The Work of Vinyl in the Age of Digital Reproduction
n.b. from the Editors: The original presentation of this piece contained pop-up annotations by the authors throughout the text. Those annotations have been converted to footnotes for the purpose of this reproduction.
n.b. from Ted: I posed my responses in the form of interleaved paraphrasings of what Njoroge and Rich wrote. Consider them reverberations or recapitulations. Making only a limited claim to accuracy, I am hoping that there is as much if not more value in the ways I got it wrong. In a few instances I mark what I thought were the implications of a passage that could be drawn out further. Maybe Njoroge, Rich, and the readers will find these useful as points for re-intervention by way of correction and clarification.
What is the meaning of music in the 21st century? 1 How do we understand the transformation of a material art (i.e. people actually doing things – rehearsing, recording, manufacturing, producing, distributing, and listening) to the basic transmission of “data?” 2 What is the heritage, history and use of vinyl in the age of binary code? 3
To sample/steal from Mark Twain, the reports of the death of vinyl have been greatly exaggerated. It seems to occur in about eight to ten year cycles. Every time new sound recording/disseminating technology is introduced we hear the chorus of the ultimate obsolesence of the vinyl LP… First it was the reel-to-reel, then the cassette, the 8-track and, later (once the “digiphiles” emerged) the CD and the MP3. 4
The simple fallacy holding all of these claims of success together is due to the misguided idea that somehow with the advent of these new technologies things will sound “better.” 5 This simply can’t be proven. 6 While digital technologies offer the promise of endless replication and dissemenation of “the sound,” what gets lost in the equation is the experience. 7
Many authors wax (no pun intended) poetically about the “warmth” of the sound of vinyl. But what we are missing here is basic physics. A stylus moving across a grooved platter generates sound through friction. That’s what brings satisfaction to the listener. 8 You actually hear (not simply “listen” to) the music. Between the wax cylinders of the early 20th centuries and the MP3’s of today, most people heard their music via vinyl (jukebox, radio, whatever). Music was recorded, produced and mastered to match the medium. This is key. Even with the wonders of digital recording that sound cannot be matched. 9 Further, part of the experience is tactile. Listening to the grooves (literally and metaphorically) and holding the album in one’s hands are part of the whole sensation. Record companies — at least the good ones — were actually making multi-media art pieces: paintings, photos, drawings, liner notes, and more. 10 As Walter Benjamin would say, the “aura.” 11
Clearly, the recent resurgence of vinyl is due to the political economy of popular musicking in the 21st century (DJ’s, artists, audiophiles, hipsters and wannabes). But the solid-state pleasure of dropping a needle on some serious cut cannot be denied (sonically or otherwise). 12
I have to begin with a denial. I will not be making any claims about the death of vinyl, its fidelity, or truth value of a medium of any sort here. Nor will I deny the social and sonic pleasures of vinyl. My argument is simply about what the possibilities of vinyl/analog (and sometimes digital) audio are as media — what Harold Innis calls the biases of these forms of communication — and how these biases have actually been deployed in culturally and historically specific ways
The sound of music on vinyl is distinctive and brings many more things to the table than just data. This is fortunate, as it necessarily brings extra-musical noise and distortion, and a greatly reduced musical signal in the realms of frequency response and dynamic range. Thus much of what the vinylistas love about vinyl is the sound of the medium itself, not just (even?) the musicality and social relations it engenders. In addition, the costly and capital-intensive process of creating vinyl records made it what Lawrence Lessig calls “read-only” culture, where music is a commodity to be consumed much more than something to be made by everyone.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that I proposed the idea of a conversation on the merits of vinyl at a gathering at Njoroge’s home. As the hour grew late, someone found a box of his rare 45 RPM singles and Njoroge proceeded to give us a tour through some amazing 1960s and 70s Midwestern funk. The gentle rumble, crackle, and hiss, the ritual handling of the object itself (hold only edges, label, the outside of the sleeve): All comforting and charming, as close to sitting around a winter night’s fireplace as one can get in Hawaiʻi. As one who (mis)spent a portion of my youth trying to suss out the covers of Pink Floyd and Yes albums before falling into the welcoming DIY ethic of the punks, I agree that the loss of LP art is tragic, sort of like the loss of good sonnet writers. 13
