Man vs Machine vs... Cyborg, and Everything Rhythm in Recordings.
Updated: May 7, 2020
Salvaging bad feel
It was a little while ago that this guy and I were talking about how to turn a not so groovy drum track into a groovy one. The session had already happened, and there would be no retracking and calling someone else. Just a madman, a mouse and a will.
I'm a frustrated drummer myself, and I have a deep appreciation for good rhythm. My steering wheel would disagree and file abuse charges if it could only find the right lawyer. But I love different styles of rhythmic music, I love and appreciate great drummers, and I love making rhythms on the computer. But can we really turn a non-groovy track into one that feels great?
If anyone has done it, please chime in, with proof. The more we looked into methods of rhythm manipulation, the more respect I had for the intricacies and non-linearities of human rhythm. You see, for many many years now, it hasn't been much issue to just 'line things up onto the grid', and force everything into a sequence of time. Like a sort of time factory, it sounds about as dull as it is: quite predictable, rigid, and sterile.
But the grid can be fun. Just look:
That sure looks fun. Of course, you have to make a gimmick of trying to look and act like a robot, and then always tour looking like that... This also works because the drums really are a machine. Machines sounding like machines.... makes sense to me. Humans sounding like machines? (I'd insert a T-Pain clip here...)
But with drum editing, there's limits. Take this clip. It's one thing to just line up kicks and snares to be perfectly in time, but all that other hihat/cymbal nuance crap won't ever sound nice forced to line up to a grid. Remember the jazz line, it's the notes you don't play? With drummers, everything in between the downbeats is where they carve out their careers as 'feel gurus'. Or not. This guy is about as good as you can do with absolute over the top editing.
Tempo and feel go straight to the heart, or come straight from the heart, or something. There's a relationship with what feels fast and slow depending on your actual pulse. I'd wake up for school to my music and think 'gee that's fast', and go to sleep to it thinking 'gee that's slow'. Turns out there's a valid reason. Rhythm can also affect our brainwaves, as proven by binaural beats. It seems ironic how our internal organs can manage to sync to a rhythm, yet there's still terrible drummers everywhere. I think they're getting swindled by these kinds of videos:
But the magic of human rhythm is amazing. Things that aren't at all lined up to a computer, but still feel great, and make you feel great. Entire styles of music are based strictly on rhythm. There's too many to get into in one blog, but we'll learn what we can about drums in recording.
I was looking online to learn some variations of a famous funk standard called Cissy Strut. That's the studio version linked there, and of course it feels nice. They're not going to put out a studio version of a funk song with a terrible feel, of course. But what happens when it's live, and the drummer can't do another take? In those situations, we get to see drummers' true colours.
Here's a well-known drummer, not one of my favourites. His version, during drummer week on Letterman no less, is about the definition of trying to play like a computer.
Could totally just be a bad day. That looks like a lot of concentration to play a funky beat. Then, come solo time, there's somehow even less feel, and basically an instructional video on how to not play your drum exercises over a funk song. You totally might disagree. But this is my blog.
Dejected, I kept looking. I found this random house band doing a version of it.
I can not listen to this without swaying along to the beat. It just feels great. You don't have to like the song at all. Just listen to the rhythm. Don't you want to swing along, even in jest? Now go back to the Letterman video. Try your best to swing along. I get dizzy trying. It doesn't feel good or fun. But this random band is feeling awesome! How is that?
Turns out that drummer is none other than Burnard Purdie, the most recorded drummer of all time. I believe it because it says so on his site. You've definitely heard him play before, if you've heard music in North America. Turns out that people value a good feel from a drummer. Turns out you can still get on Letterman if you're lucky, lol and even bad feeling drummers can get on tv too... but hey who said the world is fair? I wish I could still fit into that t-shirt.
So Bernard inspired me and I ended up spending a few hours on Youtube taking in what I could on the essence of great rhythm and feel. If you have to play Cissy Strut with a straight approach and a big drum solo, turns out this is the way to do it.
