was issued two months later.)

At first, Millard was interested in Edison’s work with electric light and power. But, as a lover of music and owner of a record collection approaching 1,000, Millard was drawn to studying the phonograph and the history of sound. “And here I am today,” he says.

Old school
Millard can’t remember whether the first record he bought was “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks, or “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen. Either way, it was a 7-inch, 45 rpm vinyl single.

There is something magical about the sound created by those old records, Millard says. And he understands why some say CDs can’t compare to vinyl when it comes to capturing sound.

“You can’t get any better than a well- mastered, high-end CD,” he says. “But having said that, I know plenty of people who listen to 78s who will swear on a stack of Bibles that it is better. Their main argument is warmth. Warmth is something you can’t measure.”

Millard says we hear what we want to hear, however. “I think you can fool yourself into thinking what does and doesn’t sound great,” he says.

So what is best for sound? The well-   mastered, high-end CD is right at the top. DVDs contain the best sound, Millard says, because they can hold more information. If you’re looking for good sound, you don’t want to listen to a digital file — the most popular format for buying music today.

“I think when you compress a digital files you lose a lot of space and there is a certain flatness to the recording,” Millard says.

The future
Where is the future of sound going?

Most believe iPods and other handheld digital music players are here to stay for a while, especially with the increasing number of Internet downloads of music. The CD format is certainly nearing the end of its reign as the dominant format for commercial recordings. CD sales have plummeted more than 20 percent this year, negating gains in sales on iTunes and similar services, according to the New York Times.

Since Dolby 5.1 digital sound is far superior to any existing stereo sound system, such as that amplifier and two large speakers many of us have in our living rooms, Millard predicts the highest fidelity music will be issued on DVDs instead of CDs in the future. “DVDs have more digital info, more channels and everything will sound better,” Millard says.

In his 1995 book America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound (updated in 2005), Millard predicted we would move away from having separate instruments and machines for our media, whether it be communication, music or movies. Earlier this year, Apple introduced its iPhone. It’s a mobile phone, widescreen iPod with touch controls and Internet communications device with desktop-class e-mail, Web browsing and search functions in one, small and lightweight handheld device.

“I don’t think we’re far from having one handheld device that has our phone, music, movies, movie camera, computer and our personal information on it,” Millard says. “It will be our ID.”

So does it appear as if the days of reading recording liner notes are nearing extinction?

“Maybe we can get them sent to us in an e-mail,” he says.