When the subject of sound recording comes up on line, it’s common to see men (always men for some reason) aggressively pushing the idea that various lossless formats are objectively superior to vinyl. The idea is that hyper-accurate digitalisation of sound – something where you’ve got actual scientific graphs and stuff showing all that lack of noise and distortion – ‘proves’ that we ‘ought’ to be listening to music in these formats. But this is like saying that because triple distilled vodka is purer alcohol than red wine, then vodka is somehow ‘objectively’ the better drink. If people prefer red wine then that comes first, that is primary, not this supposed characterless ‘objective’ reality. Subjectivity wins. Life has surface noise and we prefer it that way. The mystery is that ever greater technical perfection is not in itself necessarily superior from the viewpoint of the lived human life.
It is a commonplace of sound recording that a record producer may keep a technically less than perfect vocal take due to its superiority of ‘vibe’, or character, or the swing without which it don’t mean a thing. There is a similar phenomenon with, say, Cuban music or mariachi or funk or soul bands – or for that matter classical music performances – where precisely due to virtuosity, or due to sheer weight of emotion, of artistic communication, the music is pushed beyond technical perfection into a kind of overfullness, or with non-classical music even a kind of raggedness, that transmits a more powerful, heart-full communication not possible through mere technical perfection. We all know about technically perfect beauty that leaves the soul untouched, yet we all live in a culture where this aggressive pushing of soulless perfection is omnipresently touted as ‘success’ when it should be obvious that it in terms of what truly matters, of the heart of our being, it’s just a vacuous surface simulacrum for display on a screen, a mirage, an uncatchable chimera ever on the horizon. But even anal-retentive sound quality maximising audiophiles refer to the ‘character’ of their hi-fi setups, in much the same way you can get tasting sessions for various ultra-expensive mineral waters (or see this study). Not noticing of course the contradiction that they are still assessing the aesthetics of what in their ‘objective’ worldview would be regarded as imperfections to be eradicated. But if the imperfections have character either good or bad or neutral depending on the subjective preferences of the listener, then we are now back in the analogue world of the human after all, with our likes and dislikes and opinions. There’s always character in there somewhere, and we’ll always seek it out to taste it, ponder it, experience it. Character comes first. Which is interesting seeing as some kind of squeaky clean denatured perfection is what we’re supposedly aiming for. Perfection is not life. Perfection is a kind of non-life. Humans are analogue. If you want to get into extreme hi-fi (or water tasting) go for it, but be careful it doesn’t replace the lived experience of life (or music or water) with too much self-conscious ‘appreciation’. By all means refine your tastes, but against the backdrop of or amidst the vibrancy of life as a whole.
This is the significance of analogue ‘surface noise’. It points to the soul of art, of life, of something necessary to life itself. It’s not the glassine granularity of digital noise, which ironically represents actual surface without depth. Analogue surface noise is only so called because it’s caused by stuff on the surface of vinyl records – but in practice it’s anything but surface. It’s a tactile lambent flame that touches the heart. And when music becomes so emotionally/technically loaded it creaks at the edges and that somehow makes it more powerful, that’s analogue, that’s life. Digital dust is just grit. Real dust smudges. Overdriven digital just cracks and smashes against a brick wall of 1s and 0s. There is no give in the digital. But analogue ‘surface’ noise points to nostalgia, the melancholy of organic decay, redolent with poignant associations of the sadder side of life, reminding us of something essential without which life loses authenticity.
Practice is still needed to gain proficiency – it can’t just be ignored. But rules are learnt to be broken properly as we dive further into the flow of life. And the rules need to be learnt in an analogue way, without overly aggressive grasping striving for perfection. The obsession with goals is bad news indeed, for they may inspire but at the cost of stiffening that which should grow organically, that which knows from the inside how it should grow. Scheduled time is needed for practice, but that’s as far as it should go. It’s fine to be competitive but not when it stretches you out into an angry rigidity. The very fact that the ‘swing’ is beyond technical perfection shows that we are more than analysis, more than intellect. The heart is primary. To express itself properly technique is required but the rules having been fully interiorised deep inside the body, the true journey continues. Rules are there for correct orientation and an aid to deeper understanding, but ultimately life is beyond technique. To act otherwise is to bring a kind of neurosis into everything we do.