But as Njoroge points out, it is more than just product that makes vinyl vinyl. The sound from the first thousand or so copies that a record press produces is listless and flat when compared to the ones pressed once it warms up, as anyone in an old band that ever tried to cut a demo 45 learned, often through bitter experience. 14 The frequency response of a vinyl record changes between the inside and the outside of the of long playing vinyl, with mastering engineers and producers introducing various filtering and song order kludges to offset the issue. When the stylus gets around to its friction, it gets filtered out by an EQ curve called the RIAA rolloff that takes about 20 dB out of the very low end and adds about the same to the high end on a linear curve. On playback, the amplifier’s turntable inputs reverse the curve. That is why you cannot play the turntable through the “aux” channel of your vintage stereo or record a turntable directly into a computer and get decent results. In the proper signal chain, the turntable input preamplifier then cuts out the lowest frequencies completely because they consist of rumble: the artifact of boosting a signal that is mostly noise because recorded so low. That is OK though, as too much bass would make the stylus jump the track (club Djs compensate by mixing in the ubiquitous “four on the floor” thump from digital sources with their full bass response intact). The higher frequencies, which are boosted on the vinyl only to be cut in the amplifier, have a better signal-to-noise ratio when the record gets played back. This dulls the worst of the crackle and hiss (and part of the signal) down to an ambient level: the sound of the vinyl.
Signal, not music: Some music, particularly from the 1960s and 70s, when all the kludges were refined to high art and millions of LPs and 45s were pressed each month, sounds better because the sound of the vinyl and the sound of the music fed back into each other in a mutually reinforcing loop. Musicians played for it, and as Njoroge rightly points out, engineers and producers recorded and mixed for it, just like they now do for lossy digital formats played on iPods and the like. An informal study by a Stanford music professor indicates that young people today may be developing a liking for the “fizzy” sound of low bit rate MP3s just like an older generation prefers the warmth of vinyl. 15
On the hearing side, the human ear is actually a sort of digital instrument when it comes to frequency response, so the vinyl affinity between medium and “musicking” has a correlate in digital audio being designed for the physicality of embodied hearing. We do not sense a continuum from low end to high end in the ear itself. The digital to analog conversion takes place further in. Thousands of tiny hairs are spaced throughout the inner ear, with taller and shorter ones picking up different frequencies. Just like we do not see 30 still pictures when we watch a second of a movie, the brain fills in the dots for sound and gives us the perception of continuous frequency response. Lossless digital audio is currently recorded with the ‘dots’ twice to eight times more closely aligned than the tiny hairs are capable of sensing. 16
The first generation of digital audio was fairly hideous, not because the sound was inherently worse, but because in the rush to get to the new format, new recordings were made using old methods and music mastered for vinyl was cut straight to digital in the rush to market. The point about the culture of a medium playing a huge role in its perceived quality is important, and much of the first impression of digital audio in the 1980s was justifiably negative. But then again, the hi-fi, stereo, long playing vinyl record did not spring fully formed onto the landscape either. 17
The advent of higher sampling rates (how many dots per second), bit depths (how many dots to choose from), and born-digital recording and mixing has cured most if not all of these greed-induced woes. But record company (and yes, musician) greed has introduced a whole new set of problems, with throwaway pop songs being mastered as loud as possible to make sure they do not get lost behind others making the same ear-fatiguing choices in what has come to be called the loudness wars. The loudness wars were not however an issue for vinyl, which already needed to have its dynamic range squashed to prevent the stylus from jumping out of the grooves. 18
A new digital folk music from the bedroom producers has made inroads in returning music-making to everyone (important global caveat: everyone with a computer) instead of a few. Read-write culture is returned from the days before recorded audio (though doubtless in forms Benjamin would still object to) and flourishing. Today, the ability to digitally record and mix electronic and acoustic instruments is available to anyone with a modern computer and a little patience, with results far more transparent than the costly centralized mysteries of the analog-and-vinyl age. This democratized accessibility has caused a major upheaval in the music business as production and distribution have become decentralized and record companies try to litigate their way back to the good old days. 19
Lossless digital audio is more transparent, not better. Like Victorian homes, the sound of vinyl will remain valued, whether in its actual form or in its digital incarnations. Granted, lossless digital audio can act like a magnifying glass on the face, providing detail that a listener or musician might prefer smoothed over in the style of the vinyl/analog commodity chain. 20 But that extra level of detail in the digital is in the sound rather than being introduced by the medium, and the warmth, smoothness, decreased frequency response, squashed dynamic range, and noise of vinyl is there to be added in as an effect if desired. 21
Musickers, whether playing listening or — best of all — both at once, are adapting to these new possibilities and creating a vast new world of sound outside the purview of the record companies, a world where the sound of vinyl is one option on the palette rather than the only one.
