Updated: Apr 19, 2022
Back in the day , late 1970’s to early 2000’s……; Let’s call it 1999 to be safe. There wasn’t any talk of not implementing the quantize processing on a midi sequence. Why is that? Well that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
And by the way; Thanks a million for hanging out for a bit! Much appreciated!
So without anything further:
What’s This Obsession With Loose Timing About?
All I can tell you is that as the 2000’s unfurled there truly was more of an opportunity to share notes on the music making process. It wasn’t long before people started to question publicly why some artist’s beats sounded extra rigid while others were loose and natural. Now that’s an odd word to describe electronic beats. But the conversation was a valid one. So what was the answer?
Swing settings was the first obvious answer. It had to be! How else could a drum machine make a drumbeat sound like a real drummer played it?
Looking back at it now I can truly see why simply deciding not to quantize wasn't the obvious answer”. Especially for those working on machines with mischievous timing habits aka Ensoniq sequencers. Quantizing was just part of life. It wasn’t a question about “To quantize or not to quantize”, it was more like “How tight was the quantize on you’re preferred sequencer?”
Cool. So fast forward to today. Many artists are leaving quantize processing off of their sequences and the music still sounds stiff as a board. As for the beats themselves, they often sound a little bit too contrived. Too overtly wonky. No subtlety. The extreme opposite of a quantized beat. Don’t act like you haven’t heard this for yourself. It’s turned into an obsession. So much so that the extreme end of it has become a style unto itself. I’m not judging. Not one bit. So be it.
The interface of the Akai MPC2000 Classic. The MPC series is one of the greatest sequencers!
You Still Haven’t Solved The Problem
So you’ve noticed that while beats may be stylistically off kilter, they’re still not loose in most cases. Why is this? And how come this wasn’t a problem with loop based music in the 80’s & 90’s? Music had so much innate movement back then!
I’ve got a few observations that I believe account for this and it all stems from the misdirection that the “No Quantize” mantra has blinded us from seeing. When we hyper focus on one aspect of timing, and regard it as the sole solution for the problem of natural sounding electronic beats you inevitably miss out on the reality that there’s more to natural looseness than playing without quantize, or adding swing.
What about the sequence itself? The entire sequence is the container that’s responsible for the activities that occur within it. To add to that; What about the entire song?
“What do you mean Yohance?”
Well if the sequence itself is rigid and razor accurate, then everything else follows suit, even if those notes inside of it are loose and un-quantized. Also, if the song is completely rock steady, what does that do to the way the listener perceives the tempo of the music on a whole?
Well Why Did This Not Happen Prior To The 2000’s?
Here’s a few factors that might give some insight into why sequenced music sounded more fluid in the past.
1. No more turntables or tape; which had inherent playback fluctuations in timing. Digital recordings replicate playback without time variations. Yes, the formats and platforms that we listen to music on now are ruthless at keeping time.
2. Loops were previously cut manually by ear, not measured to perfect lengths as they now are with DAW’s and sample loop packs.
How To Make Machine Music That Has A Natural Feel To It
“Control Time”. This is your best friend! You can control how time rises and falls within a sequence as well as in the entire song. This can be automated intentionally or you can simply manually cut your own loops just like in the good old days. Naturally cut a little to early or a little to late. A little adds up to a lot here.
Tempo automation is one of the most unused (and often inaccessible) items on a sequencer. Skillful use of tempo variations is an amazing tool!
So yes while you can play off the grid, if your loops are dead on and your entire song tempo is tight enough to set your watch by, you’re still going to have music that sounds like somethings missing (if looseness is what you’re after of course).
Is That The Best Thing Though?
I don’t think so and here’s why. The beauty of programed rhythmic percussion is in the reality that it’s so calculated. There’s no way a human can replicate that type of timing. When electronic music really got its foothold in the 80’s that very reality is what really blew me away about it. Electronically sequenced music was so robotic (A theme that was perfect for the 80’s) it was futuristic! It was a glimpse of what was supposed to come in the future. You know the 2000’s (jet packs, flying cars and robots! Lots of robots!!!!)
This is an art form that to date is managed by people. We can choose which techniques to employ or pull back on. That’s what makes us artists. It’s not in the best interest of artistry to avoid things that can be tastefully used to make our music better. Timing, on it’s extreme ends and everything in between ought to be exploited by artists for creative purposes.
Time and the alteration of it is an element of rhythm and is a tool and it’s best when used holistically.
Thanks for reading!
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