Accuracy & Resolution: the Jagger Effect

Back in 1968, nothing sounded better to me than "Penny Lane"—one of my all-time favorite songs—blasting out over my Dad's home-built Eico gear (when no one else was around, of course). For some reason, the various sounds packed into that song grabbed my attention as much as that old integrated amp whose steel case got as hot as the tubes inside—ouch! When the Beatles broke up, I played Magical Mystery Tour over and over for days before I felt I'd paid them sufficient homage. Like everyone else, I heard a lot of the Beatles through the '70s and '80s. (And now, of course, it may as well be the '60s again: if you can stomach another "Magic Carpet Ride" every hour (or so it seems), just tune in your local "classic rock" station and you'll hear lots of "Penny Lane," too.)

So ever since the recent resurgence of Beatlemania, I've been meaning to go through the LPs I found at garage sales last summer—including a few copies of Magical Mystery Tour. After hearing "Penny Lane" on the radio the other day, I decided the time had come to start up that old tour bus. Good news!—two clean rainbow Capitols with A and B stamper numbers and bright, shiny tour-books.

First on the agenda was, of course, "Penny Lane." During the Anthology broadcasts, I saw an interview with George Martin that got me thinking. He remembered how Paul had heard someone playing a Bach trumpet and had been fascinated with its sound. Soon enough, they were using one in "Penny Lane." For some reason, this struck me as a little ironic: just as the Beatles were taking their biggest steps in revolutionizing popular music—inventing new song structures, new sounds, the "concept" album, new studio techniques, and so on—Paul got excited about an instrument dating from the 17th century.

I cleaned one of the discs and queued up "Penny Lane." Immediately I realized that, in some ways, I was hearing this song for the first time. I don't think I'd ever heard it on a high-end system. Mine, moreover, had just been elevated a bit with a new outboard motor for my turntable and new stators for my electrostats. So I was able to hear much of what the Beatles and Martin had done in the studio. I had never noticed parts of McCartney's (brilliant, as usual) bassline; the ride cymbal underneath the trumpet solo; and the fact that only John sings "in summer" (right after the bit about "finger pies"). At the same time, of course, I also heard studio artifacts like tape noise and different ambient fields appearing and disappearing as takes and overdubs were ping-ponged together.

Actually, I was conducting an experiment—one that would bear on the old debate about accuracy and resolution. How much do you need? How much do you really want? I had to ask myself which I liked better: "Penny Lane" the way I thought it should sound, or the way it sounded when I had no idea (and didn't care) about how it was recorded, mixed, and so on? Or did I prefer hearing it here, in the surgical theater of my living room? I have to admit I was a little disappointed. The song just didn't trigger the nostalgia I had expected it to.

Since the song had always sounded great to me, I was surprised to be let down. Instead of enjoying the way it all hangs together, I found myself mentally teasing apart the seams and fissures I was hearing for the first time. As I discovered all this detail, the song, its spirit, and some of its fun receded into the background. Maybe "Penny Lane" is like laws and sausages—don't ask how they're made.

I'm sure my experience was not unique. Sometimes the most enjoyable musical experiences have more to do with low-end audio than high-end. For me, they usually occur when I'm driving and listening to my car radio (along with lots of road and wind noise). Though the sound quality is pretty bad, it's often just more fun to hear a favorite song this way.

Maybe it's the element of surprise. At home, I spend a few minutes scratching my chin in front of the record shelves, a few more cleaning and drying an LP, listening for footfalls to see if the upstairs neighbors are home, and so on—by which time I've already mentally played half the record from memory. Obviously, it just won't be the same as some great song suddenly bursting over the airwaves and catching me by surprise.

Or maybe the lo-fi advantage is that there's not enough detail or resolution to counter my preconceptions about a piece of music. In my car, I don't really listen to recordings; instead, I hear songs—and these are essentially the same wherever and whenever you hear them. As long as I hear the vocals, beat, and melody, I can enjoy a song regardless of the sound quality. Sometimes, if I know a piece of music well, the radio just jogs my memory and I fill in the missing or distorted details. But I'll never learn anything new about my favorites from my car radio—it will always take a back seat to my main system. In this regard, my Delco special really just churns out musical IOUs that, like Post-it Notes on my dashboard, say "get Springsteen's new one" or "play 'Penny Lane' when you get home." In this case, however, my high-end system was pointing me back to my car.