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The METAlliance Report: Grid Versus Groove

The art of recording multiple instruments together in a room is becoming a dying art.

Forty years ago in 1980, when I was just starting my career as an engineer, thinking about the year 2020 conjured up all kinds of fantasies. By then, we’d be in flying cars, the world would have conquered pollution, poverty and privilege, and we’d be enjoying a prosperity of unimagined proportions.

Well, we didn’t get most of those things. In fact, we didn’t even come close. But those of us lucky enough to have chosen music for their profession did receive some incredible benefits by 2020. Among those were the ability to record almost anything with incredible fidelity, anywhere, and for a fraction of the time, money and preparation it would have cost in 1980.

But as with all new things, there was some bad news along with the good: The art of recording multiple instruments together in a room is becoming a dying art. More and more recordings today are done piecemeal, one track at a time. What we gain in control is offset by the lack of the synergistic communication of musicians melding minds through the language of music in real time. That’s the “groove.”

Recording on a grid is standard operating procedure today. This makes it easy to overdub, edit and manipulate tracks in a way unheard of back in the 20th century—but at what cost?

Many students I work with today are brilliant on their DAWs of choice. I have heard works of incredible creativity and virtuosity from students at USC Thornton, Berklee and UMass. I’ve heard beauty and inventiveness from young musicians in the United States, Mexico, Colombia, France, Italy, Japan and Russia. These students have encouraged me to believe that as derivative as pop music has become, there is real hope for true creativity in the future.

Detroit’s Historic United Sound Systems Recording Studios for Sale, by Clive Young, June 15, 2018

But as optimistic as I am, I can see a real danger lurking. Many of these students, as brilliant as they may be, have little or no sense of groove. For many of them, if it’s on the grid, it grooves, but for those of us brought up in the heyday of Motown and Stax, today’s grooves are facsimiles of true artistic grooves. All one has to do is take a computer-driven groove from today’s music and compare it to “Dancin’ in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas, or Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” or Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

Music Radar: Motown Session Giant James Jamerson, by Roger Newell, Oct. 26, 2011

Mix: When Sessions Reigned Supreme–The Players, Studios from L.A.’s Golden Age, by Robyn Flans, Oct. 1, 2014

Were you to place those tracks on a grid and retime everything to fit into a fixed bpm, you would no doubt hear the difference a great groove makes. Understanding what makes a great groove is more or less second nature to us old timers, but it’s not so easy if you haven’t been brought up in an age before the click track.

When you record a song with a band in a room, there is a palpable energy that happens when the groove is right. It’s not ephemeral; it’s easily recognizable by everyone in the session. Suddenly and spontaneously, at the end of a great take, everyone looks at each other, smiles and high-fives. You can feel the temperature in the room rise. The vibe is pure joy.

When a drummer plays to a click—and some are phenomenally good at it—as great as the track may be, there is often a point where the energy deflates in ways that you don’t experience with a great track that “breathes.”

As an example, let’s say the band goes to the pre-chorus and the communication among everyone is euphoric. As that energy makes its way through each musician, there may be a tendency to increase the bpm ever so slightly. As everyone is communicating that movement in real time, the entire band adjusts and the excitement builds. Just before the chorus enters, the drummer provides a stellar fill that actually slows the track down momentarily and creates a tension point that, a few beats later, upon the downbeat of the chorus, is released and once again, the band follows his/her lead. Groove, tension, release, exhilaration.

Rolling Stone: Ray Charles Strikes Accidental Gold with ‘What’d I Say,’ by Brendon Kahn, June 7, 2019

However, if the drummer tries that with a click track, a truly unnatural tension develops as he/she slows down the fill, then (very unnaturally) speeds up the first bar of the chorus to get back to the click. As a result, he either needs to refrain from going where his inner musician feels it, or he will find his track being manipulated after the fact to reign him in. Slowing down followed by getting back to the groove is natural and exciting. However, slowing down and then speeding up to get back to the click is not only unnatural, it creates a temporary emotional collapse.

All of this happens at a preconscious level, of course, but preconscious or not, it doesn’t provide the same emotional arc that those tracks from the pre-click era provided. In the ’80s, the three most important elements before you pressed record were tempo, key, and whether or not to click. That third option is rarely discussed anymore. Maybe it’s time that one came back.

Multiple Grammy-winner Frank Filipetti’s credits include Number One singles such as Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “I Don’t Want to Live Without You” (which he also produced), KISS’ “Lick It Up” and The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” He’s worked with acts ranging from Korn and Fuel to Barbra Streisand and Elton John, and has also produced, recorded or mixed albums for Carly Simon, George Michael, Dolly Parton, Rod Stewart, Luciano Pavarotti and James Taylor, among many others.

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Pro Sound News. METAlliance Report is a monthly column in which members of the METAlliance discuss topics of interest to audio professionals.