There is hope in this technological trend. New vistas of human input and affect opened in the relation between humanity and the sonic realm, and new vistas of human input and affect opened in the relation between humans through the sonic sphere.
Njoroge Njoroge: is assistant professor of history at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Rich Rath: is associate professor of history history at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and is leading the digital arts and humanities initiative there. He is the author of How Early America Sounded. His born-digital music can be found at Way Music
Ted Sammons: is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brooklyn College
- Ted: In other words, let us focus our attention on music taken broadly and not recorded sound. ↩
- Ted: As the realm of art supersedes the realm of data, what responses are provoked by claims of digital sound reproduction’s equivalence to non-digital sound reproduction? And on a related note, what response is provoked by claims of the former’s superiority?
Rich: Data and art are different in kind and thus can not really be placed in a nested hierarchy (‘supersedes’) in any meaningful way. ↩
- Ted: In particular, let us explore the significance of one tool/format (here, vinyl) in the context of the popular adoption of another tool/format (here, cds, mp3s, mp4s, m4a, flac, wma, although, see ‘implied,’ below). What may one make of claims that the latter provides for a truer route to realizing the same goods as associated with the former?
Implied: What is the relevance to this discussion of the distinction between digital audio formats broadly and the subset of ‘lossless’ (wav, aiff) and compressed formats? (m4a, mp3)
Rich: For an excellent read on how lossy compression makes its cuts and why, see Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). ↩
- Rich: Of course it needs to be remembered that wide format, fast running reel-to-reel analog magnetic tape is part of the fetishization of vinyl, since to introduce digital recording into the signal chain before the vinyl would taint the vinyl at its source.
What is key in the fetishization of vinyl is the analog signal chain, which has a continuously variable (albeit highly limited) range in amplitude and frequency pitted against the mythical stair-stepping response of digital media, which supposedly produces ‘the harsh’ of digital audio. For the debunking of the stairstep myth, see Monty Montgomery’s explanation at the open source media consortium xiph.org. Also, the ear converts all that analog smoothness into its own variety of digital division before sending it on to the brain and the rest of the body to be processed by cultural responses. See below.
Ted: Claiming to having superseded vinyl is an old story, and this alone speaks to vinyl’s significance as a format/tool that affords access to particular ‘goods.’ Chronologically, other formats for sound reproduction emerged between vinyl and digital formats; while vinyl and digital are frequently contrasted, much less common are those people who articulate digital’s relative quality by comparison to 8-tracks. This fact signifies vinyl’s quality and the goods inherent to (and available to be derived from) the vinyl format.
Implied: When we talk about the ‘death’ of a format we need to clarify what we are talking about. Vinyl is not ‘dead tech,’ but despite the fact that those who claim so are wrong, they don’t all mean the same thing when they make that claim. Does ‘vinyl is dead’ refer to the decline in the number of people using it to listen to music? Alternately, if a moment comes when no more records are pressed, is vinyl dead? The advent of digital sound recording/production does correspond to a decrease in the production of vinyl recordings. Does this mean that, dead or not, vinyl is closer to death than it was in 1950, 60, 70, 80? ↩
- Ted: Addressing claims to the relative superiority of digital audio reproduction means we have to clarify the metric of comparison. Are digiphiles even talking about achieving the same goals and/or realizing the same goods as are immanent/imminent in vinyl audio (re)production? Above all we have been here before and we know that newer-equals-better is a fallacy. We should consider ‘sonic fidelity’ as an aural cognate of ‘enlightenment’ and accordingly consider how it is fetishized in the same way as other supposed signifiers of ‘progress,’ ‘improvement,’ ‘modernity,’ etc. The spectrum of fidelity does not simply map onto some spectrum of the intensity of a single effect/affect.
