Some of the greatest records I listen to are full of imperfections.
Take one of the most successful songs in the Police's songbook and for that matter one of my favourite songs of all time - 'Every Breath You Take.' For a start the tempo drifts considerably and there's also some pitch drifting going on (probably wow and flutter) even before Sting hits his first note. Then there is Sting's vocal, see here for some analysis of the vocal from someone who got hold of the multitrack tape.
Now if you were to tell me that either the song or the band were anything other than amazing then I might have to rip you a new ass.
I'm a huge Police fan having loved them since I saw them play live in 1980. Sting is up there for me as one of the greatest modern song writers. Andy Summers one of the greatest guitarists of all time and Stewart Copeland as one of the greatest modern drummers. As a band they were amazing to watch and listen to they were filled with passion and were a creative powerhouse. In their heyday they were at the top of their game. The song itself and the production ideas are simply brilliant, but it's not a perfect production in the way we seem to want to define perfection in modern music making.
You may wish to disagree with me about both the song and the band, it may not be to your taste, but to suggest they can't play and to disregard the song as anything other than a classic because of the things I've highlighted would be foolish.
Musical History Is Full Of Wonderful Imperfections
I could take up a lot of space citing example after example of classic records that have either pitch or timing issues or other technical imperfections. They include all of my musical heroes. If you have any doubt here are a few from Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Pink Floyd to get you started. They are good examples although I don't happen to agree with all the conclusions drawn in the article.
I'm often asked to write for new artists and for some tracks unless the vocal is tuned and the instruments quantised to within one inch of its life then the label are going to disregard it, irrespective of the merits of the song.
It seems we have confused excellence with perfection and they are not the same.
When I set about recording a new track I want to make sure that every single person working on it is at the top of their game and playing to the best of their potential. I'm not a subscriber to fixing it in the mix. Let's keep doing it until the thing is right. That means instruments in tune and then played in time with passion and purpose, but this is not perfection.
But our modern obsession with then going through and putting everything on grids and instruments and vocals tuned to buggery leaves me cold. I've not always been this way about it, when I first got my hands on a DAW and the tools like Beat Detective and tuning software I'd want to make everything 'perfect.' As time has passed I've come to think that trying to make everything 'perfect' can squeeze the very thing out of a track that made it unique in the first place. It may be the drummer speeding up into a fill, or the piano player dropping on a chord in a way that won't fit on the grid, it might sound right but it doesn't look right.
I think we've done to modern vocalists with DAWs and plugins what we've done to fashion models with Photoshop. We've taken incredibly talented and gifted singers and wanted to 'airbrush' all the imperfections out of the recordings. I think the music industry is a lot poorer for it.
Don't get me wrong, this article is not some rant against those who wish to use tuning or timing technology, I still use it in moderation but it does feel that now the tail is wagging the dog. Do we really want to make it the norm to perform plastic surgery on every track we make and then tell the world this is what real musicians sound like? Should we really think as we hit record 'well we can quantise this later' or 'I'll tune that in the mix.'?
This article is also not about suggesting shoddy work, too many of us hit record and then proclaim at the end of the take 'that will do!' It won't do, as musicians, engineers and producers we have a responsibility to do the very best we can, even more so now because so many accuse our industry of using tricks instead of talent - in some ways the overuse of it means we only have our collective selves to blame.
I just watched a rare film of Sinatra recording with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra, it was pure bliss. The singer, musicians, conductor and recording engineers all striving for excellence to capture the song in the best possible way. Excellence is an essential part of crafting great recordings but the almost universal obsession with perfection that is only possible with tricks is perhaps not the way we should be heading.
Imperfect Cultural Icons
I leave you to ponder a moment of creativity that is now iconic. The famous 'To boldly go...' line from Star Trek. This line of dialogue has set grammar scholars at odds for several decades. Just imagine if that split infinitive had been made 'perfect' in the script edit. No it's not perfect but I'm glad that someone boldly went with that one.