Here, the drumming is stealing the show. Turns out, this guy turned into a world famous drummer too, and you've probably heard him with Paul Simon and Eric Clapton.
Taking this idea that what drummers do in between the main beats of a song is the most important element, you can start to find all sorts of people with interesting feels. Here's Steve Jordan, a guy who's made a name for himself not as a soloist, but someone who will play a groove till the cows come home, and the feel is pretty killer.
He'll play a pattern for minutes at a time without a fill or cymbal hit, but is what he's playing lining up to a grid at all? I'm sure he can play to a metronome, but it definitely won't line up perfectly. And all those little snare hits in between the main beats are what smooths things over and gives us the impression that he's as steady as a machine. In reality, those hits are slightly off of the square grid, and that's what feels good.
Avoiding playing all your hits on the grid isn't a recipe for success though, and at some point you're going to not have great feel at all. The more you stray from the grid, the more 'awkward' your feel is going to become. I'll admit to loving most of what Steve Jordan plays, but there are occasional grooves where I don't click with which beats end up in 'time' and which ones have some play to them. It can be really random once you start messing around with displaced beats, sounding odd. There just isn't a formula to try and follow. Or is there?
Rise of the machines
Here's a guy making a beat on a drum machine, and it feels not bad. He doesn't look like a guy straight out of a funk band either. The beat maybe doesn't need those last 8 tracks of percussion, but I think he's proving a point to how it can be a 'human' experience making beats on a machine.
He's actually Roger Linn, and he made one of the worlds first drum machines. He's one of the first, and he can make beats that feel good, instead of contributing to the stereotype that machines feel terrible and ruin music. Interesting. He probably encountered right away the staleness of perfect time, and he says something really interesting at the end of the video. "Swing percentages". Hmmmmm.....
We've been able to swing computer grooves for a while now, but this idea of nuance and imperfection is intriguing, and there's an article here with Roger Linn where he sums things up perfectly about groove.
".. a 90 BPM swing groove will feel looser at 62% than at a perfect swing setting of 66%. And for straight 16th-note beats (no swing), a swing setting of 54% will loosen up the feel without it sounding like swing. Between 50% and around 70% are lots of wonderful little settings that, for a particular beat and tempo, can change a rigid beat into something that makes people move."
So this pseudo-swing setting might explain the lull in the feel of groovy drummers, and you can actually put a percentage on it. That's pretty neat. He also mentions how he displaces the second note in a series of sixteenths for his swing settings, and by doing that you get downbeats that are 'in time' and sit great on a grid, and displaced offbeats that add that 'cool stuff in between like a real drummer' kind of magic that we've been discovering. So most downbeats are 'pretty close' to in time with good session drummers, but the 'in between' beats have some play to them and distinguishes each drummer apart, and apparently each machine apart too.
Awesome. A blog with homework.
The implications of this are big for up and coming drummers. These machines have been around for years and years now, but the availability of quantizing, groove templates, and swing settings for anyone with a music program in this era means you can develop your feel instead of just playing to a stale metronome and hoping for the best.
Start with making a beat, nice and straight ahead, then add the swing. You don't need to go a full 66%, which is 'perfect swing' according to Roger, but start with 52%. Then 53, 54, 55 etc.... If you're not hearing enough feel, think about making the hihat busier, or some snare ghost notes so you can explore these in-between beats. This is the awkward part, but you're learning what really makes a groove a groove, and you'll be developing your sense of feel, even though it won't 'feel' fun right away. Playing along to the beat is easy, you'll soon find out what Roger means about "between 50% and 70% swing there are lots of little wonderful settings..... that make people want to move". It'll also help you hone in on how you like to play, and get better at perfecting playing imperfectly.
