Staring into the break of the wave, I mentally prepare myself to maintain stable while in motion. Clean start, clean finish. You have to naturally feel the space and attack the note as if it was always there. Like a painting, you are simply tracing the shapes of your ultimate vision.
“Is that pushing or pulling”?
“I think it’s pushing a bit. It’s right on top”
We are talking rhythm. We are talking time. This is modern magic. Temporal manipulation at the SSL board of Scanhope Studios. Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad is recording a new album. The genre is reggae.
Groove is the most important. It should be natural. Nothing should stick out. Imagine walking on the 10th floor of partially constructed building and realizing that someone left a floorboard out, or even worse, that the foundation was faulty. Reggae music is shaped to provide one with a solid structure for dance/meditation. Each instrument has a symbiotic relationship to the other. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The timeline is created by the hi-hat. This dictates the tempo and the overall feel of the groove. The simple placement of the bass drum on the first or second beat can make all of the difference. The bass notes begin and end in relation to the rhythmic positioning of drums. The guitar chops correlate with the space between the hi-hat and the bass. The organ bubble swallows the beginning and end of the guitar chops, while the tenor guitar drives right through the middle of the bassline, holding a perfect balance of symmetry from start to finish of each note.
Order is being made from chaos. Time and space are the biggest players here. They are your greatest partners in the creation of beautiful rhythmic patterns. They are the great natural forces that are being celebrated.
As a human being, the process can be quite a head trip. If you think about it. The concept of perfect time. Is it simply that? A concept? If we didn’t perceive it, would it exist in the same way? Certainly we scare quick if our heart skips a beat. If the sun refused to rise one day, the first thing we would lose would be our minds. We depend on repetition and regularity. We thrive when rhythmic.
Today is a time of microscopic precision. Time is the last frontier to manipulate. We try to stretch it and shorten it whenever conveniently possible. The invention of the computer has probably been humanity’s greatest achievement in time management. Tasks that took years before, today take hours, sometimes milliseconds.
Joel, the owner and engineer (and honorary Panda) of Scanhope Studios has a giant LG flat screen on the wall above the mixing board. It is mirroring his computer screen, which is hooked up to the mixing board and the tape machine. It is there so that the bands recording are not huddling over his shoulder while he edits. Instead, musicians and producers can sit on a plush couch and monitor his work and make suggestions while staring at the giant time map on the big screen.
Music shows up in waves. It is part of its mystique. With tape, the vibration rattles iron filings, which land in a wave shape on a piece of magnetic film. The tape is rewound, and the peaks and valleys of iron filings repeat themselves out of speakers when you press play. This is where science becomes magic. It is recorded time. Moments. No matter how many times the physics of recorded sound is explained to me, I always walk away simply shaking my head, “MAGIC!”.
And I truly believe that is what it is and should be treated as. In its most basic form, it is time manipulation, one of the greatest human feats ever accomplished. This is the ultimate variable we strive to have control over. Time. Today I can push a plastic rectangle into a slot, and recreate Bob Marley’s Babylon By Bus tour, or at least what they wanted me to hear of it, even though it happened over 30 years ago, before I was born. Magic.
Certainly we take this for granted. There are sound bites hitting us at all angles every day. Out of little speakers at the gas station, satellite radio in our cars, prerecorded baby songs on baby swings. All of it is manipulated time space. A sound is taken from one time and space and moved, at will, to another. Magic.
It blows my mind every time I remember to think about it. We can’t live every moment so deep though. Life goes on. The magic is here to work with. So we work with it.
Enter responsibility. When making music, you are curating a timed sequence, hopefully for others to experience and enjoy. Some styles require more attention to temporal detail. Back in the ’50s, guys used to sit around and listen to recordings of trains on Hi-Fi systems. There was little to worry about time-wise when making those recordings, besides if the train was on schedule or not.
Structured music, not free Jazz or atmospheric sounds, depends on a human to create a timeline; ideally a drummer. Reggae is a style in which that dependency is a bit more particular than most. There is a delegation of space and function. The drum sound is there, and then it is not, and then it is there again, in a pattern which ends up being called a rhythm. The tempo of the drum should be as steady as a heartbeat. So consistent, that unless you focused on it, you would forget it was even happening. Yet, like the heart, it is still the most vital organ to the survival of the groove. Your ability to forget about it is only allowed by its relentless regularity.
We have a great drummer. He is a natural. I have known him since he began playing drums. I have seen him work diligently at becoming a proper reggae player. While it takes years of practice, it initially requires a willingness to submit.
Even the most studied jazz guys that we run into often don’t mess with reggae. The intricate simplicity is daunting to them. It is a different beast of time all together. It is difficult for detailed thinkers to wrap their heads around it. Sometimes it is hard to forget to just surrender to the groove.