Rich: Then of course on the flip side is hipster nostalgia for whatever is old for oldness sake. Caricatures do not carry the discussion forward in any meaningful way. Neither does a ‘which is better’ argument. I do not question whether one medium is better than another below; I just try to clarify the limits and possibilities of vinyl and provide a comparison to digital as a way of making the stakes clearer. I am also skeptical of any goals or goods (I am guessing in the platonic rather than Marxian sense) being immanent in vinyl audio as a medium. Those may however be immanent in the culture of the people believing in the inherent superiority of vinyl (or of those who merely prefer it). As far as imminence, wouldn’t that mean not yet realized? Which seems to directly contradict the case being made here. ↩
- Ted: The claim that digital ‘sounds better’ cannot be proven according to some universal, objective measure. Related to this, such claims are prone to be factually inaccurate, if not useless entirely.
Rich: The same of course holds in the other direction. There is then good reason to set aside as unproductive the debate about which sounds better, as I hope I have done below. Barring the dubious double blind, controlled listening tests of the math-and-science-minded. We are left with the conclusion that vinyl and digital are too subjective to be ranked in a meaningful way on any scale other than personal preference. Note that this does not preclude a discussion of the different qualities and cultures of each medium at all. ↩
- Ted: Thus we ought to clarify that we are comparing experience, whether we do so with recourse to phenomenology or whether we compare the social relations manifest in the dialectic between objects and human practices. ↩
- Ted: One generative angle of approach is similar to taxonomies of musical instruments. Compare vinyl records/record players and digital audio artifacts/reproduction devices as components, and immediately one sees that the former sits closer to other music making instruments than does the latter. A stylus passing through a record’s grooves recalls other friction-based instruments like rubbing drum head or a resonant bowl, or even a bowed string. It is an action that makes some sound that is then perceivable by human physiology without amplifying mediation. The fan cooling a computer’s hard drive makes sound but it is not in the same way related to its production of musical sound.
Rich: If the digital is to be dismissed on the grounds of lack of affinity with an element of sound-making (although, that is a mistake I argue below) then a true audiophile should listen sans amplification since the additional electronic alteration of the music has no such correlate either. This sort of argument is commonly made by people who prefer acoustic to electric instruments as well, although I doubt if either of you would argue for the best sound coming only from acoustic sources. Obviously, if we drop that purist argument for amplification, we ought to also drop it for the digital as well. I agree that there is an affinity that vinyl has with music making, but disagree with Ted’s claim that this somehow excludes other media for having their own affinities with the sound making process. Plus, before it ever reaches vinyl it is recorded on tape, which does not have the characteristic friction. ↩
- Ted: Productive practices relate differentially to reproductive technology, and this variation must be taken into account when considering the relationship of vinyl to digital audio formats/tools.
Implied: There is more to this than just recording technology and format of artifact/sound recording. There is also the difference inherent in media of transmission, aka technologies of audition. A case in point is Berry Gordy’s mounting car speakers in the control room at Motown in order to tweak recordings so they would appeal to the post-transistor population of people listening to the radio while driving.
Rich: The need to check one’s results on a variety of different platforms is a commonplace of all professional audio production, not anything exclusive to vinyl or Berry Gordy. ↩
- Ted: We also have to bear in mind the transformation of the nature of the physical artifact as related to auditory practice.
Rich: But note also the new possibilities, such as the book/CD/digital file project by the band Throwing Muses, Purgatory/Paradise, with its combination of photographs, lyrics, and reminisces timed to be explored while listening to the music. ↩
- Ted: Benjamin is a key touchstone here. Reproduction/reproducibility is manifestly not improvement, and this is particularly so with respect to the affecting presence of art.
