By Daniel Collins
“To err is human […]” (Pope 1709, pg.10), is half of a proverb taken from An Essay on Criticism by the poet Alexander Pope, the other half of the proverb is ‘to forgive divine’. Pope’s words, although written about the behaviour of writers and critics in the world of literary commerce over one hundred and fifty years before the advent of sound reproduction, perhaps describe the attitudes to the mistakes, errors, flaws and other manifestations of human involvement found in the performance, recording and presentation of music, and the deliberations behind the decisions to eliminate, include and at times celebrate them.
During my research into the subject it became evident that what is an apparently simple “right, use it” or, “wrong, discard it” decision, is in fact a very subjective and, as shown by my introductory quote, emotive matter. In the process of interviewing a number of respected industry figures, representing a broad range of genres over five decades, it became clear that the concept of “perfection versus imperfection” is entirely dependent on the beliefs and production values of the individuals concerned and sometimes depends on the context and content of the production itself. Illustrations of this subjectivity can be seen in the following statements.
“Imperfections are quite desirable. The thought of a ‘perfect’ recording sounds quite horrible.” – Guy Fletcher (Collins 2018)
“I guess an imperfection becomes a desired feature if everyone in the room loves it and wants to keep it in.” – Phill Brown (Collins 2018)
“Firstly, nothing is perfect. ART is all about expression and stimulating the imagination of the listener, or viewer.” – Michael Stavrou (Collins 2018)
“Perfection is a sign that technology has trumped music.” – Joe Boyd (Collins 2018)
For the purposes of this paper I offered the simplistic definition of imperfect as an “undesirable feature” to my interviewees, implying that a finished, mastered recording satisfied the idea of perfect for everyone involved in the production process. Most interviewees were quite happy to proceed on this basis; however, some were uncomfortable with this definition and the general idea of my investigation of the subject:
“Sorry Daniel, I base my acceptance/refusal of mistakes entirely on whether I like them or not, and wouldn’t care to over-analyse this entirely intuitive process.” – Tim Friese-Greene (Collins 2018)
“Daniel — Forgive me, but I’m the worst candidate to answer these questions, because each one starts from an aesthetic assumption I don’t agree with. Once again, my apologies, but the whole perfect/imperfect duality is foreign to me.” – Sean Slade (Collins 2018)
A general definition of perfect is something that is fully formed, complete and realised without any blemish or defect, and imperfect describing something less than that, i.e. substandard and defective. My personal definitions of perfect and imperfect in terms of record production are;
Perfect – “Beyond improvement either through theoretical or practical means”. I considered that a production with no obvious flaws such as timing errors, wrong notes, unclear or mispronounced lyrics, poor editing, excessive application of processing, limited dynamic range, et al, which was convincing in terms of authenticity and artistic and emotional content, began to approach my own concept of perfection. Examples of productions which exemplify this ideal were any Steely Dan album – as noted by producer Roger Nichols (Nichols as cited in Sweet 2015, pg.110) on the attitudes to record production by Becker and Fagen “everything had to be as near perfect as technically and humanly possible”. References to Steely Dan as an example of productions regarded as approaching technical perfection were common in the answers to the questions I put to producers.
Imperfect – “Anything which detracted from ‘perfection’”. While I used the term “perfection” when considering an overall production, I used the term “imperfection” only when considering individual aspects of that production. Any production containing what I perceive to be an imperfection I regarded as “flawed”. Listening techniques used for analysing and dissecting productions, developed during my studies, became something of a burden, I found myself unable to “switch off”, becoming hypercritical of all music, in every situation, to the displeasure of friends and family. Examples of this “affliction” include pointing out the various clicks, pops and distortion on Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ (2010, most notably 00:17), the extreme sibilance on Richard Hawley’s ‘Serious’ (2007, every time the word “serious” is sung) and the noticeable clipping on Smashing Pumpkins’ (2018)album Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol.1. Upon reflection, Steely Dan being an exception, many recorded “musical performances” which I admire for their production aesthetics do not fit too well into my concept of perfection.
