Friday, February 13, 2009

So What If A Song "Sounds" Great

It doesn't make it a great song.

In "Why That Shitty Song Sounds Good Anyway" "Auto-Tune: Why Pop Music Sounds Perfect", Time magazine discovers the evil that is Auto-Tune. Biz Markie* aside, no one wants to hear a singer massacre a great song by warbling out of tune. However, the injudicious use of Auto-Tune has literally given careers to "singers" who have no business being singers.

There's another huge reason why I'm down on Auto-Tune and similar studio gimmicktry: Imperfections or mistakes can make an OK song good, a good song great or a great song greater.

I’ve experienced this in the recording studio with bands. I’ve watched or asked musicians to do take after take of a song. Sure, by the 23rd (or 63rd) take the guitar player may have perfected his solo. Yet for some reason it frequently didn't sound nearly as good as the sloppy lead he laid down on take 3. The “perfect” take just didn’t have the same vibe. Crummy guitar solo, take 3 wound up on wax and the album was far better for it.

In pop music hits, such errors can be so subtle as to be almost subliminal. Sometimes they are in-your-face wrong. I'm not talking about the so-bad-someone-thinks-it's-kinda-good song. (See Biz Markie, Doctor Demento, etc.).

Well, you say, then what the hell are you talking about?

Off the top of my head here's these examples: "Louie Louie" wouldn't have proved nearly as inspirational to garage bands everywhere (or as interesting to everyone else) had the singer started the last verse on time instead of jumping the gun. The Mamas and The Papas “I Saw Her Again” does more or less the same thing. Hmm...too obtuse or too obscure?

OK, how’s ‘bout the backwards singing bit on The Beatles' "Rain" and that glorious opening note of "I Feel Fine"? Kurt Cobain's I-don’t-give-a-fuck-that-I’m-recording-I-feel-sick cough during "Serve The Servants"’ lead break? The majorly out-of-sync guitar intro to Dave Edmunds "I Hear You Knocking"? Whoops!

Every Picture Tells A Story”'s Rod Stewart premature vocalization? Michael Stipe’s total cock-up in REM's "Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" vocal? (Not a great one for remembering words, I've seen Stipe sing lyrics off a music stand more than once). Parts of almost every song on Todd Rundgren’s tour de force Something/Anything? LP?** Need I say more?

Brilliant mistakes all -- definitely not what the creator(s) originally intended.***

Perhaps such timely blunders make these songs stand out simply by confounding listeners' expectations. Or it could the power of je ne sais quois. (Underestimate JNSQ at your peril). Maybe it’s some other factor your smartass writer has missed.

Regardless of the mechanism, imperfections humanize songs. For art isn't meant to be perfect. Perfect is for machines.

In our Pro Tools/Auto-Tune perfection-oriented musical world, we risk sucking the humanity out of popular music. No, Auto-Tune wouldn’t have corrected the aforementioned gaffes. (On the other hand, Pro Tools & digital technology could and probably would have). But Auto-Tune might’ve scrubbed the urgency out of Levi Stubb's classic Four Tops vocals. Damn it, there'd be no Billy Bragg!!!

I'm exaggerating. This technological leap isn’t all bad. (And there will always be Billy Braggs). Pro Tools in particular has allowed many thousands of artists to roughly simulate big time studio recordings made in their bedrooms. The problem arises when these would-be pop stars ape their heroes and suffocate the crap out of their music thru technological perfection.

That's today's style. I predict that sooner or later the trend will swing back with a vengeance. There will a backlash against Pro Tools and Auto-Tune technology. There will be music fans starving for music that sounds and feels "real." The irony about the most popular musicians to lead this charge? Some of them will be the exact same ones who early on embraced this self-same technology. (Hello U2).

My bottom line: Perfection is overrated. Embrace your mistakes. Mistakes can lead to greatness. If nothing else, they’re a helluva more interesting than processed perfection.

Vive l'erreur!


*For the life of me tha Bizter's one I'll never understand.
**Fer chrissakes, Radiohead's "Creep" was a colossal mistake.
***Not to be confused with "mistakes" certain groups now add to songs purely to make them seem cool. If you listen closely and/or know the artist well enough, you should be able to tell the difference.


Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy said...

I love this story, re: "I Saw Her Again"...

Paul McCartney was intrigued by the way the group came in too early on its final chorus and yet it was left on the record. "That has to be a mistake: nobody's that clever," he told them.

Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy said...

Re-tuning is more venerable than one might suspect, including the Del Shannon classic "Runaway":

Upon his return to Detroit, producer Harry Balk listened to the tapes only to hear that Shannon was singing too flat. Balk liked the song's potential and suggested to his partner, Irving Micahnik, that Shannon be flown back to New York to re-cut the vocals. Again, Shannon was nervous and singing flat. Having spent a lot of money on studio time and expenses, Balk and Micahnik were very concerned. Balk and Big Top Records president Johnny Beinstock turned to the owner of Bell Sound for help and advice. The owner developed a machine, the size of a desk, that would enable the tapes to be sped up and slowed down. This allowed Balk to speed up Shannon's vocals to nearly one-and-a-half times it's original speed to bring him into key. "We finally got Del on key, and it sounded great, but it didn't sound like Del," explained Balk. "We mixed it anyhow, and it came out wonderful.

Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy said...

Also, according to Bill Drummond's book "45," the vocals Tammy Wynette sang for "Justified and Ancient" (with The KLF) were unusable until they were saved with studio magic.

I haven't heard the untinkered-with version, so it's hard to know for sure....

Anacher Forester said...

Thanks for stopping by Vast. Great stories.

One major difference is R&R pioneers like Del Shannon, The Beatles et al were had mad deadlines. Imagine if today's recording artists had only days to record singles & weeks to record albums?

As a producer, I too have resorted to sprinkling "a little fairy dust" here and there. That's not what I'm railing against. It's the use of Auto-Tune on almost every new song.

The Tammy Wynette tale may well be fact. Then again, you have to consider the source. Bill Drummond can't be trusted with the truth.


Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy said...

Indeed, Bill D. doesn't put a premium on differentiating between his fantasy world and the real one.

Being the kind of singer who relies on studio magic to achieve even decent results, I'd be a hypocrite if I railed against Auto-Tune, but I appreciate what you're saying about today's over-scrubbed mainstream pop.

Anacher Forester said...

I hear ya. My voice is no great shakes. That's a big reason why after one 7" single I moved to the other side of the glass. Ha! I became considerably more helpful in that capacity.