More options please
It can still feel a little too 'precise', making grooves this way in the computer. Watching these guys, they're playing things in on the keyboard and looping their favourite bars. That's a lot more holistic, and will feel like real people because it is real people. I personally don't really get any good feels playing on drum pads, but on the keyboard I end up with nice stuff. From there you can quantize and manipulate as you please.
Is that it then for groove? Have we covered it all? Not even slightly. You can add even more awesome chaos to the grid in several ways. For starters, the idea of 'quantizing' and slaving to the grid doesn't have to be perfect, and you can use 'quantize percentages' to tighten things up a bit closer without going all the way in time. That leaves some of your performance intact. But, even then, it's trying to quantize towards the grid. What if we use an imperfect grid standard and slave the groove to that?
Complete and utter chaos
This link here changed my production career forever. It's a series of groove templates for Logic Pro from old drum machines. It has them play some sixteenth notes, then analyzes how perfect they are, and you can load those in and apply those slightly imperfect grooves to what you're working on. You're instantly saved from perfect timing, because most machines from back in the day had a slightly different 'feel', all in the name of getting away from the icky grid.
As if that weren't enough, most programs have a 'randomize' or 'humanize' function, that will apply various levels of imperfections to the groove, from timing, velocity to length. Literally adding chaos.
Alterations for audio without edits
You can also adjust timing without shifting things around using compressors. Compressors adjust the attack and release of a sound, and react to timing, which makes them perfect groove helpers when you're not wanting to mangle the rhythm on a computer. Do you have 2 sounds that are clanging and sound like flams with each other? Kill the attack on one. Or crank the release on one. Throw them both on a bus and compressor together, thus 'gelling them'. Squeeze them both so they sit well. Or... side-chain.
Side-chaining is just having one track trigger compression on another, so its timing is imposed on the other one. Side-chain everything to the kick drum, and the whole song will pulse with the kick beat. You can link any track to another, so you can change the feel of any track using the natural feel of an existing track in the song. Just massive potential. And extremely complex. You can bus a bunch of tracks together, and only side-chain the mults etc.... in EDM it's absolutely standard practice to side chain something to the kick, although side-chaining has been going on for a very long time in almost every style of music. I have to give some major credit to mix engineer Jack Joseph Puig for doing some pretty wild and crazy-awesome things with compression, bussing, mult'ing, and side-chaining in his mixes. His work in the mid 90's-2000's with real bands using no click was legendary. Check out Big Wreck's In Loving Memory, Switchfoot's The Beautiful Letdown, I mean you probably should just look him up on Allmusic and do a mix study of his techniques. Again, ignoring the actual music, what he does is pretty unique in regards to rhythm and feel control by the mix guy.
Either crazy or genius
The idea of intentionally displacing instruments or parts without actually quantizing them is an option too. There are grooves out there with suuuuuuper late snares, kicks, clacks, clicks etc.... though the rest of the groove sits in the pocket. Again, the more crazy you go with this stuff, the more weird things can sound, and doing anything gratuitously without following your groove 'Spidey-sense' will just leave people feeling awkward.
One album that famously used this idea of intentional displacement with real musicians is D'Angelo's record Voodoo. You have mostly drum machines as a 'click' for the band to follow, then the players are playing all around it. The vocals sit so far behind the beat sometimes you wonder if they just shifted everything back after the fact. It was a tape recording apparently, so that would have been tricky.
In some anecdotes from the recording of the album, they would manually play in the grooves for many bars at a time, no quantizing, and then use that as the groove template. Some players even objected to playing on it, saying the click was 'messed up'. But that's an interesting concept - time and groove taken in longer bits is another place where humans show their magic.
The long game
Standard practice is to take a 1 or 2 bar loop, loop it to oblivion and occasionally cut out some elements for interest. Something more organic would be to play it all through and never loop anything. Tough to do, and not always rewarding. But that's still assuming you're playing to a click. Do drummers sound their best when playing to a click? Well, do 'good' drummers sound their best when playing to a click? Not always. There would be some very special recordings that wouldn't feel the same at all had they been done to a click, and there's something for us to learn about groove templates in there.