The fact that these imperfections are there to be found in works which have been deemed suitable for release, achieving commercial success, indicates that perfection is a listener subjective state. That listener may be the artist, producer, mastering engineer or the consumer of music whose economic choices determine success or otherwise. It is their decision to edit, integrate or accept, in effect to forgive, less than perfect features on a recording that illustrates the subjective reasoning applied.
Returning to my own ideal of perfection in performance and production aesthetics, Steely Dan, it seems that to some there may be such a thing as being too perfect. To quote, Emre Ramazanoglu (Collins 2018), “these recordings are often cited as examples of perfection in the recording process, but to me and many other engineers, they sound lifeless, thin, smalland very far from desirable”, and Hugh Padgham (Collins 2018) acknowledges that different production values are applied to different artists and genres, “If I was producing a Steely Dan record, I would think that not a lot of undesirable features would be allowed compared to if I was producing the Sex Pistols”. It is this subjectivity which makes the study of imperfection in recording, and an attempt to identify and categorise it in all its various forms, so difficult. Just as it is human to make mistakes it is also human to deny or trivialise the significance of these mistakes and attempt to hide or eradicate them, especially when the task in question results in a lasting testament to the efforts being made.
In my own experience of recording music, I have noticed that artists when performing live would not be unduly bothered by imperfections in their performance (and neither would their audience), yet they would demand much more of themselves and production staff when in the studio. This may be explained by an artist’s desire to create a definitive recording, every aspect of which, from performance to production, has been optimised, to achieve their idealof perfection whilst staying faithful to their ethos. To maintain this apparent authenticity the optimisation may not involve removing every flaw, especially in popular music which is commonly “forged” in the studio, being shaped and honed throughout the production process, allowing for different arrangements to be essayed until all parties concerned are satisfied with the result. Music which has been scored and arranged prior to recording and is already recognisable to an audience, such as classical pieces, leaves little room for errors or interpretation without being perceived as inauthentic to the original as it was intended to be heard.
I have been able to find very little academic literature regarding this subject, but consider that it deserves to become a part of Music Production Studies in its own right, indeed both Albin Zak and Susan Schmidt-Horning reference the importance of the imperfect as a key element in establishing character in recorded performance. I believe that such study should includethe foundation of a “taxonomy of imperfection” to help future students appreciate the importance of this facet of character and originality in music. Mistakes and imperfections occur at all stages of the process and how we deal with them and what we choose to accept or reject determines to some extent our identity as artists and producers. As Nicholas Verhnes (Collins 2018) states “An imperfection is something perceived as not fitting correctly andit’s also an aesthetic decision based on criteria within a specific musical genre”.
Striving for Substance
“The profound artwork highlights its contradictory moments, neither eliminating them or leaving them disconnected […] profound artworks oppose a world where antagonisms are forcibly integrated” – Lambert Zuidervaart (as cited in Buhler 1994, pg. 146)
A word implying a tangible, solid presence may seem an unusual term to associate with MPS, music being ephemeral in its nature. However, the equipment used to record, produce and playback music certainly has physical presence and it is through these that we try to captureor create sounds and give them meaning, significance and validity, or “substance”, in both artistic and commercial terms as record producers. It is substance by which a piece of art is critically judged as to its truth or falseness, that is – authenticity. Often, it is the slurred note, vocal break or even “sound off” which makes a take stand out as unique.
Theodor Adorno (as cited in Buhler 1994, pg.148) used the term ‘Gehalt’ to conceptualise what he saw as a tension arising from the dialectic between “mimetic expression and rational construction, or in traditional terms between Content (Inhalt) and Form (Form)”. Zuidervaart (as cited in Buhler 1994, pg. 123) notes that Gehalt unlike Inhalt is “not just musical, it isalso social”, he also summarises the relationships between the factors in Adorno’s (as cited in Buhler, 1994 pg. 124) theory “unless one traces the contours of Content (Inhalt), Form (Form) and their dialectic (Gehalt) one misses the way in which social tensions ‘shape’ the artwork itself”.
Contemporary recordists are operating in an era dubbed by Edward Kealy (1979, pg. 214) as the “Art Mode” of record production, whereby technology allows the delineation between artist and producer to be blurred, allowing artist to influence form and producer to influence content.
