Rethinking High-Fidelity #arpOslo2014


YannickYannick Lapointe, Université Laval

ABSTRACT: In the mediating process from musical ideas to fully realized sound, music takes a lot of different forms and is shaped by a wide variety of actors. With recorded music, the somewhat logical or typical process consists in the following: the composers and arrangers write the musical ideas (sometimes), the performers and programmers make these ideas into sounds, the record producers and sound engineers capture and organize the sound into phonograms, and finally the record consumers (usually the listeners) reproduce these phonograms back to sound, or, in cases of remediation, the DJ or remixers use these phonograms to produce new ones. Of all these actors, only one is not commonly regarded as an artist: the record consumer. This begs the question: as the one usually responsible for record reproduction, and given that his role in the recorded music mediation process is not that remote from the one played by the other actors, could the record consumer be considered a fully fledged artist in the same way as his peers?

Although the answer to this question is certainly not the same for every record consumers, this paper will argue that a particular group amongst them, the hi-fi enthusiasts, has indeed elevated record reproduction to an art form. It will explain, by drawing on a comparison between the record production and reproduction processes (and more specifically between the roles of record producers, sound engineers, and hi-fi enthusiasts), how and why high-fidelity can be considered an “art of record reproduction”.

Yannick outlines a typical production chain from creator through to listener. It’s an impressive theoretical model, incorporating traditional musicology, performance practice, and a mediation stage that he calls ‘phonomusicology’ – the production chain of the audio from the producer’s studio role through to the hi-fi reproduction equipment.

The hi-fi enthusiast could be described as the ‘record re-producer’ or the ‘producer of the reproduction’. Yannick suggests an implicit relationship between producer and listener in this context, and concludes that high-fidelity could be called an art form in itself, existing within ‘phonomusicology’.

He quotes Millard 2005 p.209:

The revolution in sound had been aimed at stimulating the stagnant post-war market for recorded sound. Once this had been achieved by microgroove records, there was no reason to continue innovating.

Richard Buskin, Les Paul and Mary Ford’s producer, is cited:

The first time I really got excited about pop music was when I discovered that it was possible to use my imagination. That had come with a record that I myself didn’t work on, Les Paul and Mary Ford’s ‘How High the Moon’, in 1951. Up to that point the goal of music recording had been to capture an unaltered acoustic event, reproducing the music of big bands as if you were in the best seat in the house. It left no room for imagination, but when I heard ‘How High the Moon’, which did not have one natural sound in it, I thought, ‘Damn, there’s hope!’

The philosophy of recorded music shifted in the 1950s in that the goal was no longer just to recreate an acoustic ‘seat in the house’ experience. Yannick concludes that musicology has been structured around practice, so he predicts that we may eventually achieve a musicology of record reproduction.

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