Fidelity Or Performance: Which Wins?

There is something absolutely entrancing about the sound of a fine instrument in the hands of a talented musician. One of the reasons that I love to record in Zipper Auditorium at the Colburn School for Performing Arts is the quality of sound that is produced by their Steinway Model D 9-foot grand piano. Sitting at that instrument and simply playing a few chords brings forth a rich and complex combination of interacting pitches, harmonics, and sympathetic resonances that can literally overwhelm this listener.

The same holds true when Laurence Juber plays a few notes on his DADGAD tuned, signature series Martin guitars. There is magic in the tones even before they are crafted into a composition and realized for an audience. If the experience of listening to music were only about receiving a sequence of notes played in structured rhythms at varying loudness levels, then we wouldn’t bother with the differences between a Stradivarius violin and a cheap copy. And we wouldn’t have to concern ourselves with the subtle “enhancements” attributed to audiophile tweaks or even the path signals take through our systems when we listen to music.

Hearing music is a delicate balance between the composition, the performance, the instrumental color, the acoustic space, your proximity to the sound, and the ambient sound around you…if you’re at a live event. If you listen to a recording, then there are lots of other things that impact the experience including, the microphones, the preamps, the recording format (lacquer, vinyl, analog tape, standard definition digital, high-res digital, PCM, DSD, and the entire signal path from the source.

Some musicians and music fans think that the realization of a musical composition need only deliver the notes as written on the printed page. The composition exists independently of the actual performance. The intellectual and emotional stimulation provided by a Bach fugue can even be accomplished regardless of who’s playing it. The “Art of Fugue”, Bach’s ultimate expression of contrapuntal music, lacks any indication of the instruments that should play each of the 4 lines. I’ve heard recordings of that work played on an organ, by a string quartet, saxophone quartet, electronic synthesizer, and even a kazoo band! The piece is always present but I prefer certain instrumental versions to others.

Maybe the actual quality of the sound is secondary to the composition?

It’s not that way for me. As much as I love Bach’s counterpoint, hearing only the notes is insufficient to deliver the full impact of his genius. Hearing Bach performed on a glorious pipe organ by a terrific player elevates the music experience. And if that same performance is captured in a great recording and reproduced through a great playback system, then the overall musical experience is better. After all, isn’t that why we’re all so passionate about music and the reproduction of music?

I know it’s why I’m so fussy about the process of recording music. The sound of a recording is a major component of my listening pleasure. In fact, I would rather listen to a great sounding recording of a good performance than a poor recording of a great performance (Tomorrow, I’ll be writing about the Elvis acetate coming out on Record Store Day…with all of the clicks and pops left in!). I know that may sound idiotic and of course, I’m not going to sit through a hack performance but I would rather hear my recordings of the “Bolero” or “The Pines of Rome” in high-resolution, “stage” perspective surround than sit through the best stereo vinyl LP of those works by the Berlin Philharmonic. The lack of details, the compromised low end, the flatness of the stereo mix, and the lack of “presence” in the tracks are unforgiveable compromises that destroy the presentation.

Give me a great piece of music, a great performance, great instruments, and a great high-resolution, immersive surround mix and I’m happy.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

23 thoughts on “Fidelity Or Performance: Which Wins?

  • But what of folks who only have the space or dinero or both for a stereo, 2-channel system, let’s say, with above average equipment? Are they forever missing out on something for the lack of five or seven well placed speakers and an appropriate delivery system?

    • There tremendous sonic advantages to listening to well recorded surround music. But the sad fact is that there is not a lot of 5.1 surround music out there. To invest in a good surround system is not recommended unless you’ve got the space and resources. Of course, you could do the Smyth Realizer thing and synthesize or model my room in your apartment for a lot less money.

  • Mark, weren’t you a woodwind player? If so, I would’ve thought you’d have had enough of listening to the brass from close up. If I’m not immediately behind the bell, I’d much rather be a ways out from the front of it. But, to each according to his own want.

    • I played the guitar as a teenager and piano to get through music school. The placement of microphones defines the quality of sound that an engineer gets. There’s lots of different approaches but I prefer the sound of being up close to the sound…even brass.

  • Mark, A very eloquent piece of writing. But accept for the last full paragraph I have no idea what you were trying to say?

    • Sal, the question posed and the answers provided are concerned with the inherent sound of a recording vs. the quality of a great performance. Which one is more important to you. As I tried to explain, the sound of a great recording is equal to the quality of the performance for me.

      • I guess I’m following you but then I’d have to disagree.
        ” In fact, I would rather listen to a great sounding recording of a good performance than a poor recording of a great performance”
        Would you purchase a recording of a music style that’s not your cup of tea just because it was a great sounding recording?
        Yes I’ve done that a few times over the last 40 years just to hear how my system would perform with a recording done in by the current SOTA. But those recordings were listened to and evaluated no more than a half dozen times and then went on the shelf mostly never to be heard again.
        I’ve listened to a lot of your recordings that you offered on the free download site but the only thing I purchased was your Mark Chesnut project. All your projects sounded up there with the best I’ve ever heard but they just weren’t my taste.
        Just can’t imagine paying the price of any HDA downloads for music I’ll never listen too?
        What did get me excited was finding a MFSL CD of Alan Parsons-I Robot on ebay recently for $40 shipped, and a 5 CD box set of ZZ Top on Rhino for $16 shipped (brand new).
        Then after I rip them I will donate them to the church second hand store.
        The MFSL CD I know will sound good, the ZZ Top, who knows, but for sure they’ll get many hours of play and deliver much enjoyment.

        • There is no one right way to appreciate audio. I get a charge out of a well recorded instrument…maybe you live for the performance.

  • Marco J. Mariotto

    Mark — i have followed your blogs and support your focus on the @ 60% of reproduced music being a function of the “provenance” of such music. However, you will never get traction with those of us who are self-described “audiophiles” when you push multi-mic “in the middle” 5.1 surround sound. No one, I repeat no one including the conductor, hears music from multiple speakers surrounding their position — “immersion” is frankly where your ears are and they ain’t in the middle of the musicians during a performance.. . i have downloaded and listened to your “surround” music and it is so alien to what I have experienced over 60 years in the great, and LA has no “great”, concert halls that i am afraid you are losing a potential market. Please focus on the 60% (quality recording) and stay away from the 40% that is reproduction. When you brag about having 5 801’s in a surround mix in a tiny studio we have left you.

    PS — had a bunch of 801’s many years ago and my ears hurt until I discovered what the European’s have known for years — “accuracy” has nothing to do with euphony — my Sonus Fabers sing to me — .

    Please focus on provenance and do not dilute your potential market by pushing “surround” — whatever that may mean.

    • Marco, thanks for your support and for the thoughtful comments. Although we may disagree on many points offered above, I have to call it as I know it. Surround presentations of music elevate the experience in a way that 2-channel stereo simply cannot.

      The argument that for recreating the realities of a live performance…including the spatial configuration…is too narrow for me. We amplify vocals don’t we? That’s artificial. When you sit in the midst of a 5.1 array of speakers, you don’t hear the speakers you hear the music. The conductor of the NJSO actually commented after hearing an immersive 5.1 surround playback of his Beethoven and Pines, that it was the first time he’s ever heard an accurate realization of his work. I took that as a compliment.

      If you prefer the sound of remaining in the audience of a concert hall as opposed to being in a chamber room amidst the musicians, then that’s great. Many, in fact, most individuals that hear an aggressive surround mix…and take the time to get used the new perspective…prefer it. I’ve had hard core audiophiles confess to this preference after listening for an extended period of time to my surround mixes. How can I lose a potential market? I provide stereo and two different 5.1 surround mixes for all of my titles.

      The studio at AIX is hardly tiny. It’s 30 feet x 25 feet x 12 feet and contains several speaker setups (5.1 B&Ws and a JBL THX Theatrical System). Those who get the chance to hear the room are universally impressed…from Jack Vad of the SF Symphony to Robert Margouleff (Grammy winning engineer for Stevie Wonder). I can guarantee that your ears would be in sonic bliss if you sat in the sweet spot of my room.

      The future is multichannel audio. Traditional 2-channel playback is fine but lacks the ability to envelope the listener in the way a hall or 5.1 presentation can.

      And finally, LA has a number of great halls. Little Bridges, Disney Hall, and Zipper Auditorium can compete with the best in the world.

  • I’m my experience the music, the musician, and the instrument must all be present in good proportion to have a fine sounding performance that motivates one’s innards. If they are all present in high proportion one’s soul can be transported. In the very rare cases where all are present in high proportion, one experiences great performances that can be transformative. Aside from the music itself, I’ve heard many great instruments, pipe organs, violins, pianos, voices, in the hands of the less talented, and in some cases felt like screaming, let me out of here. On the other hand I’ve heard middling instruments under control of masters, and felt like the instrument and music had been elevated several notches. I hate to admit that there have even been cases where I was so desperate to hear the music, instrument, or artist that subpar performances were reconstructed in my brain as being better than they really were; some enjoyment was still attained.

    • Thanks. It’s never good when the reaction to a sound is negative. At the level of professional musicians with good instruments, I need an equally good recording.

  • Dave Griffin

    It doesn’t matter the resolution or quality of the recording, a mediocre or average performance recoded perfectly is still a mediocre or average performance when reproduced. A top notch performance that conveys the emotion of the music will still be top notch, even if all the highs aren’t quite there, or there’s a bit of distortion: listen to any recording by Ella Fitzgerald or many Motown recordings; they’ll instantly emotionally engage, but will sound quite rough by today’s standards. Ultimately, getting the last bit of tonal colour or truer dynamic is the icing on the cake, it doesn’t make the musical event.

    • I wouldn’t say that my recording of the Beethoven 6th Symphony is stellar but it’s better than average. But the sound and the 5.1 surround mix takes it to a place that I can’t get from my vinyl LPs of the same work by Ormandy or Georg Solti and Chicago. I got to have both.

  • Mark,

    I can see where you are coming from. Who doesn’t like a perfectly recorded performance, preferably recorded with the whole band live to get the special vibe? Yet, If I had to chose between listening to mediocre performances or boring compositions in perfect sound for the rest of my life or great to performances in not the best, maybe even sub-mediocre recordings, I would have to chose – with a heavy heart – the latter. To give an example: I have around 2,500 unofficial live recordings of bands like Zappa, Led Zeppelin, Steely Dan, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Santana and Eric Clapton. Some of these recordings are a must have in terms of performance, yet the sound is in most cases not stellar. As said before, I’d rather listen to these recordings than to some boring great sounding HD files.
    In a perfect world, both requirements – a stellar performance and class A sound – would be present on all of these. Alas, that is not the case.


    • I find it rare that both come together. Of course, we have to want to hear the music…there is great historical significance to classic records.

  • If I understand correctly, you rely almost entirely on close miking. So, I’m curious where you put the microphones for the French horns and tuba.

    • I have a stereo pair in front of section of the orchestra. A stereo pair in from of 2-4 horns or the brass section.

  • craig allison

    Wonderful new topic.
    Hi Mark,
    We pretty much all started enjoying music on some little device that probably didn’t sound real good, but the magic of the music still came through.Some of us were also exposed to our parents’ early Hi-Fi consoles, etc.

    After almost 50 years of involvement, I express it like this to audiophiles who have apparently missed the forest for the trees,or even worse, end up staring at just one inch of sonic bark, I say :

    “The music and the sound are two different things. The sound is simply the carrier for the music, which is the artists’ emotional expression and intent. The relationship of hi-fi to music enjoyment lies in the logical premise that when the sound is way better, much more of the artists’ emotion and intent, i.e., the music, is revealed and attained by the listener. I strongly subscribe to this , and I’m betting/hoping that as professionals we agree.

    OTH, simply enjoying and learning the sound of fundamental acoustic instruments is both a key professional and consumer tool . It is the lack of this basic acoustic understanding that is unfortunately the cause of many a weird choice of equipment by mis-guided audiophiles. Just sounding an acoustic guitar, piano, brass instrument, or striking a drum and learning and appreciating the tonal and resonant qualties, is a perfectly good and highly desirable foundation ,no question in my mind.

  • The title of this post begs the question: fidelity to what? As Marco pointed out, above, having instruments directed at you from all sides isn’t something usually experienced in real life , and doesn’t even appear to be the way you make your recordings – although I think Morten Lindberg, of 2L, has sometimes set up his ensembles this way. Close miking alters the timbre of instruments compared to how we normally hear them. So, in the case of your recordings, or essentially any studio creation, what does it even mean to talk about fidelity? It’s not fidelity to what anyone would’ve heard at the performance. It could be considered fidelity to your artistic vision, but that’s something that can only be judged by you.

    To be clear, as the recording engineer, producer, and record label owner, it’s your prerogative to make recordings the way you want them to sound – no matter what anyone else has to say about it.

    • Having instruments directed at you from the front and sides does happen if you’ve ever played in an ensemble or been in a band or attended a private performance. It isn’t usual because there are lots of others there trying the enjoy the same concert. But it is not unnatural or unpleasant at all. I give you the choice but I prefer to have sound coming from more than just two speakers. During my recordings, I arrange the ensemble around the stage…sometimes in a circle but usually not. The difference between Morten and myself is that he cannot remix his captures…I can. It gives me options.

      Close miking does not alter the timbre of the instruments. You’re right that you’ve probably never heard them sound that way but it doesn’t mean that the sound has been in any way degraded. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. The actual sound of an instrument gets altered the further away you get from it. Capturing the accurate timbre and then reproducing it in a speaker or speakers that are about 8-10 feet away means the virtual sound of the actual instrument comes from 8-10 feet away…perfect!

      I think you’re confusing fidelity with aesthetics. I very tightly maintain the fidelity of the original sound but I cast that sound in a surround mix in several ways as well as a stereo blend.

      • Thanks for the explanation. I follow what you are saying, but my point is subtly different.

        I’ve played in Symphony orchestras, brass quintets, jazz bands, marching bands, rock bands, etc. in all of these cases, there is sound coming from all around you, but, very rarely are all of those sources directed *at* you. Most instruments are directional to some degree, and having them all point at you from all around is pretty rare.

        Based on my understanding of your recording techniques – which I hope you will correct, if I am wrong – the microphones are a similar distance from the violin section as they are from the brass. If they are both positioned at the speaker plane, that’s as if they were in the same position in the orchestra. However, I think you are adjusting the levels as well, so that the loudness level of the brass is somewhat equivalent to what it would be if diminished by distance, but the frequency balances and changing.

        Consider trying to balance the sound of a violin with a trumpet acoustically. Decreasing the volume of the trumpet relative to the violin, means moving further away from the former and closer to the latter. That changes the spectral balance/timbre as well as the volume.

        Since the sound, mixed as I described above, doesn’t exist in the acoustic world, it’s not possible to compare the recording to anything. In that way, fidelity becomes an abstract concept. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that – as you have pointed out many times, virtually all commercial releases are done this way, and recordings are creations in their own right.

        • The circumstance you bring up does have merit…but consider recording a string quartet, a woodwind quintet, or a brass quintet. I would mic things the same way and argue that the balance and timbre are maintained. The slight modifications that you point out in the orchestral model are correct but haven’t presented any problems. Most of my recordings are of smaller ensembles…classical, jazz, or commercial.


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