On Fidelity And Presence in Music

by Thomas Brett

In his Marketplace Of Ideas podcast interview with Greg Miller, author of the book Perfecting Sound Forever, Colin Marshall asks:

“There seems to be this divide between [sonic] fidelity and presence.  Between trying to replicate the experience of hearing a live-produced sound and making the recording its own experience?”

In other words, is a recording meant to be an accurate, realistic reproduction of a particular time and place (presence), or is it its own distinct medium with no required allegiance to real world sonics (fidelity)?

These two poles of fidelity and presence are interesting to many musicians, recordists, and listeners (who can be the same person btw!). Indeed, the ideas keep coming up.  They underlie arguments about the “analog versus digital” sound wars, for instance.  Which is better: the “warm” presence of analog, or the “cold” fidelity of digital?  They are at the back of the mind of any home recordist who wonders about the best way to capture the sound of an acoustic musical instrument, and then after recording it, weighs the pros and cons of adding some virtual reverb effect that never existed in the real world.  Fidelity and presence also shape the sound choices of the electronic musician in his or her quest to both simulate real sounds (via sampling) and also mutate them beyond recognition through advanced synthesis.

And the playback technologies musicians use similarly engage with fidelity and presence.  On the one hand, headphones promise ever greater dynamic range and increased fidelity (“You’ll hear everything!”).  On the other hand, many recording studios boast a set of trusty Yamaha NS-10 monitors (the ones with the white speaker cones) not because they sound great–their sound is actually heavy on the mid-range frequencies–but because they have a special presence about them that a lot of people trust.  Finally, who can forget the bickering over the relative merits of high-resolution Wave audio versus the compromised and compressed MP3 format?  Fidelity versus presence.

And so we move back and forth between fidelity and presence.  The prospect of ever-increasing fidelity propels us towards an imagined  perfection, while the poetics of presence reminds us of all the wonderful imperfections, limitations and crazy possibilities–the poetry–of the gear we have in our hands here and now.