On Fidelity And Presence in Music

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.

On Musical Pictures Of The World

In an interview on The Marketplace Of Ideas podcast, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses the value of the humanities:

“The great task of the humanities is to draw on the rich body of human creativity in literature, the arts, music, film, and so on to help us interpret and live in our world.  And a kind of cold descriptive analysis of our world leaves out things that are important for human beings who are going to live in it.  There has to be a perspective on the world that is the perspective of a human being–facing the world that is full of demands on her attention, demands on her time, things that excite her, things that attract her, things that repulse her.  And that perspective on the world, that irreducibly human perspective, is one that naturally goes with the humanities, which are full of invitations to respond to the world in those ways.”

“We humans live with many pictures of the world.  We do not live with one picture.  Nobody has a totally integrated picture of the world. (…)  I have many poetic pictures of the world, I have literary pictures of the world, I have musical pictures–I have many ways of representing reality and the needs and challenges of the world. And I move among them.  I need them all to make human sense of the world.”

So, if we are to talk about our musical picture(s) of the world, what are we talking about?  How does music act as a prism through which we experience the world?  And how do different musics do their prismatic filtering differently?

One way music provides a picture of the world is by modelling the world’s relations (social, temporal, physical) in one way or another and through sonic signification.  There is an extensive literature of these topics, but ultimately we need to remember that music carries out its modelling and signifying work metaphorically: it’s an abstraction of our lives.  Which is to say that there is not usually a one to one correlation between music’s sounds and things and events in the world outside of music.  Rather, music works by suggestive enchantment, conjuring up a world through its internal relations against which, you, the listener, bring to bear your own experiences.  Whatever meanings may arise–“That music made me cry!”–do so out of this encounter.  I should say too that this whole process I find quite wonderous, which is why I keep writing about it from different angles.

Different musics provide different pictures of the world.  I leave you with two examples, chosen somewhat randomly but also because they are so different from one another.  The first is a clip of the American drone-noise-metal band Sun O))) who make a (spectacularly) loud form of slow and heavy electric guitar-based drone music.  The second example is a clip of Japanese koto player Yoshie Sakai performing on the koto zither. As you listen (and remember: you don’t have to like something to listen to it), you might think about the different “pictures of the world” your encounter with each music suggests to you.

On Making Music Tangible

“How physical is music?” asks Clive Bell at the outset of a recent article in Wire magazine on the English musician Richard Skelton.  Part of what makes Skelton unique is his approach to trying to make music making a more physical thing than its evanescent sounds might suggest.  Thus, the composer-musician embraces a unique recording process: he brings his instruments (violin, guitar, mandolin) out to the remote countryside of Northern England and records instrumental sounds in situ, capturing both instrumental sonics as well the grain of the natural environment (wind, water, goats, etc.).  On the production end, Skelton self-publishes his music on the Sustain-Release label in the form of one-of-a- kind artifacts–CDs housed in hand-wrapped slip covers, or polished wood boxes with 100-page booklets (personalized with the purchaser’s name on them), sometimes even including a twig or vial of water from the landscape in which the music was recorded.

Sounds quirky and over the top you say?  Perhaps.  But Skelton is looking for a high level of integration between music and our physical lives.  Here he is on his rationale for recording outside in the field:

“I’d take my instruments answer myself up there.  I’d make a recording in one of the [bridge] arches and then play it back in the other one.  Record it, so you get the reverberation.  But the important thing for me was coming and playing here, and the recordings themselves weren’t the objective.  It was a document.  I was trying to get the idea of the music becoming part of the landscape” (Wire, April 2011, p.46).

Skelton also weighs in on the importance of music as a recorded object (CD, LP, tape):

“There will be a whole generation of people who consume music as a series of noughts and ones.  But for me, part of the process of consuming music was about the physical object” (48).

So, back to Clive Bell’s question about the physicality of music. Yes, music is a most immaterial thing–in both live performance and recorded playback.  But many of us listeners like stuff we can put our hands on and touch, and so we can understand where Skelton is coming from.

On Designing New Musical Controllers

A while back I wrote about MIDI hardware controllers which are used by musicians who want to control their computer software.  (You can read the post here.)  Why does one need a controller when performing music with say, a laptop?  For one thing, it gives you the sense of having physical, tactile control over your music.  Rather than using a mouse pad to point and click your way through musical actions, a hardware controller makes making electronic music feel a little more like playing a “real” musical instrument.  (Whether or not a laptop computer running software is in fact a musical instrument is another question altogether.)  Another thing controllers are good for is that they enable their users to do many things at once.  For instance, you can easily “map” several different parameters in your software to one knob, button, or fader on your controller, so with one turn, tap, or slide you could set into motion a whole bunch of musical transformations, making you feel, well, bionic.  To make an analogy with the symphony orchestra: the conductor can cue or “trigger” (in electronic music parlance) several instruments or sections at once with the wave of a hand. Now that is power.  Similarly, MIDI hardware controllers give the electronic musician that feeling of potential musical control.

As of 2011, you can find many kinds of musical controllers for sale at your local music store.  Most of these units are small plastic boxes with buttons, knobs, and faders, and are designed to work easily with popular software programs such as Ableton Live.  But adventurous musicians sometimes go above and beyond by designing their own MIDI controllers.  Nick Francis, the music director at KPLU-FM in Seattle, is one such musician.  In the video below, Francis describes how he set about building his own custom controller in order to perform live remixes of some of his favorite jazz recordings.  Francis then demonstrates his live remixing/mash-up of Fats Waller’s jazz classic “Honeysuckle Rose” (1928).

How did he go about doing it?  By taking audio samples from four different recordings of “Honeysuckle Rose” and importing them into Ableton Live software (which Francis accurately describes as a “spreadsheet” for sound).  These sound samples are then combined with other rhythmic loops.  If you watch the video closely, you can get a sense of how and when Francis is triggering the various “Honeysuckle Rose” samples, as well as sliding faders to switch from one sound to another (listen and watch for the back and forth between the piano and the bass).

This clip has already been viewed over 14,000 times on YouTube, and viewers are especially impressed by how “natural” the controller looks and by the fact that electronic music remixing is (or always was) open to all ages.

If you are now curious about Fats Waller’s original song, you might enjoy this clip of him performing: