When you’re discussing ‘fi’, whether ‘lo’ or ‘hi’, it’s worth unpacking the terms a little.
‘Hi-fi’ is an abbreviation for ‘high fidelity’.
What does that mean?
For some, to say that something is ‘hi-fi’ is simply to say that it sounds good.
In audiophile circles, it’s more likely to mean that the object being described (since ‘hi-fi’ in the audiophile sense is almost always used as a modifier) provides accurate reproduction of a sound source, that the system is ‘faithful’ to the sound source: an amplifier and CD player can be described as ‘hi-fi’ if a CD being played on the system sounds like it should. How does an audiophile know what it ‘should’ sound like? Unless he was in the control room while the record was mixed, he probably doesn’t. But if it sounded good in the way the audiophile expected, ‘hi-fi’ was the term of choice.
And now we’re getting somewhere. Assessments of fidelity are often little more than guesses. Dark Side of the Moon is often said to be a hi-fi record, but how do we know if we weren’t there with the band and Alan Parsons when they printed finals? It’s a good-sounding record, but to stretch to saying it’s a ‘hi-fi’ record is presuming a little, since only Mr Parsons (and maybe the band themselves and any seconds who worked on the album) are in a position to tell us what Breathe sounded like coming through the bigs on first playback.
When we get to recording equipment, we’re on different ground again. The debate in studio-land about whether tape or digital is the more accurate medium has run for a couple of decades and will probably run for a long while yet. Both sides believe that their favoured medium provides more accurate results, and hence is the more hi-fi of the two.
About the only thing that we can all agree on is that 1/4″ cassette tape and Portastudio recording is an inherently low-fidelity medium. Thin tape (liable to stretch), low bandwidth and high noise floor, combined with the mechanical limitations of the Portastudio’s transport mechanisms, and then compounded by the poor quality of the preamps and monitoring sections of the machine, combine to produce a result that certainly degrades any signal passed through it and on to tape. No one would argue otherwise.
But the key question – always – is, does it sound good? Many fans of lo-fi rock and indie music found that recordings made on Portastudios had a quality they liked. For them the issue wasn’t, ‘Does this tape accurately represent what it would be like to sit in the same room as Lou Barlow and have him sing to you?’
The question of why a lo-fi fan would prefer recordings that sounded palpably less good than the sound source is another question again, one I hope to get the chance to write about tomorrow.*
Alan Parsons likes his fi to be hi
*I’m moving this weekend. It’s a busy time. This piece was scribbled in a few stolen moments. It probably reads like it was.