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The Human Approach

Leader By Paul White

A good friend of mine who once had the enviable job of recording Bono's vocal using a Yamaha AW16 in a hotel bedroom somewhere in Europe (for use on a collaboration project), often uses the phrase 'But will it affect sales?' He most often says this when he gets to the point in a mix where he feels that any further tweaks and adjustments will have no impact on how the end result will be received by the listening public. I think he makes a good point, because since we all traded in our tape machines for computers, the level of electronic procrastination open to us is staggering. We can edit out the shortest noise, retune vocals, phase-align parts to within the diameter of a flea's testicle, change MIDI instrument sounds during the mix, massage timing, replace or layer drums, and add on more tracks than anyone could reasonably need to use. There can be technical reasons for doing all these things, so why is it that the records that really connect with me emotionally use almost none of the above techniques?

I've come to the conclusion that I much prefer the sound of a real musical performance, with real musicians playing together, to the grid‑perfect, 'assembly‑line' style of music that dominates much of the commercial music scene today. There's no doubt that the production values are extremely high, but I just don't respond emotionally to perfectly polished fluff.

Even where the songs I like include extensive overdubbing (which was much more limited in the days of tape), in most cases the backbone of the track was played live, most often without the aid of a click track. Now I know that modern drummers are supposed to learn to play to a click before they learn to count to 10, because everyone expects to edit to a grid, but other than for dance‑based music, which requires metronomic precision, I think this is sometimes just laziness on the part of the engineer, who can't face the prospect of editing something that was recorded 'free'.

Small tempo changes and adjustments in feel are all part of the art of carrying a song, and playing to a click robs a good drummer of the chance to drive the music appropriately. How, for example, would 'Gimme Shelter' by the Rolling Stones have turned out if everyone played to a click with tempo‑sync'ed guitar tremolo, retuned vocals and phase‑locked replacement drum parts? Or how about Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone', which stayed at the top of the jukebox charts for well over a decade, yet was recorded with little or no rehearsal with the musicians just busking the parts? Then there's that Jimi Hendrix classic, 'All Along The Watchtower', which started out as a live performance and even includes Jimi's fluffed lyrics at the end of the first verse in the final mix. And can you imagine Keith Moon agreeing to drum replacement or timing tweaks? Any engineer who'd suggested it would surely have ended up wearing a TV set! Sure, most of those old classics have rough edges, but for me that was a small price to pay for getting such great musical performances. Did it affect sales? Apparently not!

Paul White Editor In Chief  

Published July 2011