Wherever you turn today, you are likely to see airbrushed photos and video content with perfect lighting, makeup and editing. The same quest for perfection bleeds into the music we listen to. Modern technology has allowed us to have more control of our performances and the sound of the final tracks. Digital recording and a variety of software lets us edit pitch, timing and even vibrato of our vocals and other elements of the song. But is this really what we want out of our music? No one is arguing that technological advancements have made it easier to create music, however, having limited equipment often lets us become more creative. Most importantly, imperfection and irregularity are often the essence of the song that makes our ears prick up. They allow us to experience a piece of music, knowing that it was created by real musicians and often give us a sense that we are in the studio with them. Polished, perfectly edited performances and tracks may be great in theory, but don’t always deliver the auditory experience that we are looking for. It is evidenced by our resurgent love for vinyl, analogue technology and a range of software that emulates these. In this article, we will explore the topic of imperfection and how it can make your music stand out in the digital age.
Because of the profound effect music has on our brain, it’s hard not to mention the neuroscience behind topics of singing and music. One of the reasons we are attracted to irregularities, imperfections or experimentation is because it challenges our predictive model of hearing. Essentially, failing to predict what we are hearing or are about to hear, creates prediction errors, which indicate our model can be optimised. As human beings, we like to immerse ourselves in spaces and situations where our predictive model is challenged and where we can learn. Another reason for our attraction to perfection is expressivity. Researchers suggest that irregularities in the tempo, pitch or timing of a musical performance make us feel that the piece of music is more expressive, which is a huge contributor to achieving a desirable aesthetic.
When approaching music creation in the digital age it’s important to remember that technology itself isn’t the creative mind, we are. Although technology has given us many freedoms for making music, how much we choose to edit depends on us. Yes, digital technology doesn’t give you the same limited opportunities as analogue, which, arguably, pushed for more creativity and introduced more imperfection into the records. Having said that, there’s nothing stopping you from trying different creative approaches with digital equipment. Innovation is born from experimentation, so just because people you look up to use technology in a certain way, doesn’t mean you have to repeat their techniques and approaches. There are still unlimited ways you can create music and add your own personal touch.
With that being said, one of the reasons people are attracted to analogue records is the groove and feeling of everyone playing together. Musicians didn’t necessarily perform to a click track or metronome, tempos changed throughout the track and small imperfections were not clinically edited or deemed important enough to re-record. That energy from a band playing live together, as well as the odd microphone distortion, bum note on a guitar and more is what makes them so special. Musicians had to perform as well as possible, since chopping a track together from multiple takes wasn’t an option, however, those performances weren’t always pristine and perfect either. There’s no reason why the same cannot be achieved today. Many music producers still record live, artists like Bon Iver have previously included feedback and background noises on their albums, which provide studio context for the listener.
With regards to vocals, is it best to create perfect edits, tweaking the pitch, eliminating breath noises or should you leave them as raw as possible? The answer is somewhere in between and will depend on the context of your track. When we sing, each semitone contains 100 cents, which are even smaller units of pitch and highlight natural deviations from the centre of the note. If you’ve ever tried to process your vocal by eliminating any deviations from the centre of the pitch, you will notice the vocal may sound thin, stilted or robotic. In some cases, that may be the effect you’re going for. Equally, yourself or a producer editing your vocals will leave imperfect takes tastefully within a track, so that it shows off expressivity and emotion, without making the track sound too raw and unpolished. Ultimately, it is down to your creative direction, however, don’t underestimate the power of imperfection.
Throughout history, we have valued and admired distinct vocals and performances. A great example of this is Maria Callas who, although considered a somewhat imperfect vocalist in opera, was able to convey such a powerful emotion and diversity in all of her performances that it didn’t really matter. Her character and unique twist on classic pieces like Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, earned her diva status and distinguished her from other performers. Equally, pop artists like Rihanna, particularly on her song ‘Higher’, sounds like she’s straining and sings from a place of desperation, making her performance particularly emotive in a way that speaks to her audience directly. Chairlift’s song, Unfinished Business, puts an artistic twist on the word ‘unfinished’, further emphasising the meaning of the song. These details stray away from classic, polished pop songs and add a lot more personality to the singer’s vocals. It takes the singers, particularly pop celebrities, away from their usual, untouchable image and conveys human emotion that suddenly makes them more relatable and heartfelt to the listener. It shows pain, anger, despair and generally a wider spectrum of feelings that may not come across, even if they sang the same song but hit every note perfectly. As musicians, it’s important that we are able to communicate with our audiences in the same way, whether on stage or in a studio performance.
To conclude, this article isn’t here to take sides between analogue and digital eras of our music industry. We wish to highlight the incredible journey our recording and performance aesthetics have taken throughout history and remind you that we only got here by experimentation and innovation. So, whether you’re a musician, music producer or both, don’t be afraid to keep some of that raw element in your songs. Find the right balance between digital editing and natural performance, and don’t be afraid to experiment with concepts that are overlooked, forgotten or haven’t been used yet. We urge artists to embrace their individuality and unique sound, and build on it throughout the creative process.
Trying to recreate emotion behind some of your favourite records can lead to poor vocal technique, straining and damage. At London Singing Institute we can provide professional advice on how to challenge your vocal in a healthy, safe way and assist with finding authentic voice, keeping in mind your natural vocal and range. We offer singing lessons in London, which are perfect for adult beginner singers and experienced professionals looking to improve. Getting to know the natural characteristics of your vocal will help you use it to your advantage and charm audiences who will enjoy your authenticity and honest, meaningful yet professional performance.