Through production we aim to resolve this dialectic by finding the right balance between content and form so that the recording is accepted by satisfying current social demands or creating new ones. Substance in the music itself may be concerned with its composition and lyrical content, yet, in a recording these are framed by and depend upon the production values and aesthetics used to arrange, record and ultimately present them, bestowing its characterand substance.
Imperfections in Music Production, however we decide to define them or evaluate their impact on a recording, have, as in any human endeavour, artistic or otherwise, always existed. The limitations of recording and playback technology have been an important factor in defining attitudes within the industry, the luxury of being able to choose what is used and not used being limited by the technology available at the time. It is only since the advent of the DAW that the ability to easily eradicate them without trace at production and post production stages has existed.
As mastering engineer, Jessica Thompson (Collins 2018) notes, early recordists were not focused with authentic capture, their interest lay in the performance itself, ‘during that time, recording engineers and musicians were mainly concerned with a decent performance, not with creating a recording that perfectly captured a moment”. The novelty of recorded sound also overshadowed artistic content when choosing artist and material alike. As noted by academic Richard Burgess (2014, pg.10):
Technological limitations such as two-minute recording time, a very limited frequency response and dynamic range, the need for a continuous take and the lack of system for mass duplication, restricted the early music producer’s role. Earliest recordings were low-fidelity due to the limited frequency range of the recording and playback methods but were authentic in terms of artist performance, being necessarily live and one-take. This meant that any mistakes or flaws could only be overcome by re-recording using a fresh wax cylinder or, later, disc.
Dame Nellie Melba (as cited in Katz 2000 pg.111) recalled:
After making what I believe would have been the most beautiful record, I stumbled backwards over a chair and said “damn” […] That damn when the record was played over, came out with a terrible clarity.
Time and expense therefore made it expedient to turn a blind eye to some imperfections in recordings. Producing recordings in numbers suitable for commercial release required the repeated use of up to four sound horns recording simultaneously onto separate cylinders. This meant there was no real definitive version of a recording and an audience’s exposure to any imperfection was random. (Chanan 2000; Phillip, 1992)
The advent of Emile Berliner’s Gramophone and flat disc, rather than cylinder, in 1887, lead to the possibility of mass production using a definitive performance on a master disc, used to stamp out duplicates. Although initially seen as a toy rather than a serious attempt to commercialise the sale of recorded music, within ten years the Berliner company had sold over 11,000 gramophones and 400,000 records. Author Greg Milner (2010, pg. 37) noted of the discs “they were easier to mass produce, they were more durable […] and could hold four minutes of music, twice as much as an Edison cylinder”. Music, rather than the novelty of sound now became a consideration for the consumer. Quality in terms of content and performance now became expected with professionalism in terms of musicianship and engineering being key to limiting obvious imperfections.
1920 saw the end of the acoustic era and rise of the electric following the advent of the microphone replacing the sound horn to translate vibrations onto the intended recording medium. Early microphones provided a wider frequency response of approximately 100hz to5khz, offering greater detail in low and high frequency content; the frequency range of the sound horn was 200hz to 3khz, the human ear being capable of 20hz to 20khz. This more faithful, or higher fidelity, nature of recording meant that performance errors were more evident, as were deficiencies in playback equipment, thus imperfections became undesirable and a move to transparency became the norm. Bell Lab Technicians Joseph Maxwell and Henry Harrison (1926, pg.493) stated that the aim of reproduction was “taking sound from the air, storing it in some permanent way without appreciable distortion”. (Eisenberg 1987; Schmidt Horning 2017)
First published in 1951, High-Fidelity, was a magazine whose intended demographic was that of persons interested in all things connected with the playback of music, taking its name from the phrase invented in 1927 by audio engineer H.A. Hartley (1958, pg.200), “to denote a type of sound reproduction that might be taken rather seriously by a music lover”. The magazine coined the term ‘audiophile’ to describe anyone with a serious interest in audio. JennisNunley (cited by Milner 2010, pg.138) notes the audiophiles’ obsession, “It has broken families and led men to ridiculous extremes in their search for perfect sound”. The interest in listening to music demanded more from the equipment used to playback the recordings and thus more from the recordings themselves.
