‘Musicality’ and Instagram

  • The conversation surrounding ‘accuracy’ has often troubled me: that it’s about the pursuit of getting as close as possible to reproducing the live performance.

    I want to ask “why?”. Why do you want your home hifi to precisely reproduce a live performance? I enjoy Nick Cave’s live shows and I enjoy his albums, both for very different reasons. To me they are two separate art forms. Think of theatre and movies. Filming a play does not a movie make.

    So it goes with music. Recordings (albums) are different to live performances. The former can accommodate trickery and touch-ups that might not be possible live. An album is painted over time. A live show is done and dusted in ninety minutes or so.

    The pursuit of accuracy also assumes a reliable source reference point – the true nature of the live recording. How can we possibly know how close the recording is to the original?  This has been debated forever in forum land.

    Your hardware configuration at home might be accurate but is it 100% accurate? I doubt it. It also begs the question – why bother? Why not enjoy the differences, the colouration and distortion? I suspect that many of us already do.

    Putting aside those thoughts on what accuracy, I’ve always had trouble articulating what ‘musicality’ means to me…until now.

    Instagram is an iOS/Android app with which you crop your photo (to a square) and then apply one of nineteen filters before sharing it with your friends.  Many of these filters give the image a nostalgic Polaroid feel.

    Ask yourself – which of these two photos do you find more pleasing?


    The one on the left is the untouched iPhone snap. Clearly it is the more accurate of the two. It is closest to source.  It is closest to what I saw out there on Big Sur. On the right, an Instagram crop and filter has been applied to the original photo. It is further from source…but is it any less enjoyable? Is it in act MORE pleasing to the eye?  The filter masks and distorts many of the original photos shortcomings.  A little detail has been sacrificed for an (artificial) lift in tonal richness.

    Had I used a DSLR I might have further limited those technical flaws but I would NEVER have captured exactly that which I spied with my little eye. If there are imperfections, why not smear or colour them to make them more visually agreeable?

    And the ear? Isn’t this why many enjoy tubes when listening to particularly thin and reedy recordings/masters (like so many of those 1980s CDs)? Many of us enjoy a lack of perfection. We enjoy distortion. We are not obsessed with getting as close as possible to the original performance. I think this is what is meant by ‘musicality’.

    My Instagram account allows me to see what ‘musicality’ might look like.

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Hello John

      It’s a nice try; and something I was thinking about myself. Although my take on it is different. I believe, Instagram demonstrates how in relatively low-quality audio-equipment its poor quality (high levels of analogue noise) helps to reconcile us with the low-quality source (by covering up specifically digital noise). It is no coincidence that Instgram came into existence when low-quality photo-equipment displaced DSLR…

      Yet, be it as it may, I think, a lot here depends on one’s definition of ‘musicality’. As far as mine is concerned, it has very little to do with the properties of the two photos you are discussing. If you want to stay with the photo analogy, then musicality is more about the composition of the shot (the same in both cases) and the overall coherence of the image (not necessarily the same, since changes in colours and such like do matter). More precisely, musicality, for me, is “coherence in motion”, since, as we all know, both music and its reproduction is all bout timing. The most musical equipment is the one which (re)presents a coherent audio-image and maintains its coherence in time. To give one example from the equipment reviewed by you – Heed Obelisk. Another – perhaps, even more striking – Altmann Attraction DAC (NOS). But, needless to say, this is just my take on it 🙂

      Thanks 🙂

      • And a follow-up/afterthought 🙂

        What follows from my ‘definition’ of musicality is that there is no iron law which defines the relationship between musicality and truthfulness to the source. It depends on the source. There is music (or there are listening situations) where truthfulness to the source is more-or-less irrelevant for the overall coherence of the reproduction. But there are others, where too much distortion of the source would ruin coherence. To give an example, again: Truthfulness to the source would be more important when listening to Kid A then when listening to The Bends (or even OK Computer) because the way album sounds is to a greater extent an indelible part of Kid A than in The Bends.

      • Great reply – thanks Alex. I was thinking more about how distortion/noise can obfuscate poor source recordings and (somehow) make them more listenable.

        I like your idea of musicality being aligned with photographic composition (which Instagram’s square-cropping forces the user to think about).

    2. Hey, John,

      Time and again, I am pleased to see how your “no-nonsense” approach to music and audio equipment is similar to my own. Could that be the reason why I enjoy your writing more than other reviewers’ ? 😉


    3. I agree! Well said Mr. Darko, great analogy using Instagram. Accuracy and perfection are traps (illusions in a way), some of the great rabbit holes of the industry.