Implied: Benjamin provokes us to consider how the question of format means the differentiation of what aura it is with which we are concerned. This, again, returns us to the question of what goods are accessible by vinyl formats, and whether digital formats provide better access — or access at all — to the same goods.
Rich: Analog and digital reproductions are both copies in this sense. Analog copying is inherently lossy, as each generation of copy adds another layer of the analog sauce, whether in the form of distortion, noise, or warmth. Digital copying, being simply a string of numbers, is in theory lossless. It is in fact lossless if error checking is instituted. Benjamin was of course critiquing mechanical, as in the scritching of the stylus against the vinyl rotating on the motorized turntable, not digital or even electronic reproduction, but we probably have to include electronic and digital reproduction along with vinyl in the class of ‘aura-destroying’ media. But also consider Jonathan Sterne’s well taken point in The Audible Past that in recorded music from its inception there is no original, unmediated-by-technology performance. It is mediated all the way down, which is something of the point here, making the invocation of Benjamin doubly baffling in this context. Indeed, much of recorded music, employing as it does multitracking, is impossible to produce anywhere else but on record. This throws a wrench in Benjamin’s mechanics, as without the original there can be neither aura (with which he would certainly agree) nor reproduction. Copies are made but from an inauthentic un-original that cannot be located in a particular instant (ubiquitous multitracking precludes this). Thus recordings in general are incapable of having an aura of their own in Benjamin’s sense. ↩
- Ted: The social life — always the social significance and never simply the technical ‘truth’ — of a format is the pivotal subject. And for better or for worse, we see this to be true in the role that mere possession of records functions as a measure of the virtuosity of a dj as ‘curator performer.’ The fact that this plays a part in the perpetuation of the social life of the vinyl format is, itself, testament to the priority of the social ‘work’ of music, over and above the question of sonic fidelity. ↩
- Ted: We were brought to this topic by sharing an exemplary experience of the distinct goods inherent to and always available in the vinyl format. This distinctiveness includes sonic qualities, and particularly sonic qualities produced materially by the medium of vinyl, that distinguish vinyl artifacts from live audition of the originary performance of the musical work. Also, and likewise congruent with a point made above, the materiality of the vinyl format of sound record/sound reproduction has constitutive physical qualities, through which vinyl appeals to multiple senses. With vinyl music is made visual as well as tactile.
Rich: Keep in mind the fact that there really is no originary performance with which the recorded can be compared only increasingly lossy (in the analog realm anyway) copies of copies. ↩
- Njoroge: I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. White label promos (records released to radio programmers, executives, etc. before they are released to the general public) and first pressings are prized by audiophiles and collectors (as reflected in their pricing, relative to later pressings). Of course, part of this is market-driven (rarity, the politics of scarcity, and nostalgia), however, many would argue that the pressing stamp actually begins to wear down and deteriorate after multiple pressings (grab some old school jamaican 45s for evidence of this, they were quite literally grinding them out in the 60s and 70s), thus the first pressings retain more of the original sound, not less.
Rich: Not the plate, which you are right wears out, adding yet another layer of loss. The press itself has to warm up. Band demos were generally used to warm up the press before production run stuff. Hence, lots of crummy demos. ↩
- Ted: The materiality of vinyl lends the format additional relativity, or call it an additional quality of ‘internal’ differentiation. There is the signal (intended and wanted substance) as distinct from the noise (unintended and unwanted), and then there is the signal (that which comes through) as distinct from the music (the ‘truth’ carried in the originary performance).
Rich: I make the distinction between music and signal specifically to bracket such issues off so that we can consider the qualities of the media rather than getting bogged down in the ‘truth’ of which is ‘better.’
Ted: Reproduction changes the object and thus the experience of audition. And, due to the physical character of the object of a vinyl record, its conditions of use have an easily tangible impact on its (re)production of sound.
Implied: In both instances we find points of relation between vinyl and live music — one performance never identical to another.
Rich: Of course this quality is shared with all experience of every living situation, not just listening sessions and not just listening to vinyl. It has to do with the fundamental irreversibility of time, not the qualities of a medium.
