Imperfection

June 19, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

It is often the imperfections and small mistakes that I love most.

Unfortunately for me, I feel rather alone.

A constant battle I wind up fighting at Octave Records is the tendency of musicians and engineers to polish out imperfections.

My love of music includes those special moments of humanness that some call mistakes while others refer to them as life: a less than perfect performance, a breath taken at the wrong time, a grunt, a laugh not on the score.

For me perfection is imperfection.

From the heart.

Flaws and all.

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41 comments on “Imperfection”

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer – ‘The Sheriff’
    Pink Floyd – ‘Wish You Were Here’
    David Bowie – ‘Andy Warhol’
    ELO – ‘Rockaria!’
    & the list goes on…

    Imperfection in sound is what makes compromise necessary in home-audio rigs.
    No matter how good the quality is, if you’re a trained listener you can always find
    an imperfection or a fault in the resulting sound, no matter how minor…
    especially for those who believe that the music coming from their
    home-audio rig should sound live.

    “Dre-e-e-eamer, you know you are a dre-e-e-eamer!”

    1. Paul. With all due respect, you are not the artist. Recordings are forever. You are the label owner and effective producer. A great producer navigates athe recorded performance, the sonics and the artist. Most musical artists know when their performances are good to great. You effectively have said that your opinion overrides the artists . Please, don’t tell us that you would tell Zuill Baily which performance of a Bach movement was the best. Part of a good to great musicians knowledge is how the performance and recording feels. Studio plug ins are tools. Fixing a note or two of an otherwise great performance should be done. It seems to me that you need to be cautious. Owing the studio, company, and covering the recording costs could intimidate many artists. Just be mindful, the producer should not trump the artist. Just ask Quincy, David Foster, George Martin,Thomas Shepard, Thomas Frost.

      1. Hi Jay,
        This is Martin aka ‘Fat Rat’, not Paul.
        I have no idea why every time you come here you comment on my thread.
        Do you understand what the ‘Reply’ function is for?

      2. Thanks, Jay. I couldn’t agree more. There is a fine line to be walked and it’s difficult to know which side of the street to be on.

        When it comes to sound quality, I am imminently better suited and experienced to make a judgment than most musicians.

        On the other hand and as you point out, Zuill is much better than me at his music (though he relies upon the ear and comments of his producer Thom (now sadly passed on) who is not a musician but rather a record producer).

        I think it boils down to what works. We can all squirm when a wrong note is played. I don’t need to be an experienced musician to know when someone is playing flat or out of time. Yet I have little to offer when it comes to musical creation.

        It’s a blend.

  2. You’re not alone Paul. Some may have rules for perfection but as we know ‘perfect’ doesn’t really exist. Where art is concerned perfection is as subjective as anything.

  3. Perfection is not a realistic word in a creative moment. The realism you are commenting about is the specialness that’s sometimes missing. Your thought provoking comments are appreciated.

  4. Absolutely agree with Paul. I particularly enjoy live recordings, warts and all, as it is a constant reminder that the music is being performed by real people rather than machines. I have the over-polished ‘perfect’ studio recordings where each instrument is recorded perfectly but separately. I much prefer, say, Robert Cray where the band play live together in the studio.

  5. Yes, I love it especially in jazz. Mosaic with their sets published outtakes, false starts and similar, which can beam one quite into what happened. But also in final performances it’s interesting when small mistakes remained in the take, which was chosen over other takes without those flaws…why?…because the rest of the track was musically superior.

    Also in classical I love the more imperfect but emotional playing of a Horowitz compared to not only several perfect Chinese artists.

  6. By striving for perfection, we are assuming that we know what perfection is. I, personally, do not believe it does exist. That is what makes nature, human or otherwise, so beautifully diverse and interesting.

  7. There was a shift in production with the advent of tools like the Antares Auto-Tune, and while very popular, some of the subtle artistry becomes lost in it.

  8. When digital music became the dominant format and things like Pro Tools came along the ability to “correct” every “mistake” was too much to resist and many went to the dark side of manufactured “perfection”. I am not sure which bothers me more, compression to the point were there is no dynamic range left or every note perfect.

  9. Beautiful imperfection, thy name is Bob Dylan, especially the early years.

    In a 1966 Playboy interview, the late music critic Nat Hentoff painted a picture of the songwriter’s early days in New York City, noting that while no one doubted the young man’s talent, the voice gave some pause. “Some found its flat Midwestern tones gratingly mesmeric; others agreed with a Missouri folk singer who had likened the Dylan sound to that of ‘a dog with his leg caught in barbed wire,’” Hentoff wrote, later adding, “the voice was so harsh and the songs so bitterly scornful of conformity, race prejudice and the mythology of the Cold War that most of his friends couldn’t conceive of Dylan making it big even though folk music was already on the rise.”

    1. “Oh hear this Robert Zimmerman
      I wrote a song for you,
      ’bout a strange young man called Dylan,
      with a voice like sand & glue…” – David Bowie

  10. An artist that I listen to at RMAF one year commented on how different it was to play live for audiophiles. He said that, normally, there is some crowd noise and people reacting to the music as it’s played. At RMAF, he noticed everyone was quiet as a church mouse and then cheered after he was done. It’s was like they were listening at home on their system.

    I found that to be very interesting. We have trained our selves to not just listen more intently, but differently.

