Noun; the reproduction of sound with high standards of clarity and detail
Sit with me in Purple Rain for a moment. Hear the solitary electric guitar, the enriching gentle chorus effect. A single, first chord – an isolated strum, not dissimilar to The Beatles’ opener in A Hard Day’s Night; soulfully melancholic, almost hesitant, tense. But soon enough, the track unfolds: the pace of a drum machine, Prince’s androgynous vocals lightly echoing across the stereo image. Drama is brewing. A perfectly timed, sad yelp in the chorus elevates us in this title track, as a fan of back singers and Prince’s guitar, played with precision, finally leaps up out of the mix in a distorted growl.
In a warehouse in Minneapolis between 1983 and 1984, Prince and his session players were working for hours on end to construct this maximalist statement of intent, alongside the rest of the material from Purple Rain. This would be his biggest venture yet into the pop world. As he told Rolling Stone back in 1985, Prince had little time for sleep; he claimed that some days, he would be awake for 20 hours working on tracks with his band The Revolution, his engineers on shifts to cope with his intense work ethic. With this came an exceptional attention to detail. Like a painter scraping back layers of paint after application, Prince would rework tracks repeatedly, using injections of space in dramatic contrast to his fluorescent, glassy synths and cushioning his high-ranging vocals. Despite the almost hysterical quantity of ideas in tracks like ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, they never sound overburdened, or claustrophobic. Propelled by a LM-1 Linn drum machine, each section serves as an immaculately threaded link to the next.
Prince performs onstage during the 1984 Purple Rain Tour on November 4, 1984, at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. Credit: Ross Marino Archive
When Prince completed Purple Rain, he (and most recording artists) would listen back to his master tapes on a huge system in high fidelity; a very different listening environment than how fans would hear it piped out of their radio on release. His uncompromising attention to detail – to capture every sound in full technicolour – is only mirrored by the craft of the technology that allowed him to do so. In a similar way to Purple Rain’s painstaking inception, high fidelity itself has been on a long and arduous journey in pursuit of the perfect sound. Only now, decades after this journey began, have technologists developed the means to experience true high fidelity out of the studio environment.
In a similar way to Purple Rain’s painstaking inception, high fidelity itself has been on a long and arduous journey in pursuit of the perfect sound
High fidelity doesn’t mean hi-fi
What exactly does it mean? For a start, it’s not just “hi-fi”. Over the years, the definition of high fidelity has been adapted to reflect changes in both time and technology. Simply put, it’s the ability to reproduce a sound in its truest form – but as the ways that we play, record and consume music have changed, so has high fidelity. While a surge in home stereo equipment – or ‘hifis’ – during the 1970s saw the term become a colloquialism in homes all over the world, their ability to add another layer of sound via a second speaker or channel simply doesn’t match our present-day experience of it. In fact, arguably, it actively undermines it.
Within the world of high fidelity, variables are many. CDs, vinyl and streaming services have largely, according to experts, changed our listening experience for the better – but the quality, or fidelity, can also be severely diminished by the equipment we listen on. It’s important to consider not just the acoustics of our home listening environment. The quality and overall design of your speakers, pre-amp, turntable, CD player and DAC has an unquestionably huge impact on your listening experience.
But for everyday listening, is optimising your home setup worth the effort? Mastering engineer Katie Tavini (Ash, Arlo Parks, Nadine Shah) thinks that the high fidelity experience is “absolutely” something that casual listeners, as well as audiophiles, musicians, engineers and producers can appreciate: “A casual listener may compare a lossy format to a high resolution lossless format and feel the difference rather than hear the difference. A good listening environment also plays a key role; you’re probably not going to be able to notice a massive difference if you’re listening on your iPhone speaker.”
