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High Fidelity in the Age of Digital Reproduction

In his 1979 essay “The Studio as Compositional Tool“, Brian Eno works through the set of technical innovations that resulted in the odd occurrence of person who didn’t play any musical instrument particularly well, didn’t read or write music, nonetheless ending up as a composer. Eno lacked all the traditional tools of the trade. It was only when sound was mediated through recording that it became a plastic material that could be manipulated into song-like structures.

Here’s Eno on the transition from transmission to translation:

So, to tape recording: till about the late ’40s, recording was simply regarded as a device for transmitting a performance to an unknown audience, and the whole accent of recording technique was on making what was called a “more faithful” transmission of that experience. It began very simply, because the only control over the relative levels of sounds that went onto the machine was how far they were from the microphone – like device. The accent was on the performance, and the recording was a more or less perfect transmitter of that, through the cylinder and wax disc recording stages, until tape became the medium by which people were recording things.

The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something’s on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and mutable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t. It’s hard to do anything very interesting with a disc – all you can do is play it at a different speed, probably; you can’t actually cut a groove out and make a little loop of it. The effect of tape was that it really put music in a spatial dimension, making it possible to squeeze the music, or expand it.

When we talk about a “more faithful” recording, the word “fidelity” enters the conversation. Fidelity is the quality of being loyal or faithful. Originally, it had the sense of taking an oath, as in swearing fealty to a monarch. Fidelity also has the sense of honoring oaths with regard to a spouse. A high-fidelity recording transports the original performance transparently—it is as though you are there. Poor fidelity dishonors the performance by leaving pieces of it behind or adding in artifacts that weren’t a part of the original. If we are a lover of a particular piece of music, we might charge a bad recording with infidelity.

In Eno’s recording studio, sounds become plastic. It’s only when a sound has been transformed into something that can itself be transformed that it becomes useful for constructing music. And this is the point where the sound no longer has fidelity to its source. The sound is only interesting to the extent of its potential infidelity. Transferring sound into a transformable recording media used to require a professional technical process. With digital recording, sound is directly sampled and encoded into a plastic media.

“I’d rather talk about the Plastic Eno Band, actually. It’s been in existence for a couple of years now. Over the past six years I’ve accumulated over 14 plastic musical instruments with a very wide gamut of sounds. And I’ve found that by slowing them down or speeding them up on tape, I can imitate any electric sound. With this in mind, I want to make a straight-forward rock record and then appear on ‘Top Of The Pops’ with a bunch of liggers playing these things. It would be an experiment in concrete music really as well as being an encouragement to all these kids who can’t afford their Vox amplifiers. There are so many things I want to do that will lose me so much money. . .”

As all media are slowly replaced with their digital equivalents, this shaky relationship with fidelity is true of more than just sound. Think about the camera and photography. How do we capture a scene with a camera? We see a moment we’d like to commemorate and we take aim with our camera. The flash from the camera floods the scene with enough light to get a good exposure. Here the process of recording essentially alters the source in the pursuit of fidelity. A skilled photographer may be able to light a scene for the camera such that when it’s processed, the photograph resembles the scene as it might have unfolded had no photograph been taken.

In the iPhone, the camera itself becomes a computerized photo studio and a compositional tool, in Eno’s sense. The photo itself is just the digital material that can be transformed with a set of filters. We don’t expect the snapshot to capture the mood; like the professional, we’ll fix it in post-production. We quickly apply a set of filters that more appropriately capture the mood of the scene and then flick the digital file into the stream of Twitter or Instagram. Is it the infidelity of the digital that enables another sort of fidelity? Or are we simply projecting the kind of scene we’d like others to imagine us playing a role within.

When we consider the picture being constructed of us through the data exhaust we emit in our online activities and our encounters with electronic and surveillance systems—does it make sense to talk about the fidelity, the truth, of the picture? Is the picture any more true because it’s constructed of largely unconscious digital moments? Is the ‘candid’ photo taken through a telephoto lens by a paparazzi of a movie star in their everyday life more true than the ‘glamour’ photograph constructed to create an image? When you apply for a job, do you present the candid or the glamour resume? How about applying for a loan at the bank, do you walk in the door with your candid or glamour finances?

In digital recording we have the production medium that is most open to transformation. In digital presentation, we have the consumption medium most open to transformation, both before we receive it, and after. Anyone with some form of computer has their own digital post-production facility. The blemishes can be removed, the wrong notes fixed and even the focal point of the image can be selected later.

If we were to imagine a medium that could somehow vouch for the fidelity of that which it recorded, it would be the opposite of the digital. This medium would capture the mark of the real and from that point forward it would be unalterable. In a strange way, in that moment, the mark would become more real than the real. The real itself would fade and change with time, but the mark would always have the vibrancy of the moment the impression was captured. In essence, this is the problem with using database models to stand in for real processes.

There was a time when to call something ‘artificial’ was to confer the highest compliment. The ‘real’ was a low form of existence that lacked the trappings of civilization. It was something that hadn’t been ‘fixed’ in post-production. The digital era has enabled new levels of artifice. The ‘real’ and the ‘natural’ may have to make way for the artificial. To ease the transition, the real and the natural will be the first things we need to simulate. As the French dramatist Jean Giraudoux once said:

“The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

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