When I'm debating changing the tempo of a song/demo, I don't listen for the immediate difference in the tempo. I want to hear 30 seconds, and find out 'where do we end up after all this time if I speed it up or slow it down a notch?'. Understand? A subtle change in click tempo (to the whole song, not mid song), will either lengthen or shorten the song, because we get there faster or slower. Never mind how a 2 bar groove feels. Listen for 32 bars. Then tweak the tempo, and listen again. You'll hear the difference at first, but, after a longer listening period, like a fine wine other nuances will emerge in how the rhythm makes you feel. You have to think of the whole song, not just 2 bar snippets. And that's what real drummers do inherently, sans click.
Give a drummer 2 bars (insert another joke here) and she'll probably do the same as the click would, but 4 or 8 bars and you'll start to find some discrepancy. After 16 or 32 bars, you practically have a different song. Is that because humans are bad being trusted with rhythm? Or maybe the ebb and flow that we follow during verses/choruses/grooves/fills is actually more sophisticated than just adhering to a click the entire time. I've tried to make groove templates based on old famous drummers, and it seldom works. Take any 2 bars of their groove, turn it into midi, and you'll just end up with 'bad rhythm'. It doesn't loop well, and it's because they're playing for the 32 bar phrase, not the 2 bar one. What humans offer is a unique tempo map that long-term will feel great, though short term may not. We get into this later, but the fact that making a sample loop of real drumming that can be repeated is very difficult, because the point where you loop back to the beginning will almost always feel weird. A drummer's time and feel are evolving constantly, and they may end up far from where they started after a few seconds.
Drummers in the wash
Jack Dejohnette has a very peculiar sense of time. He certainly isn't one for the click track based country-pop session. He describes his sense of time as a 'washing machine'. He'll play fills over bar lines and at odd lengths, and he kind of 'tumbles' around, falling on the 'grid' every once in a while, but if you had to draw out the tempo for what he was doing, it would be more squiggles and slinky-circles moving forward than a straight line. I happen to be a fan of his, since I think just playing the time straight ahead in a jazz setting is tiresome.
They knew this a while ago
Take this song by Bread. There's just no way it would have the same impact if the whole thing had the same steady pulse. You'll find songs in the 70s and 80s that are click-less, sound ridiculously tight and steady, then speed up suddenly for the chorus, then manage to drop back down for the next verse, and stay steady. That's great drumming and great feel by the band, and it totally helps make those songs more timeless. The 90's may have been the grunge era, but my gosh, the power of some Nirvana tunes when they actually slow down after a chorus. Never has slowing down and dragging felt so powerful. All things that can get stamped away by a click.
So what can we do to get some feel back to our recordings? Should we all get tape machines and 12 string guitars? I'm sure drummers would love it if they got more work, or if click tracks went away. I'm actually amazed at how many drummers can'tuse a drum machine or sequence a groove. They're the ones who should be the best at it. We need to know our options when demoing songs and the flexibility today's sequencers offer. For one, consider ditching the click. Gasp! Otherwise, learn how to tempo map. Maybe the song speeds up every chorus by 0.25bpm's until the end. Maybe a section slows down. Maybe the bridge is free-time. This adds a lot of pressure to the engineer for session management, but in these days it's imperative to be great and fast at making a sequencer work for you, not the other way around.
I tried something new for Katherine Penfold's single Are You There. I varied the tempo throughout the tune, and inserted tempo maps up and down throughout, so that even if quantized perfectly, the tempo would 'breathe'. At first, as we were demoing, I made them at random, then as she sang I would tweak for phrasing and vocal comfort and how things felt emotionally. I sure learned a lot. A small pointer: certain delay plugins that sync to the host tempo may freak out at the constant tempo changes. You've been warned. You're also giving up significant editing capability by having the tempo change so frequently. Editing midi is no problem still, but audio can be a nightmare.