Record companies invested in recording facilities, taking advantage of developments in recording equipment such as microphones and the use of tape for recording. The practice of recording onto tape prior to creating a master disc allowed for editing and, as noted by Burgess (2014, pg.49)
Separated the mastering of the disc from the process of recording […] for the first time permitting some post production control by the producer […] allowing mistakes and otherwise inferior sections of the master to be corrected.
For some however, high fidelity audio was undesirable, as the greater the detail the more apparent were imperfections such as breathing, sibilance and movement. Violinist Louis Kaufman (as cited in Harvith 1987, pg.117) opined, “the better the recording technique gets, the worse their recordings sound. You hear much more surface noise, much more rosin, and much more extraneous noise”. This emphasises the fact that, for some, high-fidelity audio does not parallel perfection, as Schmidt Horning (2017, pg.215) concludes, “On record, some things are better left unheard”. The audiophile’s demand for perfection was undermined in the mid-fifties by the advent of Rock N’ Roll and the resurgence of low-fidelity recording, a trend viewed by Zak (2012, pg.48) to be based upon “shoe-string budgets […] make shift studios and amateur musicians” with little, if any thought given to production values.
Audiophiles may have optimised playback conditions but most listeners depended on radio transmissions and low quality playback equipment, featuring mainly monaural recordings. In Zak’s opinion (2012, pg.49) “For the masses of record buyer’s fidelity was trumped by character”. This character was represented by recordings where imperfections in performance and production were accepted and perceived as extensions of the music itself. Schmidt Horning (2017, pg. 214) notes “Rock recording had always emphasised volume, rhythm and power, not fidelity” and the opinion of Malcolm McLaren (as cited in Spencer 2008, pg.344) was “rock and roll was getting up there, stepping out and creating the greatest possible imperfection”. Despite being of apparent service to authenticity in recording, the shift to tape from disc as recording medium allowed for the opportunity of repeated performance takes, but more significantly allowed for editing, whereby errors could be “cut out”, retakes could be “punched in” and performances constructed through the process of tape splicing. The process, however was time consuming and therefore it became expedient to allow some imperfections, as Brown (Collins 2018) recalls:
When I started in 1967 the master machines of the day were 4-track analogue. It was necessary for most of the recordings to be recorded live. This gave many opportunities for mistakes to occur. There was not the control or microscopic attention you have today on modern recordings. If the mistake was slight – minor tuning or timing errors – but overall the take felt great, it would probably be used.
Multiple recording inputs also permitted the possibility of isolating individual aspects of the recording, each being optimised before committing to the master tape. The result being that artists and producers, aware of the possibilities afforded, began to exploit the technology and construct recordings using multiple takes and overdubs, from which errors or poor performances had been eliminated, creating artefacts which could be difficult if not impossible to replicate live, to the extent whereby some artists became renowned as studio bands. Producer Phil Ramone (2003, pg.163) noted that:
By the 1990’s truly “live” studio recording was all but unheard of. Perfectionism had become part of the recording arts and vocalists and musicians are eager to embrace the tools that allow them to make better records.
Ramone’s comment is affirmed by Steve Lukather’s (Collins 2018) recollection of “the now famous phrase used by old studio musicians: ‘Before there was Pro-Tools there were Pro’s’”. The advent of the Digital Audio Workstation and recording directly to hard-drive now allows recordists to deconstruct and then reconstruct a performance note by note with very little effort. A contemporary producer in both the analogue and digital realms, Brian Eno (Dunhill2013) renowned for his belief that experimentation with technology is an enabler in the production process remarked “As a record producer, digital technology makes me wonder about the whole direction recording is taking”, further to this he opines that “everything we call ‘character’ is the deviation from perfection. So, perfection …is characterlessness.”
Professor Roger Heaton (as cited in Cook 2009 pg. 588-590) states
The technological sophistication of the recording process with its easy correction of errors results in the “perfect” construct” and yet “wrong notes, untidy ensemble or imperfect intonation in live performance are, to some extent, the fragile nature of the business.
