Perfect Imperfection


In 1931 Duke Ellington & Irving Mills wrote: "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got Swing)", which became an all-time jazz classic and broke ground for the new wild era of swing. The title of the song is great - cause it implies the importance of human touch in the music and human touch means imperfection.

The easiest way to explain the value of imperfection is by describing a drum groove. A drum groove is in essence imperfect. Every drummer have their own feel and way of laying down their groove. Theoretically speaking the drum groove should sound like it was notated and exactly on the dot - just like a super quantized drum machine. The end-result is a lifeless and impotent groove. However when you add the element of imperfection it starts becoming something. It starts developing identity. This article explores the art of imperfection and why its integral to making good samples and music.. But to get things started - check out this video - a masterpiece in groove (im)perfection.

Perfect Imperfection

According to Wikipedia, Perfection, is the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects. It's like walking into a supermarket and seeing those isles of perfectly waxed apples. All completely identical. Beautiful, shiny, flavorless zombie apples, stripped from any signs of personality. A real apple tree doesn't produce identical apples - some are bigger - some have bumps in them - some have worms and so forth. Everything in real life has an aspect of chaos or randomness to it. Humans have an unfortunate tendency to exercise control over all their surroundings. We want perfect apples. We want perfect lives. We want perfect partners and as composers/producers we surely want perfect music and music tools. There is nothing wrong in striving for this perfection, however it can only be achieved through a level of imperfection. I call this: "perfect imperfection".

Imperfection and MIDI

Every style of music have different requirements in regards to imperfection. In Hip-Hop / RnB / Soul there a great amount of attention going into the creation of the groove. Whether its slightly delayed "slut-claps", those funky Michael Jackson snaps or those gorgeous little percussive layers in Timbalands grooves. Whereas in Electronica the "imperfection" is more tight, since you need that bass drum to kick on every beat, yet spice it up with modulated synths, reversed snares and a variety of other sounds and effects to loosen up the mix. In the world of orchestral music and mock-ups "imperfection" carries yet another identity, namely one of mimicking the emotion/movement of the orchestra and all the little, yet important details that goes with that. A frequent mistake in any of these styles is the overuse of quantization. In essence quantization kills the human feel and replaces it with an audible, mechanical, machine-gun effect. You can simply hears its too tight and no human plays like that. Every single player has their own feel, so whether you are mimicking a drum solo or a symphony - there will be randomness and human touch in it.

But back to quantization. There are two general tricks that I find helpful:

1. Simply just stay away from quantization, but rather keep on repeating what you are playing until it really sits right, tight, but lively.

2. Use slight randomization when you quantize. So let's say you are composing a hybrid epic orchestral piece of music - you want the beat and pulses to be spot on using quantization, but you want the other elements to have a more of a human touch, so you play the entire orchestra in your hand. The elements you do decide to quantize (ex. epic percussion) should be done with a tiny amount of randomization to the quantizer, which is something most sequencers offers in the quantization setups. It also helps adding non-quantized elements from the same instruments, so perhaps your rolls, ghost-notes or syncopations can be added for natural flavor.

Imperfection and Samples

Imperfection is not just a matter of timing and rhythm. Imperfection is crucial in the entire realm of sound. One of the most obvious examples is the solo violin - perhaps the most difficult instrument to truly master. The fretless nature of the instrument and the near microscopic intervals in the higher notes makes it immensely complicated to command. When you look at any great solo violinist it becomes apparent that they all have their individual style of expression. Whether it is the intense vibrato of Perlman - the brilliant ethnic touch of Yervinian or the stunning virtuosity and expression of Heifetz. The constant variation in speed and dynamics of bow strokes, the individual way of expressing through vibrato and constant alternation of vibrato speed, the completely personal ways of playing legato and so forth. In essence all of them play imperfect. The finger will never land perfectly when you play fast on the violin and therein lies the beauty. The entire instrument becomes you and individual expression of yourself - just like our spoken voices. Our beautiful imperfect voices.

It is vital to capture the subtle tonal and dynamic imperfections to faithfully replicate an acoustic instrument. Check out Perlman talking about his interpretation of Heifetz and what made his particular voicing so ... perfect!

This entire philosophy is what went into our Adagio and Agitato String libraries - and if you ever wonder why our demos sound audiorealistic - its because we tried to embrace the perfect imperfection, motion and expression.

But there is one more element that I believe is vastly overlooked in the virtual instruments industry - and that is the performance quality of the samples. We often get lost in fancy specifications and recording hype. Oh-it-was-recorded-in-this-amazing-hall-and-by-this-amazing-engineer - yet there is not an ounce of passion in the samples. This is where sampling becomes an art form of sorts. It is a science of the ear and goes far, far beyond all the persuasive fancy specifications that we, sample developers, like to throw at you. The truth remains ... It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got Swing).

So there you have it. Embrace imperfection. Find your groove. Refrain from quantization. We express to impress and that expression is you and no-one else.

by Troels Folmann, March 2015