A Quick Thought on Songs and Live Backing Tracks

I love the idea of a song being this living, breathing sort of thing. It can exist in a state of flux, always taking on a slightly different form and varying from night to night. You have a recording, and that’s great…. but that’s just the song in the form it occurred the day or week it happened to be recorded. Its so much stronger (to me) when it can exist beyond that, and change form and evolve naturally. I guess that’s why I hate the idea of backing tracks live…. you’ve killed your song at that point. It can’t grow any more, so that you aren’t playing a show, you’re playing a funeral. How boring, to play a funeral night after night.

Organicism is a word I like.

Alright, so this could very easily dissolve into a dumb, overblown, and frankly played out analog vs. digital argument, or something equally obnoxious, so I’ll do my very best to avoid that. What I really want to talk about is organicism, which, as stated, is a word. I checked. So what is it, and what does it have to do with music, and art in general for that matter?

Well, the word is a noun, and is kind of an abstract idea along the lines of being organic, to one extent or another. But, you may suggest, art is a creation of man, and is therefore synthetic in nature and cannot truly be organic. To you I say touche, and rather than offer a compelling counter-argument, I’ll simply side-step because that idea really has nothing to do with what I want to talk about. I’m more interested in artistic details (where, of course, the devil does reside) and process. I believe the details and how they relate to, or are a result of, a process are infinitely interesting and beautiful. They can also ruin an otherwise great work of art. There are questions we can ask about said details to help determine their perceived value. These questions could include: do they appear intentional, or thought out? Are they visible at all? Perhaps too obvious? Are they predictable or surprising? Do they create a sense of comfort, and was that their purpose? Clearly, these questions are quite abstract and could be formulated and asked endlessly, but on some level we evaluate much of our sensory intake this way. So why are some things so much more aesthetically pleasing than others, even when said aesthetically pleasing object or sound is much “uglier” or more “vulgar” or what-have-you than another object of less aesthetic value? I think the answer is largely related to it’s organicism.

At this point, I’m going to shift to talking about music more directly, since that is my area of assumed expertise, but I’m sure some concepts will translate elsewhere. As far as organicism in music, much of it is traditionally derived from the human performance aspect. Humans are organic and imperfect. Their performances therefore will contain many imperfections, and we, as other humans, tend to find this controlled margin of error pleasant to the ear. We even have words for some of these purposeful inaccuracies, such as “swing,” or playing “ahead of the beat.” Alternatively, when we have a computer play back music with perfect accuracy in regard to time, pitch, velocity, etc. we get terms like “cold,” and “rigid.” There is a similar effect when comparing recording mediums, namely analog tape versus digital. Analog tape works something like this: Tons and tons of little magnetic fibers cover the surface of tape, and as this tape passes over the electro-magnetic tape head of the recorder, these tiny particles are rearranged related to the varying voltages of the magnet to store the audio data. This process has some great advantages, namely a wonderfully pleasant sound to which we’ve attached terms such as “warm” and “punchy.” Much of the greatness we love about tape comes from its inherent limitations, that “warm” sound resulting from harmonic distortion generated in a process called tape compression, when the bandwidth and dynamic level of the audio going into the tape recorder exceeds what the tape can actually physically hold. That was a bit of a long-winded explanation but you get the point. It’s imperfect, and therefore has organic properties which we, being organic ourselves, can relate to. Digital (at its current stage of development) basically recreates perfectly whatever is put into it (the computer). Gone are the physical limitations, and a computer is able to translate every detail accurately into neat little 1’s and 0’s. This relative perfection sounds “cold” to us, to a varying degree depending on one’s ears. There is one other aspect of digital that may have a negative effect that is worth mentioning (which actually does introduce imperfection to the paradigm, but in a non-pleasing way), and that is the discrete nature of 1’s and 0’s. Tape records in a constantly variable way, not relying on points in a numerical system. Everything in the computer must be a 1 or 0, so even at a very high resolution, there is a “stair-step” sort of waveform. While this counts as an imperfection, it is a very mechanical, calculable one, and is therefore difficult for us to relate to. Fortunately, technology has progressed to a point where we can use various tools to add back into a digital recording some of the organic sounding randomness and distortion that we love to hear, and compensate relatively well for the “coldness.”

That last part was important. We, as artists, are consciously adding in a sense of organicism that was lost in our process. This is an adaptive trait in art, and reinforces the idea of what we as people can and cannot relate to on a sensory level. The ways in which this is done and the different extents are plenty. From purposely moving bits of MIDI data slightly off the quantized grid, to leaving small errors recorded in a guitar or drum track, or adding distortion or saturation plugins, the options are nearly endless. However it is achieved, that organicism is essential to creating a product that is identifiable on a human level, and should be a constant consideration, at least in my experience. Even music which exists purely because of the computer and digital process, such as modern EDM can benefit tremendously from a live instrument or two here and there, and some humanization in programmed drums.

We have so many tools available to us in the name of “perfection,” but never forget about the quintessential human element, that organicism. You’ll know when you have it if you pay attention, it will give you that great warm, fuzzy feeling that keeps you listening to music in the first place.