Ted: This again brings the conversation to the issue of fidelity in relation to practices of listening. Cf. C. Hirschkind (The Ethical Soundscape), a sort of listener is produced and/or actively produces him or herself in dialectical relation to the object from which sound is (re)produced. Similarly cf. Larkin (Signal and Noise) the ‘flaws’ in a (re)production have constitutive force in the production of taste, preference, aesthetic such that relative qualities of sounding objects (vinyl records, compressed/overloud digital files, or in Larkin’s case, glitch-y videocassettes) produce listening experiences and, by extension, listening subjects. When we talk about vinyl and digital are we contrasting two aesthetics of fidelity? Are we contrasting an aesthetic of infidelity with an aesthetic of fidelity? ‘That sounds too live, I want it to sound like Memorex.’
Rich: To answer the two questions posed, no, fidelity, except as it is a quality valued by particular listeners, has no bearing on the point I am making, as there is no originary performance to be faithful too. Plus, creative uses of ‘infidelity’ have a long history in the realm of music making, including both vinyl and digital formats as well as many others, from the 8-bit splendor of a Beck synthesizer riff, to the warmth imparted by vinyl, to the distortion in T-Bone Walker’s, or Link Wray’s, or Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, to the buzzing of the added shakers in an African thumb piano. Thus they have no more bearing on one medium than another, since playing with the qualities of a medium to transform its sound is fundamental to all music making, not just the performance of a vinyl listening session, as charming as that may be.
Ted: It may still be justifiable to challenge whether the elimination of noise and of signal, in favor of the ‘pure’ music, constitutes an improvement.
Rich: An option, not an improvement. There is a big difference, and the option is not available via the analog-vinyl-amplification channel of production except as the ever increasing series of artfully done lossy kludges laid out above. I am certain you would never argue for the superiority of vinyl without its noise reduction circuits intact, so noise reduction itself is not the issue at stake. The digital channel of noise reduction is measurably more effective, but if you like the increased noise, squashed dynamic range, distortion, and reduced frequency response of vinyl, you can add it in to transform digital audio if you wish. The analog-vinyl-amplification channel cannot replicate the low noise (well beyond the human capability for discernment) and increased dynamic range and frequency response of digital audio however. Is one better? Purely subjective question. Is it possible? That is the question I am focusing on here.
Ted: Nevertheless, even in challenging this claim — which it seems would mean challenging a position shared by many digiphiles — it is important to hold fast to the orientation that this is challenging a particular contention. To assert that this sanitization constitutes a worsening is a separate claim that needs clarification else it slips into shallow subjectives. At any rate it is more difficult to prove this point than to disprove the other. ↩
- Ted: Paraphrase: Sensory perception depends on anatomy and physiology and this at minimum reminds one that media of production and media of reproduction are difficult to separate. Is a record player a sound production machine or a sound reproduction machine? Is a digital file more or less one or the other, than is a vinyl record?
Rich: Missing the main point, which perhaps needs to be made clearer: The ear is an analog to digital converter (ADC) of sorts, hearing aligns well with digital audio as a result of this. It is a similar type of claim to the one made about vinyl being more akin to friction-based musical instruments. The implicit critique is that the vaunted continuously variable response of analog audio is a moot point if the ear is a fine-tuned ADC, with the brain and culture acting as the DAC. I would also add (after ‘depends on anatomy and physiology’) ‘among other factors such as culture, creativity, and history’ since I am not making any case for anatomy as the determining factor, just a necessary limit to claims about vinyl’s superiority based on continuously variable analog response.
Ted: Here is another reason for skepticism or at least caution when faced with claims to superiority that are rooted in fidelity.
Rich: Of course, no claims are being made about superiority because no claims about fidelity are being made.
Ted: Taking this position
Rich: not sure at this point which position is being refered to but I am fairly certain it is not mine
Ted: is to fail to account for the fact that no two persons’ ears function equivalently, and that no person’s ears function with perfect consistency across time. Likewise, taking this position fails to account for the whole-body experience that is sound perception and by contrast to digital audio, the visual and tactile character of vinyl records retains this holism. Cf. A. Bambaataa’s reminding people that sound is a force, or that S. Connor piece, ‘Edison’s Teeth’ you probably both know, and its reference to the story about going-deaf Beethoven biting on pianos to ‘hear’ relative tonality. (possibly apocryphal but nevertheless relevant).
