It’s rare to pick up a popular magazine these days without seeing photographs of people and products airbrushed to a level that’s arguably beyond perfection. The same applies to movies and, of course, to TV crime dramas where everybody does their job in full makeup, even the men! In fact it comes as a refreshing change when we see a photograph of a real person with their character left intact. None of this is new of course, but I find myself getting increasingly bored by what I think of as airbrushed music. I think most people would agree that hearing an OK recording of a truly great performance is always better than hearing a great recording of a merely OK performance.
Much of the music that I still admire was recorded before we had tools to do more than very basic editing, and because of time and cost pressures, many recordings were released that included small mistakes or the odd rough edge. For example, on the Rolling Stones hit, ‘The Last Time’, Brian Jones clearly fluffs a note in the riff part way through the song, but it was obviously not deemed important enough to redo. Then there are those gloriously out-of-tune backing vocals on Lindisfarne’s ‘Lady Eleanor’. Songs would speed up or maybe change tempo in the chorus, but it didn’t get in the way of what the song was about.
By contrast, many of today’s musicians are bullied into working to click tracks, even when the style of music doesn’t justify it, vocals are retuned to within an inch if their life and there’s the relentless use of copy and paste to ensure consistency. Maybe that’s why I often prefer live albums, as there’s usually a limit to how much tweaking can be done and you get more of a sense of what the band is actually like. I also like some examples of studio albums that were played more as a live performance, often including improvised parts, such as Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde album.
That doesn’t mean that we should take a sloppy approach to recording our own music, but rather the opposite. Maybe if more effort went into the performance and less into hammering it into shape after the event it would retain more of its emotional intent. I’ve done a number of talks and Q&A sessions with students and home studio owners over the past few years and I always try to press home the point that maybe 80 percent or more of a good recording happens before the sound even reaches the microphone. That means paying great attention to timing, tuning, performance and, of course, to the acoustics of the recording environment, and before you ask, no I don’t have shares in a duvet import business. Tools that allow us to tweak tuning and timing are still valuable for fixing the odd problem, but relying on them to beat a sub-standard performance into shape rarely works.