  11. When all the little muffs are engineered out of a recording, it often doesn’t sound real anymore. It has a sense of being sterile. It’s too bad when a performer needs a recording engineer to sound like they know what they are doing.

  12. So imperfection on the performance side is good. But the slightest imperfection on the recording playback side isn’t…. No matter how perfectly imperfect the performance.

  13. I agree. I love imperfection. “Gimme Shelter” wouldn’t be the same if they had used a take in which Merry Clayton’s voice didn’t crack. I love the imperfections and looseness of Duane and Eric on the Layla album. I love the heating system making noises on “Mining for Gold.” I love the floor creaking at the beginning of “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts.”

    On the latest Soundkeeper release, “The Twain Shall Meet” by the Cosmic American Derelicts, there are a few imperfections, including a dog barking at the climax of one song. Recording engineer Barry Diament convinced the band to use that take because it had the right feel. It was the best take musically, and I love it when the dog barks.

  14. Kind of like being a father as well.

    A big Happy Fathers Day to all of you who are blessed with the struggles of having kids. 😉

    Lots of love to all you dads out there and I hope you all get to spend time with your audio systems. It is the perfect day to do so and to tell everyone to leave you alone. 🙂

    Cheers all!

  15. I think your post today, Paul, is great! I agree with you! And I agree with those who wrote that the reality of live recordings is part of what makes them wonderful and convincing.

    One of my favorite live jazz vocal recordings of all time is Bill Henderson’s “Send in the Clowns” (Classic Records/Jazz Planet). On this track we can hear glasses clinking, a wine bottle being uncorked in the background, and the air conditioning cycling on. In my opinion such elements of realism contribute to the suspension of disbelief.

    1. That’s a live recording in a Jazz club RonRes which is the norm.You get to recall the feeling of the electricity in the air when you’re in the club as well.

      A studio setting is a very different animal.

  16. When I read Paul’s post, I hoped to find a comment from Cookie Marenco. She did not disappoint. I would suggest giving that woman a regular forum, but I suspect that she makes a larger contribution to our community through her day job.

    When a famous touring chamber ensemble comes to town and performs one of the 2 to 4 programs of classic works that they are performing 4 nights a week on their current tour, one gets the sense that their performance is easy, graceful, divinely inspired and flawless.

    When a group of local professional musicians (or an ad hoc group of touring soloists brought together for a festival) take it upon themselves to work up, over the course of a week, the same piece and present it for the public in an intimate space, there is a different sense, one of far more edge-of-your-seat excitement.

    There is a place for both, I love them both. In my collection of recordings, the arguably over-rehearsed performance will get more play. But this opinion applies to written down classical music, not necessarily to jazz or other genres.

  17. Yes, Paul, yes! Please don’t sterilize the music. We are human, not machines, and music should reflect that fact unless the musical form is intended to sound mechanical.

  18. I bought a CD from a local blues musician (semi pro) and listened once. It was so sterile and bland compared to his live performances. Although not exactly what Paul was talking about, Stevie Ray Vaughn live at Carnegie hall i could do with out the drunks screeming during the quiet moments

  19. It’s not an imperfection if it comes from the musician no more than knots or other differences in wood that occur in nature are imperfections in the wood. It’s what makes something unique.

  20. “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.” ― Miles Davis

  21. It is the imperfections of a singer’s voice that makes them great. Examples: Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Sinatra, Reba, Cher, Knopfler, Ronstadt, Pavarotti, Alan Parsons, Jagger, and Dylan, etc. The Imperfection in their voices sets them apart, makes them unique.
    The best illustration of what you are against is Billie Eilish. I love her finished work, but her music is almost all “comps.”
    Opera singers strive their whole lives to give perfect performances, Billie builds hers. (For an explanation look up on YouTube,”My Next Guest with David Letterman | Billie Eilish on the Layers of ‘Happier Than Ever’.
    For “imperfections” captured in a live performance, listen to “Sinatra Live With The Count Basie Orchestra At The Sands.” You hear glasses, cutlery and plates, coughs; people talking from the live dinner theater audience, and the perfectionist Sinatra slurs a word and miss a note or two!
    I listen to it and love it all, Paul, but in my opinion, Octave Records’ recordings are the finest I’ve ever heard!

  22. The legend tells that at the end of the 20th century “Cheché” was a Uruguayan drummer who had a reputation for being more precise than a metronome.

    That fame was earned once he was recording in a recording studio. The sound engineer had told him that he was playing out of time. And “Cheche” insisted no.

    Then the recording engineer put a mechanical metronome on him (those that are like a wooden pyramid) and showed him that he was out of time.

    So “Cheché” went to his home to look for an electronic metronome and demonstrated that the mechanical metronome in the recording studio was out of adjustment.

    “Cheché” rehearsed for hours at his home with the electronic metronome and when he went to the studio it was like weighing himself with another weighing machine.

    But “Cheche” had a problem. He was too precise, like a machine. He lacked humanity.

  23. Perfection implies an arbiter or standard. As a veteran, and even chair of standards committees in a number of technical fields, the concept of perfection is almost laughable. A common “language” is needed for function to occur. The success of that function is a measure ranging from failure to perfection. The problems start when deciding whether perfection is the maximum achievable or a theoretical result laced with unobtainium.

    When musicians seek to polish out the imperfections, do they mean errors in the recital; or is it the difference in sound they hear from studio equipment versus what they thought they heard themselves play? Given that almost no one will reproduce their own copies of that music in an identical environment, the latter seems nonsensical.

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