Rich: Making a case that anatomy is a necessary component when considering how we hear and how media affect that process (‘bias’ it in Harold Innis’s famous formulation) by no means precludes the myriad other factors in the productiion of sound and music. The holism Ted is bringng up is about how we people hear — and sense — world, not the exclusive purview of vinyl. Media do bias how we go about that holisitc sensing, but all media are sensed holistically since that is how the senses work, not a function of vinyl. ↩
- Ted: Paraphrase:
Rich: Not a paraphrase. No claims are being made about fidelity since there is no original to which to be true
Ted: Though we can agree that, relativism aside, there are still recordings some people find more ‘hideous’ than others, this points to a deeper point of shared interest concerning the fact that fidelity to an originary sound event relates to its aura or at least to its goodness or badness: however agreeable or ‘true,’ this is not the same as making the claim that good = high fidelity and bad = low fidelity.
Rich: Just to amplify previous points, I am not making a case for fidelity, and I think the aura, in Benjamin’s sense, is nonexistent here, with all the media in question destroying the ineffable, ephemeral aura of a live performance in the few cases where they even refer to such an originary moment at all. ↩
- Ted: Here is one advantage of digitization with respect to evolution of musicking as one among other practices: with digitization, the nature of the sonic artifact is less immediately subject to capitalist imperative — but aside from the issue of urgency it is not clear how else this liberates musicking or the aura of the artifact from the imperatives of capitalism.
Rich: Try making music on a computer from scratch and distributing it and then try to undertake the process using vinyl — or for that matter more than a handful of CD copies — to find out the relationship of physical object media to capitalism. Vinyl is fundamentally designed as an item for capitalist consumption. At least ten-thousand-fold more “musickers” buy vinyl records than create them. All the production of affect and the performance of vinyl listening sessions is epiphenomenal from within framework of capitalism. Vinyl is product to be manufactured, sold, then consumed, being the paragon of read-only culture. Digital audio has severely problemetized this equation with its read-write capabilities and lossless copying, much to the chagrin of record companies. New models of capitalist consumption are in fact emerging, so I am not making a case for digital audio as panacea for capitalism, but the relations are certainly different in disruptive and interesting ways for me personally as a musician and listener (a “read-write musicker” in the parlance) as well as for myriad others. ↩
- Ted: Evaluating digitization must address the question of relative access to musical works, as well as to the means of musical (re)production. ↩
- Ted: As with recent conversations popping up around the true-to-life quality of images captured by a steadycam, and/or the true-to-life quality of super hi def video, with digital audio’s so-called ‘losslessness’ we are not talking about greater access to something universally recognized as a good. Rather we are talking about greater detail, and this is not necessarily equivalent to any definition of ‘good.’
Rich: “Transparent” is used precisely to set aside questions of fidelity, goodness, and quality. It simply means less extra-signal noise and more of the desired signal, whatever that be, whether an acoustic piano or a born-digital 8bit gameboy emulator convoluted through an Escher-like impossible physical space. ↩
- Ted: Here again we are drawn back into the issue of the affective quality of the format and/or the affective quality of the (re)productive medium. Digital formats offer precision and controlled access to objectively calculable/discernable dimensions of sound in a way that vinyl productions do not. Digital audio affords a capacity to hear the trees that fall in a forest when no one is around, and beyond that it affords the capacity to isolate the sound of a single tree falling. Also, again, we are drawn into an engagement with the question of when and whether to regard sound as an abstract phenomenon and listening as social behavior.
Rich: The affect of vinyl, that is the relations between music, sounds, medium, and people, (as opposed to the analysis of the music, sounds, medium, and people directly and in isolation) is centrally important to understanding the medium’s attraction. The same can be said for any other sonic medium. How vinyl is produced, what sounds it is capable of making, the decisions that everyone in the commodity chain make from recording to playing: all have a direct bearing on the possibilities and limitations of the medium. The same holds for digital media, with the caveats that the terrain is more unsettled and the commodification is certainly more fraught and slippery thus far. ↩