Note: Though this article refers to live drum performances, all information below can be applied to MIDI sequencing and quantization.
The music blogosphere is abuzz this month with talk of an informal survey which compares tempo deviations on drum performances of popular rock groups. The following graph shows tempo deviations in the drum performance by John Bonham* on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”:
The tempo graphs show little deviation for pop acts like Nickelback, Britney Spears, and late-era Green Day. Some say this exactness contributes to a rigid or lifeless quality of radio rock. On the other end of the spectrum, the tempos of iconic rock bands like the Beatles, Metallica, and Weezer deviate considerably within songs.
The above plays into the notion that the 60s and 70s were the golden age of music—the “what ever happened to all the great rock n’ roll bands???” mentality—the idea that musicianship has been replaced by convenience, the increasingly poor work ethic of each new generation and especially all that new fangled technology.
The article’s author must not be an engineer because he attributes this phenomenon to click tracks which is, to put it bluntly, just plain wrong. Nickelback couldn’t play this closely to a metronome if they wanted to; these tempo deviation graphs cannot tell us whether the band played to a click track or not. The real culprit is editing to The Grid a.k.a. a tempo map, either by hand or using a software add-on like Beat Detective or Elastic Audio. To take it one step further, you could attribute this sound to the advent of the computer. After all, editing work at this level of precision was simply not possible before Protools and other computer-based DAWs in the early 90s.
And yet the argument against technology still stands—it is often the human imperfections that make a record great.
One of my favorite examples of desirable “feel” is the performance by legendary bassist Pino Pallidino on D’Angelo’s Voodoo. He drags behind the rest of the band, almost as if the bass itself is hesitating, holding back great emotion or desire until just the right moment, much like people sometimes do in the throes of passion.
On the other hand, going completely au naturale can be dangerous. There are two factors working in favor of editing to a tempo map:
1) You’re not killing the magic if there was no magic there to begin with. Sometimes “feel” is just an optimistic way of saying poor chops.
2) As Phil once posited to me, our ears are so accustomed to music that is perfectly in tune and aligned that to leave out this step could make one’s music sound dated or unprofessional, even to the untrained ear.
As a mix engineer, these are the sorts of nuanced philosophical choices I must concern myself with when it comes time to take a project from good to great. Ethical implications aside, it is possible to quantize or edit live drum tracks in a way which does not kill all of the feel. Phil and I call this Musical Editing (on our Services page).
If the performer has a unique style or feel that I think is worth holding on to, I simply align each downbeat and leave breathing room for all the notes in between (as opposed to editing to every 8th or 16th note). I also depend on references: mention late-era Green Day in your Project Info Submission Form and you can expect your drums to be perfectly on the grid down to the sixteenth note. Mention the Pixies, on the other hand, and your drums may be left untouched.
Call it rigid, call it lifeless, I actually sometimes prefer the sound of aligned and sample-replaced drums. It is sometimes necessary to sacrifice the human element for the clarity and power of perfect drums. On the other hand I do think some bands could benefit from more organic, natural-sounding drum performances (Snow Patrol comes to mind).
What do you think? Are tempo grids killing music?
*From the look of things, I think we may have to make it a requirement to mention John Bonham in every single post from now on.