The perfect mistake

January 27, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

The perfect musical rendition is one that captures our soul and connects us in a way only music can.

Which means, of course, that the perfect performance—one without any flaws, note-for-note true to the score—may not be perfect. Not if it doesn’t connect with us.

Often, the perfect performance is one with just the right number of imperfections: the emotional slip of a note, exaggerated vibrato, the extended hold on a note. Those imperfections are what make it work.

The perfect mistake happens when all the elements together (including just the right imperfections) is what connects us to music.

Perfection equals connection.

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29 comments on “The perfect mistake”

  1. I could not agree more. My favorite albums were always live, and I recorded over 750 concerts following my mantra:


    These are a near coincident mic pair straight to DSF, zero knob recordings. They can’t be processed because you can’t do math on one bit. Any incidental noises are forensic evidence that this was a real musical event, on a specific date and time surrounded by a spinning world full of human events. (Sonoma is cheating, it decimates so you can add distortion engineering to music).

    I stopped listening to studio productions which are spliced, overdubbed, mixed, mastered, equalized, compressed, limited, gated, and reverbed. I can hear every knob, plug-in and process and they all sound worse than the un-corrected raw signal. I can even hear the INTENTION to splice and overdub because it changes the musicians’ state of mind for the worse. The only possible upgrades are taking away all headphones and giving them a live audience.

    I keep telling even conservatory trained score slaves that music is what happens while you are reading a score. My favorite music is “spontaneous composition”, also called ‘free improvisation’, music that emerges from the void with no pre-conceptions or rules. One person starts, and then others join in when it sounds right. This seems to work best with either musicians who have a long history of playing together, or ones who met for the first time on the stage before they start.

    I have even had the experience of musicians waiting for the right instant to start playing, and then having incidental noises fit in the musical fabric like they were planned. This gives me goose bumps, and the other people in the room feel it too.

  2. I think Paul is conflating imperfection with interpretation. I doubt professional performers that I see have any issue with getting the notes or dance steps correct. It is assumed that they have those all sown up before they even start rehearsals. We choose different classical performers because we get their personal interpretation. It is no greater than in ballet, where personal physique also has a massive impact. People like us go and see the same ballets year after year, for decades, not to experience perfection (don’t know what that is), but to see a unique performance every time.

    One of the problems with recorded music is that it sounds the same every time you play it, so it usually has neither the emotion of anticipation or uniqueness of a live performance.

      1. Apparently Lola can play all the notes in the right order, but what she conveys in doing so is anyone’s guess.

        Went with the Mrs to see Laura Mvula and friends a while back. There’s a classy lady, drop dead gorgeous (and knows it), who can also play the notes in the right order and a powerhouse voice that connects with the inner me every time.

  3. Perfect measurements?
    Just kidding folks 😉

    Paul has his favourite bass note(s)…Boz Scaggs – ‘Thank You’ has been mentioned a few times.
    And I’m certain that most of us here have our own chosen, long-time ‘bass note reference(s)’.
    Mine is near the end of Rick Wakeman’s track, ‘Merlin’; it is the track & the bass notes that impressed me when I was 16yo listening to a pair of Celestion floorstanding Studio Monitors for the first time…my youthful six-pack vibrated; & this was pre home-audio subwoofers.

    I played that track today for the first time through my 8 week old DeVore Fidelity O/93’s & I was surprised that that same note was audible & so feelable…straight away it gave me goosebumps all over my arms, shoulders, torso & legs.
    “Man!” I thought, “how does John DeVore do it, with a mediun/small wooden cabinet weighing only 45lbs & a ten inch paper cone driver? It’s a miracle!” 😮
    It was the perfect performance from a well tuned but imperfect concoction of metals & wood-pulp.

    What a piece of work is man,
    how noble in reason,
    how infinite in faculty,
    yada, yada, yada…
    you know the rest…

    1. Yes, just the right section of a song will sometimes give my the full body goosebumps, but usually just up top – where the hair used to be.
      Truth be known sometimes even this strange liquid will ooze out my eyes… strange – it must be scotch…

      I read an article that theorizes the music/goosebump is a dopamine rush caused from your actual ‘anticipation’ of that part of the music. I’m not entirely convinced as I’ve experienced it before on the first listen of some songs…
      Example – Highasakite’s “Under The Sun” (Tidal) When that bass section kicks in, those geese are bumping right from my toes & up the spine; ending up tingling like my scalp OD’d on Selsun Blue shampoo!
      Sorry Mr. Rat, you really need a healthy Sub for that track…. but try it on your DeVores!
      The track is on Tidal, yet I can’t seem to find where I can purchase this album…
      I’d love to hear that track thru Paul’s IRS room.
      (Check it out Paul & lemme know!!)

  4. At some of My Home Meetings for member guests of Melbourne Audio Club inc choosing a program in advance frequently is strongly represented with magic tracks, recorded in front of a live audience.