    4. You said that there are 19 different Instagram filters, each one producing a different version of the original image. Presumably someone else might choose a different filter from the one you chose. Isn’t another filter likely to be just like the 80’s CD – no more than a distortion of the original? If accuracy is to be set aside, aren’t we more realistically dealing with judgements of right or wrong, good or bad, and not true or false?

      I don’t believe the novelty of Instagram works so well in other areas of life. If the chef, on a whim, decided to put hot taco sauce on my sea bass in the interest of color and “a lift in tonal richness”, I’d protest loudly.

    5. Hey guys, can we take a step back from the unreality school? For most listeners have no idea what is on the recording. What we prefer and get can be something the producer had no intent to give us.

      To determine what is real – what is actually on the recording – is best done in the studio at the time the recording was made. What you hear and what the mic hears are two different realities. What the producer expects you to hear is what he hears during the recording or mixdown on his particular speakers/earphones.

      Your speakers are different from his, so are your amps, cables, etc. And your room. Unless I’m missing something from the above, most of us would prefer to experience the reality on the recording – analogue or digital. It is silly to expect live music from it. We are looking at, metaphorically speaking, in image frozen in time, another time in another place, unpacked in this time and place in a different environment from that time and place. In other words, our panorama is not that panorama. The photo analogy is interesting, but that is where it ends.

      Any coloration added or information subtracted is undesirable. We don’t want filters unless we NEED filters, such as for equalizing our speakers/headphones/room to comply with flatter-full range reproduction.

      The mic feed at the studio/concert provides the best possible sound you can get, one closer to the musicians in time and space than it will ever get. Accordingly, what a good producer would/should do is to test the sound the musicians make by listening directly to them and after the mic feed to his monitors. The closer to the live sound he gets on his monitors the better.

      In this same sense one can determine which, digital or analogue tape, produces the closest facsimile to the mic feed sound. All one has to do is to play back both at the time of recording on the same monitors and compare with the live mic feed.

      At this time, this man’s opinion is that digital hi rez is superior in many ways over analogue under scientific conditions of testing. Meaning comparisons of the MASTER analogue and digital tapes recorded at the same time and place and played back on the same system.

      I am not a fan of using images for describing sound, although it has its place. On the other hand, we know that digital photography, audio and communications share many technical similarities.

      It’s more important for the serious thinker to focus on what is available and what is repeatable – as the repeatability of a scientific experiment – the testing of audio equipment falls into this category – tends to validate and confirm conclusions. Listening and measurements may be included of course.

      • Hello, Andrew

        For reason which I hope to get to by the end of this reply, I would prefer ‘truthfulness’ to the notion of ‘reality’ used by you. Hope, you don’t mind :)The preliminary reason for this preference is that in philosophy, for instance, they have two quite different theories of truth. One based on the criterion of correspondence (to reality – your facsimile), the other – that of coherence. The latter eschews not so much reality as such as cocksure faith in our ability to know it in any objective way. ‘Objective’ is the key here, since, I believe, you cannot, in one breath, uphold reliance of objective measurements/repeatability and producer’s subjective choices. For now, you are referring to both, but ‘You MUST pick one or the other, though neither of them are to be what they claim’ :).
        It seems to me, you cannot really pick, unless you decide what exact kind of ‘reality’ we are dealing with here. As far as I am concerned, this reality is ART, and not science. And not only at the level of musical performance, but also at that of its reproduction. We just happened to forget – with all the reliance of measurement/statistics/reproducibility – that once upon a time the used to call what we today call ‘sciences’ – ‘arts’ 🙂 To be sure, mics and amps require a good deal of technical knowledge and skill. But in so far as they are employed in the process of either creation (in the studio) or reproduction (live) of music, they also have to partake from the character of musical instruments. And this is what they are, I believe, at their best – specific musical instruments.
        (The best analogy here, I think, is indeed not photography but modern mechanical watches – totally redundant and useless in the face of electronic competition as far as time-telling is concerned, but works of engineering art in their own right.)
        Now, if we accept that hi-end audio equipment is a species of musical instruments, we have to judge them by the criteria appropriate for music/art. And that, I believe, is not ‘reality’ (by which you actually mean ‘appearance’; that is, the way music appears to an individual producer/listener), but something like ‘true reality’ – reality beyond senses, even if it is available to us only through senses. It is this breakthrough, this going beyond our own abilities, which is so attractive in music, be it performance, reproduction or listening. And this, I’m afraid just cannot be measured.
        Whether this ‘true reality’ – or simply truth, revealed to us through art generally and music in particular – is known to us through correspondence or coherence, is for philosophers (and/or for each of us) to decide. But reducing art to science, even if/when science helps us to understand art, is a categorial mistake which can only conceal, rather than reveal that tricky thing which some of us call ‘musicality’ 🙂

        • (I’m obviously either too lazy or too agitated to proof-read my own ramblings. Apologies for that :))

        • Hi Alex,

          I hear you clearly. Of course you are resurrecting the old measurement/objective v. listening/subjective concepts we are both familiar with. And musicality = art/accuracy = science dichotomy.