Revealing an onslaught for the senses
Pet Sounds is one classic to start your hi-fi adventure with. The Beach Boys’ 11th album is revered for its satisfying, fascinating repeat listens, revealing its layers more vividly in a high fidelity listening environment. These songs sound deceptively simple, but in high fidelity, you can hear that they contain cross-melodies – and tons of emotional depth. The album’s subtle “off” feeling would come from its layers of chamber-inspired instrumentation (uncharacteristic of rock at the time) and subtle dissonance creating its ghostly chime. Pet Sounds is sickly sweet: their version of California more close to a fever-dream Robert Altman film than a mellow idyll. The most striking dissonance is of course in how Brian Wilson’s alienated, lovelorn lyrics subtly jar against the production’s peppiness, and even the sweetness of his own voice: “people look peaceful but inside they’re so uptight”, he sings on ‘I Know There’s An Answer’.
Like Prince and The Beach Boys, Kate Bush embraces a similar maximalism on her 1985 release, Hounds of Love. She couples the then fairly new Fairlight CMI synthesiser with a range of organic instrumentation played by a huge cast of talented session musicians. In a high fidelity listening environment, these details of her arrangements make perfect sense. Its stereo image pops out on the title track, its punchy dynamics feeling as if they’re cutting into the room itself. Listening in this way also does its experimental second side more justice; tracks like ‘Waking The Witch’ and ‘Under Ice’ becoming an onslaught for the senses. In high fidelity and a good listening environment, you get so much closer to experiencing the complex, inspiring tapestry of sounds that Kate Bush would have woven in the studio.
Artists like Kate Bush, Prince and The Beach Boys achieved this pristine level of detail in their mixes with the help of what is known as “reel-to-reel”. Post 1947, reel-to-reel tape’s sonic clarity would then help recording artists decide on a mix by highlighting details that would be distorted on lower fidelity formats. In this day and age, whether that be on reel-to-reel or digital, listening back to mixes in high fidelity can also help mixing engineers spot errors. Tavini explains that: “It’s important that artists sign off their masters at the original sample rate and bit depth that the recordings were made at, because it means that they aren’t missing out on any detail or hearing artefacts that come from using lossy formats.” Antony Ryan of the mastering company RedRedPaw agrees. “Sometimes these are small noises or other sonic issues that they have missed,” he says, “but equally there can be pleasant surprises in the masters too.”
Definition, depth, subtlety, power, space: it’s something that, once experienced, you’re hooked.
What’s to lose?
So you’ve swapped out cheap headphones and tinny speakers for a better setup. But if you’re still firmly committed to listening to digital, you will want to hear it in the best quality possible. Plenty of music fans will play their favourite tracks in compressed digital files like MP3s or via streaming rather than via losslessly compressed formats such as FLAC. They’re missing out: the audiophile argument is that you can lose certain details intended by the artist and producer if you play back in a lossy format.
We are more familiar with visual high-definition than with sound: nowadays, HD (or UHD) is the standard, but listeners just aren’t introduced to the same level of sonic detail through high fidelity sound in quite the same way. Most audio you access through a computer has been encoded through a “lossy compression”, which means that not all of the data from the original source file is contained in its digital file. However, things appear to be changing. Apple Music has rolled out at no additional charge a Lossless Audio option using its own compression technology (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). This is a compression technique which makes sure that all musical information from the original source file is preserved in the streaming playback. Spotify aren’t too far behind, with their own upcoming CD-quality streaming option.
High fidelity is a well designed pair of speakers that sit right in your room. It’s Prince listening back for the first time to Purple Rain with his engineers on reel-to-reel. It’s choosing lossless over lossy audio files, and playing them back through a digital to analogue converter. With the right equipment and home listening space, we can not just hear the clarity intended by great artists, but also feel this much, much more deeply. And isn’t that what it’s all about? High fidelity throws our favourite albums we thought we knew inside-and-out into a new light, inspiring awe that captures more closely our feelings of hearing music in a live setting. As Ryan says, high fidelity gives you: “the chance to become really immersed in a song or a performance which has been recorded, mixed, mastered and played back in high-fidelity. Definition, depth, subtlety, power, space: it’s something that, once experienced, you’re hooked.”
Lottie Brazier is a writer and musician from the UK. She has written on music and culture for publications like The Guardian, Pitchfork, Dazed, The Quietus and The Wire.
Her debut single ‘Washing Machine’ is distributed via State51, featured in The Guardian, Dazed and The Quietus.