NPR: The Death of Mistakes Means The Death of Rock
When I record demos of my original songs, I usually record guitars and bass in one take if I can. I’ve always held the belief that a slightly imperfect track makes for a better representation of the song, and I’ve actually had long, loud disagreements with producers and engineers over this belief.
This article by Douglas Wolk does a really good job of explaining the value of imperfection when it comes to Rock music.
Voices, guitars and drums are really expressive instruments for the same reason that they’re really inexact instruments: Tou can’t coax the same note or beat out of them exactly the same way twice, even if you try. They’re never perfectly in tune, and any number of factors can throw their sound a little bit off. Add that to the fact that, if you’re working with analog tape (as almost all pop musicians did before the mid-’80s), you’re basically stuck with the performance you’ve got, and you end up with recordings that mercilessly document endless errors, small and large.
The large ones sometimes used to make it out into the world; occasionally, they even turned up in hits. James Brown’s “Sex Machine” has a wreck of a keyboard solo; the Mamas and the Papas’ “I Saw Her Again” includes Denny Doherty flubbing the beginning of a chorus. That doesn’t happen anymore, and hasn’t since massively multitrack recording became standard operating procedure for pop: Losing an error doesn’t mean abandoning a group’s entire performance.
And now, the smallest errors are vanishing, too. The gift that modern digital technology has given pop music is the ability to fix every nagging inconsistency in a recording, note by note and beat by beat. If you hear a contemporary mainstream rock record, you’re almost certainly hearing something that has been digitally nipped and tucked and buffed until it shines.
The little inconsistencies in musicians’ performances aren’t just glitches, though: They’re exactly what we respond to as listeners — the part that feels like “style,” or even like “rock.” The exciting part of guitar-bass-drum-voice music is the alchemy of specific musicians playing with each other, and the way those musicians’ idiosyncratic senses of timing and articulation and emphasis relate to each other. That’s where the rhythmic force of rock ‘n’ roll comes from; that’s also why a great band can replace one of its members with someone who’s technically a more skillful musician, only to discover that their instrumental chemistry isn’t there anymore.