          That’s fine, I can accept the mission of art as being higher than that of science – and my Girard Perregaux WWtc world timer agrees. AT $16,000 it had better.

          Nevertheless, I am reminded of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (despised by every philosophy department on earth for its exposing the Platonic dichotomies.) In any event, we do need to explore the roots of knowledge as whatever magic we obtain through circuit boards filled with resistors, capacitors and transistors is still the result, not of magic, but of science. No matter how high we elevate ourselves through the magic of our imagination and poetry, visualizing and recreating in our heads and senses what is obviously not there in front of us, it is still science and accumulated technical and theoretical knowledge that has brought us to this point in time and place.

          It is science that had created the magic trick, not the other way ’round.

          Ayn Rand, disrespected for not leaving loose strings dangling for interpretation, said:

          There are two kinds of knowledge.
          That which we know.
          And that which we will discover.

          If there’s a third kind of knowledge, magic for example, I’m all ears.

          She also proposed this, because she well knew that a large segment of humanity desperately prefers to live in denial:

          Q: What is important?
          A: Reality.

          In other words, anything that has little to do with reality is unimportant, no matter how much importance we wish to imbue into it.

          This view offered on the presumption of the first statement above, there is one. Reality that is. Truth is reality, it does not take a detour at the Y in the road.

          And it’s measurable. All of it. What we cannot measure today, we will. Eventually.

          She was right you know?
          Strange, interesting, obnoxious, but right.

          • HI Andrew

            To make it, sort of, commensurable, let me quote from Iris Murdock then: There are people who prefer thinking in twos, and there are people who prefer thinking in threes; and the madhouses of the world are filled with people who believe that all is one.
            With all due respect, Ayn Rand seems to be in the latter category on this one. The funny thing is, I do believe in the advances of science. I do believe that one day science would be able to measure whatever it is not being able to measure now (even if, for now the ratio of measurable data in physics seems to be shrinking rather than increasing). Anyway, I do believe all the above-said. However, I also believe that whatever science measures by the end of the end would NOT be the same thing, as far as my aesthetic experiences are concerned. Otherwise, there would have not been place for aesthetics – either in experience or in logic – since everything would have been science (at least potentially).
            It is the same as with drinkable ‘water’ and measurable H2O. These are not two different names for the same ‘thing’, but two categorially different ‘things’ to begin with, existing as such because created as such through different modes of knowledge – practice and science, in this case – neither of which has anything to do with science/magic or science/faith dichotomy 🙂

            So , I am NOT saying that what makes a certain flow of electrons more ‘musical’ that others is magic. What I am trying to say is somewhat different. What makes my Attraction DAC more musical than, say, the Young DAC (at least for me, but there are others out there, I know 🙂 ) is that at a certain point in the design of the former, its designer took off his engineering hat and put on his aesthetic, music-instrument-making hat on, because he recognised/ believed (as I do) that his product is not an either/or thing, but many things in one (both a certain arrangement of chips, resistors and capacitors to handle which you have to be competent in science, AND a certain arrangement of materials, shapes, textures and such like which, if handle properly, that is, artistically, will give the device a different musical tone).

            Put differently, ‘musicality’ is not the opposite of accuracy at all (something I was not quite happy about in John’s original post). It is something different from accuracy which, depending on the source, may or may not be enhanced through more accurate equipment.

            • “‘musicality’ is not the opposite of accuracy at all (something I was not quite happy about in John’s original post)”. The opposite? Nope – not at all.

            • I agree with John. That quote is the general take among audiophiles, as if one were in opposition to the other. Alex is talking about his own perceptions. I am talking about taking a scientific approach to subjective evaluation. Take two masters, an analogue and digital master and compare it on the same monitors to the live mic feed. One can determine a great deal by doing that: which is better. Rather simple, the closer to the live is the better. More accurate and more musical. One cannot be more musical than the real. Reality. There is only one.