Which is precisely what needs to be done. The groove is there. It exists without you in the universe. To play it is only to highlight its presence. One must ride the rhythm of the wave.
You have to pick which one, though, as there are infinite. This is the job of the drummer. Deciding which groove to reveal, which groove will support the greater musical idea, and how can we summon it with purity.
In real life, the pressure is on. Studio time is not cheap. Time away from family is priceless. The drum track you are creating will last an eternity, if and only if, you nail it. It will become the foundation of what might go on to be someone’s favorite song. Your responsibility is to create a succession of moments that will sustain into a sound structure that is an emotional storage space for listeners of the future. Baby-making music. Music for running. Music for grieving. Music for any moment.
All lights are on the drummer. His failure to represent the groove could end up wasting three days of six peoples lives in a Colorado studio.
At this point, one has to decide how deep into time manipulation they are willing to go. Back in the day, if a drummer messed up one hit in a three-minute song, the engineer would break out a razor blade, and precisely move and tape the bad hit into the right place. Think copy paste, but manual. Think white out. Right there, you saved yourself three minutes of having to do the entire take over, with all of the risks associated. Crises averted. The groove can be saved with modern manipulations.
Speed up to 2005, and Giant Panda is in the studio recording our first album. We had never seen digital recording. We had never put our grooves under the microscope of forever. We recorded the first tune, and stepped into the control room.
That is where I really saw it for the first time. The waves. Purple and green and whatever color the engineer had delegated to each track of the Pro Tools session. Like a machine, he was furiously click-clacking away at his computer keyboard. Pieces of the wave started to disappear and reappear all over the screen. After five minutes it looked like someone took a butcher knife to the rhythm.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m lining up all your hits. See like this hi-hat hit here? You want it to hit right when the guitar hits. They are a little bit off, so we are just gonna line them up so they are perfect.”
This is the industry standard. There is very little you will hear on the radio that did not have this treatment. They call it “lining it up” to “the grid”. Beyoncé, Blink 182, Madonna, they are all lined up to the grid. Even Nirvana Nevermind, was one of the first albums ever to be “lined up”. The idea, is to remove the human error from rhythm. You can now see the waves, where each instrument makes a sound, and move them to whatever precise location you desire. This has only gotten more hyper as technology has advanced. No more razor blades and tape. No more going out to lunch so that the engineer can fix a snare hit. With the click of a mouse, it is done.
That was a revelation. The ability to create perfectly rhythmic music. As the engineer lines up the hits, a kaleidoscope of infinite polyrhythms unfolded out of the speakers. It was truly beautiful, to bask in such symmetric perfection.
It also felt wrong, right away. Philosophically, it felt uncomfortable to be less than perfect. Was this cheating? Did our reggae heroes do this?
Absolutely not. Though, we are not sure why. If they could have, they maybe would have. We started to wonder if part of our love for old reggae stems from its rhythmic tension. The inconsistencies, may in fact, make it sound more human. The warbly tape sound, the slightly out of tune guitar, and difficult to decipher bass notes, have all become parts of the style to our ears, but may not have been selected by the artists, as much as they were simply tolerated. Equipment was often hand me downs from British TV studios and churches. The heat and environmental conditions of Jamaica were brutal on most of this gear in the ’70s, and it affected the sounds. As technology progressed and digital made its way into the recording studio, Jamaican music stopped sounding as glitchy as it once did. The aesthetic changed with the progressive evolution of recording science.
Since we have the technology in Ithaca, NY, is it our responsibility to use it? Or will that lead to an aesthetic inaccuracy? Will the music become sterile and void of feeling at its rhythmic perfection?
Time is money. The engineer can sit here for five minutes and make it perfect, or we can try to hit the rhythm live, over and over again, until we feel that the groove is right, after which everybody’s mind will be mush and we will have to wait until the next day for our brains to reset to assess whether or not we actually succeeded on our mission (that is what we did).
One way that drummers try to beat this curse is by using a click track. A click track is a metronome, put in headphones, and delivered to drummers’ ears. It is keeping the beat for them. It is binary and perfect. It does not slow down or speed up, and acts as a reference to the drummer, who is the reference of time to the rest of the band.
Submitting to the click is something that drummers are legendarily resistant to. The classic man verses machine themes are dominant, but the real reason drummers struggle with it is because it is hard. It is difficult to know that you are not perfect. No matter how many years you have practiced, if you have not trained with a click, your only reference of perfect time is yourself. As a breathing, moving, coffee drinking thinking human, your concepts of time are no doubt victim to alternating perceptions.
Chris, Panda drummer, resists the click. Partially philosophically, but ultimately because he knows he has not worked enough with one. The time/money clock at the studio is real, and him being a frugal guy, he always insists that he will lay down a better groove naturally than if he tries to go click perfect. We all agree. We trust him.
