I’ve been seeing a lot of articles and posts lately about the importance of fixing timing and tuning, most notably in Sound On Sound’s excellent Mix Mistakes article from last September. There, author Mike Senior talks about how many amateur mixes he hears that have sloppy timing and dodgy tuning which ruin the impact of otherwise good songs. He does mention the importance of not going too far in this department, but knowing when too tweak and when to step back is a subtle art and definitely bears more discussion.
Listen to The Band’s awesome “We Can Talk” and imagine it would sound like in the hands of an overzealous Pro Tools user. Nothing in that recording lines up, and it’s an absolutely glorious thing. If you listen closely there are loads of “mistakes”—slight timing errors, missed notes, and general sloppiness—but none of it sounds wrong. Every smudge and inconsistency contributes to the overall impression of a hootenanny happening in the studio and the band having a ball doing it.
The Rolling Stones are another band known for their amazing looseness in the studio. Check out “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” or “Sway,” both off of 1971’s Sticky Fingers. “Sway” even has an obvious mistake at :52, but the take is amazing and they probably didn’t give it a second thought. Of course, back in 1971 they would have had to re-record the entire song, but that didn’t stop some groups from laying down dozens or even hundreds of takes in a quest for perfection. Often, though, the first or second take was the one with the magic, and ended up being the top choice despite its imperfections.
Granted, making this kind of sublime clutter is a heck of a lot easier when you’ve got a group as talented and well-rehearsed as The Band or The Stones, but it’s still possible to approximate it on your own. (As proof, listen to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” on which he played everything but the horns himself. None of us are Stevie Wonder, but the entire Talking Book album proves that one man can make a remarkable groove all on his own. Sloppy it’s not, but it is loose in a beautifully funky way.)
Here are a few tips on keeping a certain amount of desirable sloppiness in your pieces:
- When possible, it’s always preferable to re-record any tracks with dodgy timing rather than quantizing them. If you’re able to, record numerous takes and pick the best one (or edit together a composite). This will always sound better than quantizing or making manual adjustments.
- Even when you do need to quantize a bit try to avoid fixing every note, and certainly stay away from quantizing everything at 100%. If a few notes are off, move them manually or quantize them without adjusting the entire track. And when you do quantize, draw the line at 60–80% unless you’re after drum-machine-like rigidity.
- Use your ears, not your eyes! Remember that music is auditory and not visual (even though you spend much of your time staring at Waveforms and piano rolls). When I’m tweaking timing I always try to close my eyes and just listen. If any notes stick out I’ll quickly stop playback and fix them, but otherwise I’ll leave things where they are, even if they look wrong.
- Instead of aligning things to the grid, pick the track with the best timing and align to that. Often this is the drums. If anything sounds particularly off, line it up with the nearest drum hit rather than a specific bar or beat.
- Finally, take lots of breaks so you’re always listening with fresh ears. When I’m tired, my inner perfectionist usually kicks in and I start over-polishing. At those times I often end up ruining something that wasn’t that bad to begin with.
And finally, remember that a little sloppiness is often a good thing and that mistakes aren’t always undesirable.
P.S. If you don’t have a subscription to Sound On Sound, I highly recommend one. If you just want to test it out, they have amazingly cheap esubscription plans—only $13.50 for three months, and you have access to their complete online archives. Definitely worth a try.