Want to hear a really sloppy record? It’s a good song, but the recording’s a mess. The drums consistently drag the rhythm; the bass player isn’t quite sure how his part is supposed to go. If you listen carefully to the end of the second verse (around the 48-second mark in this video), the whole band gets lost for a moment and ends up adding an extra beat by accident.
It is, of course, The Beatles’ “Rain,” as great a rock recording as anyone’s ever made. And it’s full of mistakes, accidents and inconsistencies that would be utterly unacceptable by the pop-music standards of 2009.
Now imagine what would happen if some band of 25-year-olds with radio aspirations wrote and recorded “Rain” today. That take would probably be thrown out, or at least digitally edited to fix the screw-up; even if they played it right, the drum track would get imported into ProTools and snapped back into strict rhythm any time it drifts behind the beat. The lead singer’s wobbly notes, and the not-quite-in-tune bass guitar, would get fixed with AutoTune. The all-over-the-place guitar dynamics would be tightened up with a compressor-limiter. It’d still be a fine song, but the recording would be impossibly boring — as frictionless and dull as the recordings even the best mainstream rock bands often end up making now.
Voices, guitars and drums are really expressive instruments for the same reason that they’re really inexact instruments: Tou can’t coax the same note or beat out of them exactly the same way twice, even if you try. They’re never perfectly in tune, and any number of factors can throw their sound a little bit off. Add that to the fact that, if you’re working with analog tape (as almost all pop musicians did before the mid-’80s), you’re basically stuck with the performance you’ve got, and you end up with recordings that mercilessly document endless errors, small and large.