The dilemma facing the contemporary recordist is now not about what is acceptable to leave in but rather what is not desirable to remove.
As explained, up until the advent of digital recording and the DAW, with virtually limitless track numbers, archiving and manipulative possibilities, technology itself had tempered our attitudes as recordists to the “problem” of imperfections by limiting our options to deal with them. The contemporary recordist, whether artist, engineer, producer or mastering engineer can now produce technically flawless artefacts whilst having the hindsight, provided by over150 years of recording history, to realise that perfection is a highly subjective ideal that does not guarantee substance. To establish the feelings of modern-day practitioners towards the question of what should be allowed, in terms of what could be described as spontaneous idiosyncrasies and eccentricities, I devised a set of six questions directed at engineers and producers. The interviewees, whose experiences covered seven decades, were asked for personal responses and opinions rather than what the individual perceived to be an industry stance. The candour and opinion of most respondents is represented by Padgham’s (Collins 2018) observation:
There are so many different aspects to recording sessions that mistakes and sh*t happens whether you like it or not and some are able to be dealt with consciously and some are subconscious and therefore not.
There is a point in the production process where, subject to parameters which to an outsider may seem arbitrary, the recordist begins to see some imperfections as desirable, lending credence to the perceived authenticity of a recording. The occurrence of imperfections may even give opportunity to provide a novel twist, making a recording unique. Eno (as cited in Tamm 1995, pg. 48) devised a set of “Oblique Strategy” cards designed to offer random courses of action in the event of creative blocks, one of which gave the advice “honour thy error as a hidden intention”. It seems that perfect may not actually mean flawless in these situations, but conveys, to misquote Margaret Hungerford, “a perfection in the ears of the listener”, an aesthetically pleasing artefact in cultural, social and philosophical contexts. The cultural and social acceptance demonstrating the substance of the recording, as Zak writes, “the performative acts of all those involved in the recording making process form the substance of the work, the sinews of its being”. This situation is exemplified by Phil Harding’s (Collins 2018) attitude “I will generally accept something that is an imperfect/ perfect if most people involved in the project love it”. Terry Brown (Collins 2018) agrees with Harding:
Certain anomalies that appear in recorded music add to the realism and a subconscious reaction that tells you that you’re listening to real players playing real music so in that case imperfections do become ‘perfect’.
Jerry Boys (Collins 2018) emphasises the subjective nature of the situation when stating “what I think is a desirable imperfection or you might describe as a feeling of humanity is to another producer a glaring error”. It is important to realise that some imperfections will be just that, every mistake should not be seen as an opportunity, making mistakes is not the primary objective and one must not lose focus of the recording, or as Niko Bolas (Collins2018) sees it, “undesirable is exactly that – so lose it”. The sentiment of most producers on the subject of including imperfections is summed up by Lukather (Collins 2018), “No rules. If it sounds great, then rules are pointless. The key thing is if it FEELS good and you dig the overall feel. Use it”.
The contemporary producer is now considered part of the creative process, able to make suggestions or present ideas, being without the recorded performance, yet at the same time being part of the recording of that performance. Dominic Monks (Collins 2018) maintains that a producer should have:
an opinion on where performance imperfections are in fact honest and emotive, and conversely where they distract, and where technical imperfections are intrusive to the experience or whether they are inconsequential because of the quality of the performance.
It is worth considering how strong an argument a producer is willing to make for the inclusion or exclusion of imperfections, as such decisions influence the shape and aesthetics of a recording, as noted by Zak (2007, pg.13):
Records are musical works wrought in sound, their full meaning is imparted by a particular sensory experience whose every detail counts. The factors affecting those details are a matter of aesthetic concern.
Tomasso Colliva (Collins 2018) believes that communication between artists and producers is essential to the success of the recording process, opting to use tact and diplomacy when expressing his perspective:
I believe explaining reasons behind my choices is the only way to discuss with the artist when they have different views. I hate “I’m right / you’re wrong” discussions and don’t think they are useful at all.
