How Important is Fidelity?

When Hi8 seemed like an impossible dream

I’m not talking about matrimony, here, but how well an audio or visual recording resembles the real-world phenomena it seeks to capture. High fidelity sounds and images used to be both a mark of professionalism and a barrier-to-entry for hobbyists in the temporal arts (film, video, music, etc.). I suppose the same discussion could have played out regarding the static arts a hundred and fifty years ago — and it probably did — but I’m not much of a painter, so I’ll stick to what I know.

If I wanted to make a movie in 1995 with my camcorder (VHS!), I could do it, but it would look and sound like hell. There would be an obvious and extreme fidelity difference between what I was able to do on my own and what somebody would pay money to go see in a theater. But now that’s gone. I can shoot a movie ON MY CELLPHONE that can play in a multiplex. I can (and have) record a song in my bedroom that will play on the radio.

Loplop Presents Loplop by Max Ernst.

Those are the facts, but my actual question is an emotional and experiential one. To use a food metaphor, has the sophistication of the listener/viewer changed to the point where we are now better able to taste the quality of the ingredients even if the presentation on the plate is lousy?  Or have aesthetic decisions eroded our ability to even tell what’s good or bad about how something looks or sounds anymore? Serious question. What do you think?

People call a lot of Elliott Smith’s and Iron & Wine’s recordings “lo-fi,” but how lo-fi are they, really? I mean, they were recorded on good equipment, you can certainly hear everything clearly, and they’ve got great dynamic range, so what else do you want? Sure, they’re not over-produced in the way that a Rhianna or Katy Perry song puts everything the producer can think of in a sonic pot, but they’re not actually low fidelity recordings. See, for me coming up on metal bands and hard-to-find import CDs from Scandanavia, I heard some stuff that was really, legitimately low fidelity (a lot of black metal comes to mind), where it’s honestly difficult to even make out what’s going on in the song.

The Tincanland blog has done a couple of good posts that touch on this topic, asking the question of whether or not a self-produced album can succeed commercially (sure, why not?), and how artists don’t get a second opportunity to impress someone if their stuff sounds like hell (unless they change their name).

This is a very personal question for me, because when Black Spiral released Defeat way back in the long, long ago, most of the reviews we got were really positive, but the ones that weren’t got hung up on the production. Some writers utterly crucified us for it…but the thing is, the production’s not bad. It doesn’t sound like it was made on a major label budget, but pop in a Darkthrone album from the same period, which  mostly sound like they were recorded on a cassette in somebody’s bathroom, and tell me we don’t win that battle.

A couple of years later, I shot a no-budget DV feature, and not even small film festivals would take it seriously. OPEN WATER hadn’t hit yet, and for most people the idea of exhibiting a film shot on DV was laughable. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the content of the movie — which, again, reviewers really, really liked — just the presentation.

For me, it remains an open question. Audio, video, and computer technology has come so, so far in the last ten years, that we shot our music video for “Broken World” on a camera that was in many ways superior to the f900s George Lucas used to shoot the first STAR WARS prequel. So people are able to make things that look better more quickly and more cost-effectively, and we may have gotten somewhat used to pixellation, compression, and a low signal-to-noise ration.

But I guess if I was handing out advice, it would be to take the time, and put in the craft, to make things look and sound as good as humanly possible. Because I’m not convinced that we’ve trained ourselves yet to look past the presentation and at the content underneath. Or even that we’ve trained ourselves to understand there’s a difference.

Obsolete Technology Will Demand a Reckoning: The Ghost of John Henry

Our new album, The Ghost of John Henry, is available today. The folk tale about a railroad worker who raced a steam drill has stuck with me since I was a little kid, and so in a lot of ways it feels like I’ve been leading up to this record my whole life. That makes the response we’ve received to it so far — the wonderful reviews, pre-orders, internet radio play — tremendously moving. Thank you to Kurt and Jody for not turning around and running the other way when a crazy man (me) asked them to be in a band so we could make a concept record about a 150-year-old legend.

Why John Henry? This is from the album’s liner notes, and about as good an explanation as I know how to give:

After the Civil War, railroads spread out across the country, built on the backs of immigrants, convicts, and men who left their lives and loves to lay track beyond the horizon. But to the rich men who controlled the rails, their eyes fixed only on balance sheets, these workers were cogs in a machine – easily discarded, easily replaced. Into this world walked John Henry, said to be the strongest man to ever swing a hammer or drive a spike.

On his heels came steam. New steam drills appeared with the inevitability of tomorrow, intended to conquer mountains and make men obsolete. Faced with the loss of his livelihood, John Henry challenged the machine to a race. The details are lost to history, but what remains is the legend of a man who fought a machine and won, though the effort cost him his life. His stand was noble, proud, and futile. As technology continues to press against what it means to be human, we persist in his struggle, and walk with his ghost.

In the Studio, Final Weekend – Video Blog

We wrapped all of the recording for the new album, “The Ghost of John Henry” this weekend with our final cello, guitar, and vocal sessions, in addition to getting some miscellaneous percussion tracks. Percussion “instruments” on this record will include chains, old cast iron jail keys, artillery shells, homemade stomp box, a “thunder tube” (not a double entendre) and regular, more normal things like drums, shakers, tambourine, what-have-you. That was a fun session to do. Also, I shaved my beard to celebrate. Here’s a look at the weekend, and how everything came together throughout the sessions:

I jokingly gave Jaron, our engineer, a hard time in this video — he just got back from a tour of Australia and New Zealand with the Dresden Dolls and has been working literally around-the-clock mastering another project that’s way more high-profile than anything I’m likely to do, but he still made room for us. I have to be serious and thank him publicly for his ability and insight throughout this process. The majority of my previous recording experience has been decidedly lo-fi, so the sound and performances on the record owe a tremendous debt to him. If you need studio time in the LA area, www.jaronsound.com gets our official endorsement (expect the Sci-Fi Romance bump now, my friend).

You can hear the first record “…and surrender my body to the flames” over on our Bandcamp page.