Saturday, August 11, 2012

Does “High Fidelity” Matter?

For a change “audiophiliac” Steve Guttenberg hit on a significant insight. Admittedly, he arrived at it because it undermined the title of his latest Audiophiliac post on CNET News, “Why do musicians have lousy hi-fis?” He even arrived at his conclusion through an informative path that deserves repeating:
I remember a bass player at a jazz recording session who grew impatient with the time the engineer was taking to get the best possible sound from his 200-year-old-acoustic bass. After ten minutes the bassist asked the engineer to plug into a pickup on his instrument, so he wouldn't take up any more time setting up the microphone. The engineer wasn't thrilled with the idea, because he would then just have the generic sound of a pickup rather than the gorgeous sound of the instrument. I was amazed: the man probably paid $100,000 for his bass, and he didn't care if its true sound was recorded or not. His performance was what mattered.

From what I've seen, musicians listen differently from everyone else. They focus on how well the music is being played, the structure of the music, and the production. The quality of the sound? Not so much!
Other than the fact that I would prefer to use the noun “execution” in place of “production,” that second paragraph pretty much gets it right. Of course, if we want to stick with his wording, then we can say that the real punch line is that, for a musician, production is always far more important than reproduction. Another way of putting it is that musicians are more interested in listening than hearing. “High fidelity” may have a significant impact on the signal that reaches the ear. However, one listens with the mind, rather than the ear; and the mind can be very good at compensating for shortcomings in the signal, as even a cursory examination of results in the psychology of music reveals.

Those who follow Mad Men probably noticed that “high fidelity” was little more than one of the weapons in the general pissing contest of one-upmanship taking place back in those days. It was no different from the size of the tail fins on your car or your ringside tickets for the Friday night fights. Musicians don’t care about such things. They know that music is all about listening; and they tend to be pleased when people in the audience (real or virtual) take listening as seriously as they do. That is what the bass player understood and the engineer could not conceive.

At least Guttenberg seems to be approaching the discovery that just about everything in his column has nothing to do with music, let alone why we take the trouble to listen to music.

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