Other producers expressed their preference for a more forceful approach, yet manage to keep in sight their responsibility to the artist and their material, which the recording should represent. David Bottrill (Collins 2018) reasons that:
Ultimately, the name on the front of the project is not mine, so though I would campaign hard for paths I believe are the right ones, I will defer if the artist doesn’t feel like they wish to be represented in that way.
Chiccarelli (Collins, 2018) states:
You try to make recordings that are deep in personality and character. If an accident adds to that personality I will fight to keep it as a part of the fabric of the song […] the artist’s decision always stands. If they can live with the imperfection and they embrace it as having character and enhancing the song, then it stays.
These sentiments reflect the wider attitude of most of the recordists interviewed and shows that there exists an awareness of their abilities as contemporary music producers to shape a production by their treatment of imperfections, many indicating that the artist’s happiness with the result, in their belief, trumps both technical and musical perfection.
A modern producer, as well as being aware of what has been deemed acceptable in past recordings, must acknowledge what is happening contemporaneously with their own projects in terms of technology, innovation and stylistic/commercial sense. It was interesting to note how much attention was paid to the work of other producers, and how similar attention to their own work altered their attitude to the subject, highlighting a wider socio-politicalcontext to the notion of imperfection vs. perfection. Monks (Collins 2018) on the question of studying other recordists work, answered:
To seek imperfections when listening to music is dangerous. […] If you’ve just spent a long time in the studio tweaking ‘imperfections’ and then go and listen to any of your favourite (especially older) records you will realise they are all littered with‘imperfections’, technical issues and ‘wrong’ notes.
Monks reveals a willingness to accede to someone else’s’ judgement and echoes Eric Sarafin’s (Collins 2018) opinion that “if it’s on the record it’s not a mistake”. Michael Beinhorn, (Collins 2018) displaying confidence in his own position in the industry, showed no concern or interest in other producers’ work, stating, “I’m not that interested in how other contemporary producers are making their recordings […] It’s often kind of hard to know what the producer has actually done.” However, Susan Rogers (Collins 2018) appears more open to the idea of studying others, revealing an inclusive, embracing attitude and a willingness to learn, even when working with high profile artists, that although by no means widespread is evident amongst contemporary producers:
I love hearing what other producers are brave enough to leave in. If it enhances the record I can now add to my palette of ideas without fear of whether something can work.
On the subject of being scrutinised by one’s peers the consensus seems to be that once a recording has been released then it is accepted as being perfect and does not stand further self-reflection based upon others’ opinions. An excellent example of this being Padgham’s(Collins 2018) attitude to the criticism made regarding his use of echo on Phil Collins’ vocal for ‘In the Air Tonight’, “I lost count of the people who said “Didn’t you know that the vocal repeat echo tempo was wrong?” I got fed up in the end and just ignored them. It didn’t stop it being a hit!”
Rogers (Collins 2018) as well as accepting the inclusion of imperfections in others’ work, similarly defends their inclusion in her own work:
Once you decide to leave it in, it is no longer (technically) a mistake. Prince’s distorted vocal on ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend,’ the out-of-time backing vocals on ‘Forever in My Life,’ and the entire track of ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.’ They were technically mistakes at the time of recording but we didn’t re-do anything because Prince liked it.
Allowing that some imperfections make it to the mixing stage by design – any that make it otherwise are genuine mistakes on somebody’s part- then it must be appraised how they are dealt with. Are they accepted as they exist, modified in some way, or even used creatively by repetition and/or replication? It seems that all the above has been done at some time, for example Phill Brown (Collins 2018) discussing his involvement in sessions with Talk Talk:
Many times, we kept the fragile, misplayed notes and then moved them around our song until we found a “suitable” location. We erased 80% of the material we recorded and often only kept the mistakes.
Lukather (Collins 2018), whose background as highly regarded session musician and member of self-produced band Toto, noted for the quality of their productions, probably accounts for his view on enhancing a mistake to alter its effect on a production, “No. Then it would stick out”. This is in direct contrast with that of Jay Messina (Collins 2018) when relating what happened during an Aerosmith session:
During the ring out of the last chord of a song, a CBS union engineer (who was coming back from a coffee break) opened a door that came with a loud ‘creak’. We couldn’t get rid of it, so we made it louder when we mixed that track.
