Last week we had discussed the idea of the perfect mix, and why it is very important to get your music to sound as pretty as possible. The reasoning for making your tracks pop is because people’s lives are chaotic, and thus a need for order develops. Having a perfectly timed drum section, a properly EQ’d voice, and a lack of hums, snaps, and pops all go a long way to make a favorable impression because it makes sense in people’s lives. What a transcendent experience to provide, all with a few simple WAV files!
However, as perfect as perfect seems, we also need to grapple with the major limitation plighting us all, keep us from all turning into human drum machines or even straight automatons. We crave something on top of order: we desire realness.
You may have noticed the trend of auto-tune overuse lately. It’s rare to hear a track with a voice that just sounds real and authentic to begin with, and it seems that most producers have just said “fuck it, I’m going to just make the voice another synth instrument.” Sure, the voice still sounds musical after the desired effect has been added. Something gets lost in translation, however. It’s that thing that makes us tick, that lets us suspend our disbelief when we watch movies or read a book. It’s the illusion of realness. Perfection, for all its benefits, loses ground when it ceasing to be grounded in reality.
To build off the Westworld analogy (did you click the link above? If not, shame!), fans of the show know the central thesis: our desire for real, desirable experiences that transcend the mundanity of our everyday lives. This can’t be accomplished with real people, obviously. You can’t just shoot, kill, and bang every person you would desire to do so. Thus the desire for an artificial experience emerges, one that isn’t grounded in people’s jobs or bills. It is one that is created in a contained space, and yet transcends the reality of every day life. It gives meaning to us. So, even if it ultimately is a created situation built to gratify an audience, it still feels as real as anything.
Another analogy that comes to mind is from the new Star Wars movie, “Rogue One.” The well known, ever imitated Grand Moff Tarkin returned for the film even thought the original actor had died. The movie producers didn’t go with another actor that may have bared resemblance. In an effort to keep things real, they recreated the actor with CGI and had him modeled to fit in with real actors. Though it may have seemed like a good idea in the board room, the outcome was a little off-putting because you can just sense that the person your watching isn’t real. He was a CGI replacement, and being replaced isn’t a comforting thought.
Realness: that is the desired effect.
That is the tight-rope you walk when creating a track: you are creating a song, a recording to be specific, and thus are creating a product that isn’t 100% firmly grounded in the dynamic, physical world. You clean up the tracks, you process the vocals, you master the stereo mix, and you give it clever album art and a title. It isn’t dynamic, real life. It’s a product. A product that gives real value to people, and thus cannot exist too far into the land of fairytales. (Sorry, the 80’s are over kiddos.)
This product of yours needs to sparkle, shine, and all the hyperbole generally used to sum up greatness. A friendly reminder that you’re human, however, is not a bad thing. One of my favorite guitar solos of all time belongs to Billy Duffy in The Cult’s “Love Removal Machine.” What makes it so spectacular is the rawness to it, even if every note isn’t crystal clear. It’s played with passion, and even the scratch/ghost notes have impact. Another example is George Thorogood, who’s guitar licks are far from perfect. Yet they communicate his debauched headspace with perfect articulation. You hear very clearly that the guitar is an extension to himself. It isn’t a perfect product, it’s a real one.
The emotions elicited by music are also real, and they are based in feelings that seem abstract as well. They aren’t perfect, they aren’t even articulate at times. Yet even abstract art resonates with us because there’s something we feel at a deeper level than the simple understand of the product we encounter. That emotion, no matter the perfection of the product, must be the driving factor of the song. It’s what makes music connect, otherwise it’s just a collection of well-organized sounds.
Your product has to be a good product. It must come from an authentic place, and the talent must shine no matter what gizmos are available to perfect it. People can sense an authentic experience from a fake one. You’re music faces this same scrutiny. So make it sparkle and shine. But don’t let that pursuit of perfection turn your product into a Frankenstein’s monster. As the endlessly popular statement has summed up long ago: keep it real.