Performance in the Studio Conference

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Clicks, grids, and asymmetries in Turkish recorded music

I'm glad to see some discussion of clicks happening, they certainly have been a key issue in my research in Turkey. Some of you may know that Turkish folkloric and Ottoman art musics have a stunning variety of metrical structures, with musics that are notated with meters ranging from 2/4 to 120/2 (and nearly every combination in between).

Yusuf Cemal Keskin is widely regarded as the best living performer of the Trabzon-Maçka regional style of kemençe playing, and is very much in demand as a stage, wedding, and private event performer. He's recorded a number of albums, but is better regarded as a live performer. Here's an example of his playing/singing of a song that might accompany a slower horon dance:

If this were to be arranged into an ensemble form and recorded, immediately the first "violence" that would be done to the piece would be to give it a 5/8 time signature. The song (and others like it) don't have any inherent "five-ness" to them; the meter of the song is felt as a two, with one shorter beat followed by a longer beat. But how much longer is the longer beat than the short? If we round the durations up and down we arrive at 2+3, but if you analyze the waveform display of the audio file, we see something different:

Yusuf Cemal Keskin waveform: 5 bars

While the tempo is actually quite consistent throughout, the lengths of the "3s" (long beats) and "2s" (short beats) are not, and moreover the precise ratios change between measures as well. The picture above shows from about 0:01 until 0:07 in the video. In the first measure, the first short beat is slightly "too long," and for several beats the kemençe is "behind" the beat, only catching up in bar 4, with the downbeat to bar 5 coming quite a bit "early" although the next beat (the vertical line to the right of 5.1.00 is "perfectly in time."

What makes this music distinctive is not the 5/8 meter that can be abstracted from this, but rather the ways in which Yusuf Cemal Keskin plays with millisecond-level listener expectations, placing things slightly behind or earlier than what would be expected. Studio recordings – of him or other kemençe players – typically are based around both a click-track and a grid, and lose this entire layer of rhythmic significance. Perhaps tellingly, Keskin is not the best studio kemençeci; Tahsin Terzi and Selim Bölükbaşı are more "sought after" for multitrack recording sessions, in part since they have figured out how to adapt kemençe performance practice so that it lacks these expressive microtimings. From anecdotal evidence, when Keskin has made albums, engineers have typically quantized parts like you see above, as the seductive draw of the DAW's interface informs a user that a musical event is "discrepant" with regards to the unwavering bar/beat grid.

What I've discussed is related to what Charlie Keil terms "participatory discrepancies" or Vijay Iyer terms "expressive microtimings," but I'm not thoroughly comfortable with wholesale adopting either of their theorizations. There is nothing participatory nor discrepant about the timing of Yusuf Cemal Keskin's playing (although certain choices might relate to how audiences participate in terms of dancing along or watching the video). I'm also not convinced by the embodied cognition aspects of Iyer's work – I think it's part of it, but doesn't account for everything happening here, in part since his analysis is largely acultural.

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silent structuring

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Sorry to have been away from this discussion for the past few days.  I think the way in which the problem of the click track has been situated within a much larger set of practices, including multitracking, cut-and-paste operations, etc., is very productive.  In some ways, it takes the heat off the click as an isolated issue (but, still, the click track’s association with the metronome and the long history of attitudes for and against its use makes it something of a special case). 

I especially like Anne’s characterization of the groove as a set of layers, the click being just one possible layer.  For me (and as Anne also suggests) the precision afforded by the click is also a kind of “feel” – a feel that may be more suited to some genres than others.  But what is also interesting to me is the way in which the click itself is, ultimately, a layer that is later removed from the sounding groove and only manifests itself in the structuring impact it has had on other layers. 

This places the click within the mutlitracking process as a temporarily sounding, structuring element.  The click is not unique in this role – it’s a role that’s not unlike that of the vocal guide track mentioned by Rob in relation to Dunn; but Dunn’s problem is with having or not having a guide.  In most sessions, the guide track is typically removed and replaced by a permanent, more nuanced vocal.  But this can go beyond simple polish and nuance: I know of some sessions where the final vocal track was distinctly different from the initial guide in its accent patterns and phrasing.  In case like this, the performance of the rhythm section is, in part, based around the members’ response to a musical layer that is not present as part of the final musical texture; and in its turn, the final, sounding vocal may change in response to the layer contributed by the rhythm section (and other players).  So perhaps multitracking can be thought of as a structuring process that employs both sound (recorded) and silent / silenced (unrecorded) elements. 