Most recordists drew the line at deliberately creating or replicating imperfections, Bryan Wilson (Collins 2018) in particular opining “I don’t think it is really ever so thought out and intentional though. I can’t imagine anyone seeks to add “flaws” into their recordings.”
Although Chiccarelli (Collins 2018) admits:
It depends on the imperfection. Sometimes it becomes the focal point of the song. In the case of The White Stripes “Icky Thump” the guitar solo was a deliberate attempt to replicate the sound of bad analogue punch-ins. Where the attack and decay of the sound is damaged and transformed to having a non-guitar like character.
Upon finishing the recording, it is submitted to a mastering engineer, usually one with a successful reputation in the style and genre in which the artist and producer are working. At this stage, any imperfections should be assimilated and considered part of the desired result, there is however the risk that mistakes may make the final mix. Although the process of mastering is outside the realm of this paper, it is interesting to note the opinion of Russ Hepworth-Sawyer (Collins 2018):
There are of course those mixes that come to you and you have to just say ‘blimey’ as there’s nothing at all wrong. However, a lot of clients don’t have the money forproper mix engineers and thus they need (and really want) the guidance of a second pair of ears.
The use of digital emulation of microphones, instruments and amplification, even the recording space itself, is made possible by the DAW and advancing technology. These emulations, or plugins, allow the modern producer to replicate “dream” studio set ups which would be both exorbitantly expensive and impossible to arrange. The plugins are modelled on stand out examples of items of equipment known for their unique sonic characteristics, they are fetishised, to use an often overused word they are “iconic”. The characteristics, tones and ambiences are in some way imperfect as they do not represent the majority, they are chosen subjectively, meaning that any emulation includes these imperfections and presents them as desirable as they represent what was considered by previous generations as perfect for use on often revered and respected recordings. Chris Townsend (Collins 2018) notes:
There is definitely a subjective element in choosing which specimens to model and include in the product. One approach we use to is to measure and model as many mics of a certain type that we can get our hands on […] I’ve measured seven NeumannU67s so far and they all varied quite a lot, probably the most of any mic I’ve looked at.
The end result being that imperfections will be used unknowingly by future producers who are chasing substance. The DNA of imperfection is being set in digital amber.
Having explored a brief history of the recording industry and its changing attitude to the acceptance of imperfections in recordings based on its ability to remove, reduce or embrace them, and the outlooks of contemporary recordists, it is evident that such imperfections have, and always will have, an impact on the recording process. They emphasise the human nature of the business and, as in other forms of art, are not always undesirable, although are more acceptable in some genres than others. Once validated by their contribution they are nolonger flaws but part of a cohesive whole, they are “forgiven”. To borrow once again from Pope (1709, pg.10) “The sound must seem an echo to the sense” – the recording strives to convey substance, the way in which it is presented has an obligation to the content of the material. Striving for perfection in popular music is an artificial pursuit in that it appears to lessen the emotional and subliminal connections made between the artist, their music and the listener. In striving for substance in music production, one way of strengthening these connections is to acknowledge and be inclusive of the domain of imperfection in our creative arsenal. The study of imperfection forces us to consider the whole of the music production process. In retrospect, the words perfect and imperfect used in my introduction are unsuitable, perhaps the words “substantive” and “unsubstantive” would be better. On first consideration, the terms may seem removed somewhat from the emotive process of making and recording music, but they do carry the meaning of using a subjective judgement to assess a worth or value against a desired standard. Whichever term one prefers to use, an artist or producer’s thought upon hearing the definitive cut will still probably be “that’s perfect!” – only time and the paying public will prove them right or wrong. In the final evaluation of a recording, it is what is left out, being unsubstantive, that makes it “perfect”. In the words of Larry Crane (Collins, 2018):
We might be drawn to perfection in theory, but in reality, we want to feel emotion, empathize, and communicate. Because we all feel imperfect ourselves, frail creatures, we cannot cling to perfect, and we relate to imperfect.
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