Is it worth the hassle? Should everyone be doing it? Should we all develop some sort of tempo/code algorithm that's like a new language for producers to talk to each other? I'm glad I tried it out and didn't go full grid. Full grid just feels so boring to me these days. But, achieving awesome feel in electro-pop is a series of small victories put together. I'm happy with the result for dance music, though it's no Motown song:
You can hear the tempo variations if you listen for them. Right after the big electronic outro starts, I kept the tempo stable for artistic reasons.
The point of all this
You know what it's about? It's about figuring out how and why the songs and recordings that have survived 20, 30, 50 years and up have done it. Yes, great songs. Yes, great performances. Yes, great performers. But weren't they also allowed to perform free? Is there another element of feel and humanity and imperfection to the recordings that help stave off aging, like some sort of magical music night-cream?
This is one of my favourite recordings ever. The vocal is killer, but it's scratchy and distorted and I can't turn it up too loud in the car without hurting my ears. The mastering guy in me would probably request a remaster. The band is great, though nothing jumps out at me as being the star of the show. But altogether, it's just an amazing song and I never skip it in the car. Put this to a click track, and I'll punch you. It's that it's chock full of intangible human factors and imperfections that make it as important to me as any recording done by my idols today.
Making peace with the machines
Electronic music can still benefit from this human touch whenever possible. Robots must hate how we do EDM. Sampling has been around for over 30 years, and like anything new it was a bit awkward at first. It evolved though into a bit of a golden age of electronic and dance music in the late 90's early 00's. Why? Because people were writing pop songs, but using electronic sounds and samples. Samples of real people. Of organic music. This sample is the most used in history currently. The blend of the synthetic and organic in the right amounts can be innovative, awesome, and still timeless. This is one iconic song that emerged from that era:
It was eventually used on CSI, and then as the House MD theme for a few years. DJ's were even printing sounds to vinyl and manipulating them in the analog realm before importing them back in to the computer. There was an infusion of realness and humanity into an exciting and creative realm of musical experimentation.
Of course, over time people went back to using static samples. Here's a later song by the same group, Massive Attack.
A lot more grid happening. Neat song, but the groove doesn't have the same effect on me. It's still VERY well programmed, and could sound a lot more static than it does. But compared to samples of real people, or even just real people themselves... I wonder if this tune will stick with me as long as their other one.
It's a tricky thing, man vs machine. Creatively, people (myself included) will always want electronica and synthetic elements, yet at the same time human beings are programmed to respond to organic elements. The science of acoustics ties directly into how sound propagates in an environment, and how we perceive sound, and making sure we hear what we want and 'expect' to hear. With rhythm, we have similar expectations. There's that sweet spot somewhere where both our natural instincts of rhythm and creativity are fed, and I'll keep looking for it.
And now, a tribute to some of the uniqueness of human drumming. We can't forget who the true masters of rhythm are, even if the machines keep better time. We've learned that better time isn't really worth anything. This is Manu Katche, and he grooves hard, at times, but what really sticks out are his fills. They sound melodic and pronounced, and they're more interesting than the song he's playing on at times.
Steve Ferrone is your drummer's drummer at playing straight ahead grooves. Notice the difference in lull between Manu and him. Steve is more symmetrical in where his downbeats go, Manu has more play.
There's so many out there, though not all of them carve out a unique feel. And if you really want to get in depth and see different drummers with the same band, the Burning For Buddy Series has videos here. It's amazing how almost all of them really carve out their own feel. Though not all do, and you can see some rock drummers out of their element with a big band. Check out Simon Phillips totally nail it, though.
And that brings us to Buddy. Whether he's the king of drummers, who cares. There's a ton of talent out there. There are also some phenomenal female drummers out there, plenty more than just that link. Here's Buddy in 1967, not even in his prime. He turned 50 that year.
I hope for your next recording you'll have a bit more consideration for how it feels, and best of luck!