To some degree, every contributor to a multitrack session works within the realm of the virtual – they can only imagine what the rest of the track will eventually sound like; but the rhythm section occupies a peculiar place even within this process because its members work under a special set of unique (and often temporary) contingencies.  

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To click or not to click

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Thanks for all the interesting posts! And apologies for throwing in the feel issue in the middle of an ongoing discussion. However, suddenly it struck me that there are some connections between the issue of feel and the big question of click. Let me explain:  

I think using click affects the session in profound ways that go way beyond its role as timekeeper, and also beyond discussions of man-machine relationship for that matter.  If one sees groove as a conversation between different layers of rhythm (as I have suggested in my book on funk) using click means to add a layer of very precisely timed quarters to the rhythmic fabric. And as any other new rhythmic figure that is being introduced to a groove, it starts affecting the whole. If the groove is "deep" and open, the introduction of the combination of accurately timed quarters and point-like sounds of a metronome or another sharp percussive instrument can be highly problematic. Whether this metronome-like rhythmic layer is played by a wo/man or a machine is perhaps not that important. A human would, however, in contrast to the machine, most likely feel uneasy when doing it and therefore stop!

In other words, accurately timed quarters made with an instrument with a point-like sound do not fit well with all grooves, and clicks may thus change the feel of the groove in unwanted directions. In some genres, however, such as electronic dance music, the tight, accurate feel of a click would be highly appropriate and represent an element that draws the feel in the right direction. So yes, the decision of how to record or produce the groove (with or without a click, with or without machines) is a question of musical genre (in addition to logistics, of course).

Then, there is the question of tempo fluctuations. The machine is not able to adjust to unplanned changes in tempo. Sometimes they are unwanted, but sometimes they actually are of the good. In Afro-Cuban music, for example, tempo always increases during the montuno and this is – according to the experts – how it should be. In these cases recording with a click is of course highly problematic. 

Paul asks for examples where click provides something to the session that is unique to this technology. Here, I think there might be an unexplored potential in the metronome's lacking ability to interact with 'fellow' musicians. As shown in several of the analyses in the collection that I have edited called Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction (mentioned by Paul in his post), the insensitivity of the machine can be used to produce entirely new feels that would have been very difficult to create with musicians. 




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Rhythm Sections

Alan Williams raises the issue of what kinds of differences can intimate knowledge between rhythm section players bring to a session. I know from my work with the rhythm section at  Stax Records that rhythm guitarist Steve Cropper and drummer Al Jackson developed a way of playing where they would delay the back beat creating deliberate asymmetry between the placement of the four beats in a bar. This stood in stark contrast to the approach of the Motown rhythm section and is certainly a key component of th so-called "Stax sound." I doubt that this would have been easily attained, let alone maintained, over dozens of recording sessions for several years if these two players were not working with each other on a daily basis.

Paul Theberge brought up a number of questions with regard to click tracks. We can go further and ask what effect does the tracking of a rhythm section without a vocalist have on the final recording? Bassist Duck Dunn was used to cutting at Stax with the vocalist recording at the same time. He told me that when he moved out to Los Angeles in the 1970s and started doing tracking sessions it forced him to change the very nature of his bass lines. At Stax he would develop lines that complimented the vocal part both in terms of note placement (making sure he played around the vocal line) and pitch content (he often tried to create contrapuntal lines that related to the vocal melody). In Los Angeles, he was reduced to marking chord changes and was much more limitedwith regard to what kinds of grooves he might play. 


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What is groove? What is feel?

When asked: “How do you know when you have arrived at ‘groove’?”, drummer Chris Taylor of the Performance in the Studio (PitS) recording session answers: “Oh, you feel it. Definitely, it’s a feeling thing, you know … how can I express that in another way...?” (Chris Taylor – Drums 1,, 19:00 – 19:15) 

In a paper posted in the Ideas section of this conference I show that it is in fact possible to capture aspects of feel through analysis. However, at the same time, what we can learn from the PitS session is - among other things - that referring to analyses or using an analytical language during the process of recording a groove, is neither necessary nor very helpful in order to nurture the production of feel. We may learn from analyses before and after. However, when actually in the situation, when supposed to produce the feel, it’s not something that you think about, it is something that you do. And the only indication as to whether you actually succeed in producing it, is a bodily sensation: I feel that I feel ‘the feel’.


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