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Old 24th January 2018
Lives for gear

What is lost by locking to the grid

I have found that if I play and sing a song without a click, and then track overdubs afterward, it sounds a little sloppy but there's a great energy and vibe. It feels good.

Then when I try to polish it and tighten up, I start by re-tracking a scratch track to a click and getting a basic drum part to lock onto. When I add the overdubs it sounds much more solid … but it has a different feel and it's harder to sing along to.

I should probably just practice, so that my performance to a click sounds the same as without one. But it occurs to me that so much contemporary music faces similar issues by virtue of its “perfection”. Would “She Loves You” by the Beatles sound as good if it was tracked to a click and laid down part by part? Would it have the same electricity? I don't think so. Would “Whole Lotta Love” or “Dazed and Confused”?

I am not saying the contemporary stuff sounds bad — there's lots of great music still being made. But it definitely sounds, and feels, different.

The recording medium, to me, is not as important to the sound as the recording method. Some older analog recordings have the same robotic feel — like “Shine” by Collective Soul. I enjoy the song but it sounds like it was tracked to a drum machine.

I think this accounts in part for much of the similar feel in contemporary music. Every band negotiates microscopic variations in timing differently, helping to distinguish and set them apart. But when all artists have the same grid-like precision timing, it's as if they all, in some sense, are playing in the same band.

One measure of information is called Kolmogorov complexity. It explains data in terms of the shortest computer program that can reproduce it. Thus 01010101… can be summed up as easily as “repeat 01”. But a random string of data can only be summed up by repeating the string itself.

By this measure quantized music is less complex since it is easier to program. You know exactly where the note will be. But human music played live is harder to nail down. It requires more effort to reproduce through programming, thus it is more complex and information-rich.

This isn't even touching on timbral or harmonic complexity, mind you.

Finally, I want to emphasize that I'm not making any value judgments here. And these aren't exactly new insights we haven't heard before. But they have recently come home to me in a way I have not previously understood, and I thought I'd share my experience.