    Typically the Keith Jarrett Trio. Live at the Blue Note.: Autumn Leaves. 26 minutes of sublime communications.

    1. His music is unreal! One of the performers I can listen to for hours.
      His trio is magic.
      The blue note is a special place to me.
      Crowded , close to stage, and of course live ! However, listening at home is comfortable, relaxing and enjoyable. Last time I was at The Blue Note I got a “legal” parking spot in front of the cafe! Now that’s music!
      I recall once we were at the Blue Note
      To here a tribute to Joe Henderson by a group with Conrad Herwig on trombone. Great performance.
      Nice memory especially the legal parking spot!

      1. The gift of introducing new music.
        I’m glad.
        Have a look for Jessica Williams jazz piano.
        In her live concerts “…and if it isn’t happening, I will stop and begin again.”

  5. “ The perfect performance, without any flaws, note-for-note true to the score—may not be perfect. Not if it doesn’t connect with us.”

    In one word “Jazz”.

    1. Jazz- how can you not like it!
      Pure improvisational experience!

      There is a very talented person
      Danny Mixon who performs all over but mainly in NYC. I would listen to him at The Garage in NYC- The Garage no longer exists. If you can find his live performance it’s a treat – he has a few CDs out.
      I was at The Garage just before it’s closing-sad to see it go!

  6. Musicians know the performance is never perfect. They are able to cope with the imperfection; it’s a moving target in their quest for the next level. If perfection happens, it’s a fleeting moment.

    For the audiophile, can you put up with the imperfection of your audio system (on your own quest for the next level) to settle in to the musical performance? Or are we left to cope with our own listening imperfections, listening to imperfect performances with our imperfect audio systems?

    Imperfection cubed.

    1. Music comes from fingers, lips, lungs, and heart. It carries the rhythms of heartbeat and breath, and of background neural circuitry processing quotidian sensory inputs as well as deep, life-long thoughts. The so-called ‘imperfections’ of musical performance are the essence of expression and communications.

      OTOH, acoustics, electronics, and electro-acoustics have nothing human to say, and perfection in the transparency of the transmission from fingers and lips to ears is an absolute goal, inducing direct heart to heart linkage. Musicians synchronize breath and heartbeat, and when the performance is compelling that is picked up and mirrored by the audience. That is why you need listening hearts in the room to get the best performance and reach the state of group euphoria that is the goal of everyone who has experienced it.

      Yes, there are ‘recording artists’ who manage to reach through the murky universal distortions of audio and the even more obscuring heavy-handed production techniques like mixing and mastering that come between our ears and the universal truths and healing potential of the highest art – but they learn to do that on stage in front of an audience, or at the least in an audience in front of master musicians.

      My experience is that the better the stage acoustics are tuned to the orchestration and program, the better musical connection amongst the players and to the audience, and the performance expands in a virtuous circle that is evident in recordings.

      Perturbations in the audio chain and the listening room acoustics can’t improve on the original experience, unless the performance or capture is incompetent. If the sound needs equalization, that should be accomplished acoustically. If it needs compression, use acoustic compression. If you want ‘spatialization’, use the stage layout and room reverb. If you need MORE reverb, amplify the room (electro-acoustic reverb). Get the sound perfect for the musicians and audience, and then CAPTURE THAT SOUND.

      If your consumers are using two speakers, then use two microphones, and find the perfect place for them for that performance (acoustic sound check).

      There is a reason why we gather for births, marriages, funerals, and music – tears are meant to be shared, and in equal measure for joy and sadness.

  7. A million years ago when I got my Korg M1 keyboard, I was experimenting, laying down some tracks, drums & such. Let’s try this QUANTIZE function….(fixes your timing flaws and makes it perfect).
    Ok, punching drums on a keyboard is a fine art, mine was pretty sloppy at times, but it still sounded WAY better than the quantized result. Soun…ded…ver…y……ic. Horrible.
    Kinda like autotune…

    Uh-oh…. 3rd coffee wrant…. (SHOULD be a word – like a rant, but with more conviction)

    Autotune. Autotune is like plastic surgery, when done delicately and strategically it can really correct minor flaws or enhance features. But in both cases they are getting WAY overused until the outcome is a laughable hideous mess. Loose lips sink ships but THOSE monstrous butt-fat injected lips & hips won’t even fit through your state room cabin door! When you get the + 250% lip treatment, does it come with a lifetime supply of involuntary slobber rags? “Smile!!!” “I AM schmiling!” And tush implants?? Really? Is this because you’ve sucked out so much of your butt bung to syringe into your lips that your posterior has become flat and deflated? Butt implants… Good GAWWD!! What the bajeezus is wrong with people. Yeesh!

    Sorry folks… I can’t help it…
    I haven’t talked to a human in about 23 months….

  8. Paul’s post should be a plea to the inventors of ‘Auto Tune.”

    I honestly don’t like a lot of modern production, especially with drums. They don’t sound real. Being overly slick has its disadvantages, especially to the audio purists.

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