              I can explain it to you Alex, but I cannot comprehend it for you. Having spent decades in the industry myself, I have never met an engineer who was properly trained who put his music instrument making hat on while designing an audio component. A few may speak about creating magic, but professionals are somewhat immune to hype. Reminds me of alternative medicine, alternative biology and alternative physics. And alternative math. A particular circuit that works at all will have specific and significantly predictable performance characteristics. Same for a speaker with 2 or 3 drivers and a crossover forming a filter. The rest is craftsmanship, choice of cabinet design and materials, not magic. There is no philosophy involved other than the desire to make good of the resources available. Sometimes the resources, limited, will by necessity diminish the potential of the component. This is the point that separates the men from the boys. To create excellence at that price point. No magic anywhere, there is one reality. The results. Success or failure. It is, black and white. There are not two or three truths. Only one. Performance. The results.

    6. I think one needs to distinguish between two things … first off there’s the idea of hi-fi. We’re essentially talking about transfer functions, signal A is restituted as signal A with the least possible amount of distortion and aberrations, the greatest level of coherence.

      Then the colouration comes on top … As douglas self wrote, amplifiers should have a ‘niceness’ button on them which infuses the sound with 2nd and 4th order distortion, thus making the sound euphonic.

      The thing is that both, fidelity and euphonics can actually co-exist independently.

      In photography for instance you could shoot an image with the sharpest available Leica lens and then apply the instagram style filtering … the result would still look nicer and more qualitative than with an iPhone lens.

      It’s just to say that both perceptions ‘accurate’ vs. ‘coloured’ do not necessarily need to be contradictory, on the contrary … one can very well imagine a hi-fi system which is very high-fidelity on base level, and then applies a elegant mix of ‘euphonics’ to the end result.

      In any case I appreciate John’s openness/pragmatism in regards to this as it is certainly true that only fidelity will not automatically translate into a more pleasing listening result.

    7. OK, I’ll have another go, if I may 🙂
      Starting with a question: Wouldn’t it be great if all violins sounded exactly the same in accordance with some ‘Violin Book’ standard? If they did, we could more clearly hear the strength, weaknesses or idiosyncrasies of individual performers, couldn’t we?
      Obviously, this is absurd.
      But then, I will be reminded, so is any direct comparison between violins and hi-fi. After all, hi-fi equipment is for reproduction, not performance. All the coloration intended by the performers (including engineers) is already in the source and and the task of the amplifier is to deliver it as is. This is a qualitatively different task.
      This is where I disagree. Of course, some accepted level of truthfulness to the source SHOULD be there, and this is what distinguishes hi-fi from lesser equipment. But then two other – and interrelated things come into play.
      1. Even if our equipment were 100% transparent, we still would not be able to reproduce the source as is. This is so because of the nature of our source. It is not just electric current, it is music/art delivered by electric current. And art cannot be taken out of its context without modification. The context of our art-form is a live performance or recording studio, and since neither can be reproduced in its entirety, some ‘distortion’ is there the moment I start listening in my room. And I am not talking about technical/acoustic difference of environment which theoretically can be minimised. I am talking about listening in a wholly different setting, ‘mechanical reproducibility’ of art as it was discussed by Walter Benjamin who argued that it changes the character of art as such.
      2. In practice, our equipment, whatever the price, is never 100% transparent. So, the real-life choice seems to be: either to keep fighting the remaining imperfections (knowing that they cannot be totally eliminated in principle) or try to make the best of what we have here and now.
      I guess, in both cases, decisions made by real-life listeners depend on how they see/understand themselves in terms of two ideal types: as engineers or as musicians (not necessarily performers of music, but someone whose reason for engaging in this hobby is primarily music). In both cases, you would want/need to tweak your system. But the nature of these tweaks would be radically different. In the first case, you may end up in some approximation to the anechotic chamber. In the second, do whatever your imagination suggests to you in order to … well… ‘forget hi-fi, remember the music’ 🙂
      As with all ideal types, in real life, most of us are somewhere in between. ‘Simply’ because of the intrinsic duality of our hobby and its equipment. On the one hand, engineering. On the other, art…
      And still, I think, the story does not stop here. As long as mechanical reproduction of music on a less-that-hi-fi level improves in quality (and it DOES) the hi-end part of the story becomes less and less practical. Yes, it is still tremendously ‘scientific’ and increasingly complicated at that. But the purpose of all these elaborations is not longer straighforwardly practical: to make signal A produced in point X available in point Y. It’s purpose is design… for design’s sake 🙂 As with modern mechanical watches. And as in Hegelian account of the emergence of modern art through the loss of practical value.
      In other words, the technical, engineering side of the business, initially opposed to the aesthetic one, itself tends to become art 🙂
      And this why it is NOT a simple repetition of the debates of the 70s. The Instagram-metaphor does matter and does make a difference. Because, while most of the 70s commercial turntables were crap, today’s iPhone, by comparison, is a marvel. The ‘competition’ therefore, is on an altogether different level.

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