We enter the room, strap in, and record our hopeful musical masterpieces with Chris O’Brian as the time master. He clicks his sticks, and the tempo is set.
We usually hit about three takes, before we break and listen to where we are at. The first one was too fast. The second was to slow. The third is….the third just doesn’t groove
So we go back in. He clicks the sticks at where we think the tempo should be. We play it again. And again. And again. Then we break and go listen, to see if it got better. And it didn’t. Or did it?
I take a sip of coffee. Someone takes a hit off of a joint. We listen back to the second take:
“What?! I thought this one was too slow?”
“I don’t know, it sounds pretty solid”
“The beat is gangster. Maybe if we overdub a tambourine it will push the rhythm a bit more a make up for the slowness.”
Tempo is relative. Groove is fundamental. Though it makes a drastic difference if a song is at 110 or 120 beats per minute (bpm), it should always groove. The relationship of when each sound hits in relation to the temp is what makes groove happen. It is a feel. It is much more physical than mental. You have to try to leave your brain out of it and just dance to the music.
I recently watched a two-hour lecture with Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove. He gave a thorough description of his struggle through the years with the click track. To click or not to click. He was against it. Priding himself on his perfect time. Then the other members of The Roots started to complain that their music wasn’t being played in the clubs, or on hip hop radio. They were being treated as outsiders in the world of hip hop, because they were a band and had a live drummer. DJs said that the tracks weren’t lining up and fitting in with their other records. The segue of drum machine to Questlove’s live feel wasnt working for the dancefloor. The tempo fluctuated. Even a minor dip in the tempo will be noticed by a dancing couple.
So Questlove explained how he started to grind with a click. For two months, before the band came into the studio, he sat and recorded perfect rhythms to the grid. He moved things around. He surrendered to the binary, and the beat beyond his heart.
And what a mental mind-fuck that must have been. The infinity of a second, to perceive precise elasticity of multiple subdivisions into a four-bar phrase, is a humbling experience. Scary even. If you don’t want to use the machine, you have to become the machine. You find yourself trapped in a contradiction of intricately delegated spaces pondered possibly by only the human imagination. The very concept of time becomes fictitious and psychedelically surreal, yet its ultimate perfection is what grants you the ticket to where you want to be. In the groove.
The Roots’ albums changed after that. They became an integral part in hip hop’s development. At the time, they were the only black band on a major record label, a departure from the ’70s and ’80s when most record selling bands were black and played instruments. They successfully achieved mainstream recognition without having to fire their drummer.
It was J Dilla, the infamous producer/DJ/beatmaker/artist, who brought the desire of imperfection, back to the mainstream. Questlove went on to record live drums on D’Angelo’s ground breaking classic, Voodoo, simultaneously breaking his dedication to the click. With Dilla’s influence and guidance, Questlove went on to record beats that sounded drunk, staggering far behind the tempo. The style stuck, and changed the way that myself and others thought about time, and bass playing.
What is perfect anyway? Sometimes it’s perfect how off the beat you can be. How far behind can the bass drum can fall from the tempo? We know about this incongruent, asymmetrical beauty from Jazz, and other music made by the African Diaspora and mainland Africans before them. The tempo is relative. A master can thrive in any space of the beat: in the back, at the front, or dead on, wherever they want to be, in a display of rhythmic expression.
While studying the Political Economy of African Diaspora Music at Ithaca College, Professor Naeem Inayatullah discussed the concept of musical styles acting as mirrors to sociopolitical values. Drum music from West Africa is structured as a social activity. Everybody has a role. Most of the parts are simple, and when played together, reveal a sonic mandala of rhythms and melodies. The groove you find yourself moving to is actually a summation of simple parts, creating a complex and beautiful foundation for choreographed dancing and improvisational master drumming.
It takes a village. However, this is not to downplay the degree of order that such a musical structure requires. It is extremely submissive. One is only to play the part that has been given to them. It is patriarchal in that sense. There is little room to innovate and progress through traditional roles. While of course this is a generalization of sorts, the metaphor can be fairly accurate in discussing traditional West African social structures and traditions. Respect your elders, do your part, and do what you are told.
Reggae is an interesting development for that heterogeneous sound ideal that is African derived music. Many percussive instruments were replaced by guitar, bass, keys, and drum set, though they still play mostly rhythmic parts. The guitar chop is the bell pattern. The bass is the balaphone. The kick drum is the gome and the hi-hat is the shaker.
Everyone still has a part, and everyone still has to humbly collaborate rhythmically for the bigger sound to be revealed. These arrangements of sounds are what is vibrating out of your speakers, and shifting your torso from side to side.
American rock music deviates from this ideal a bit. It is rhythmically loose. Everyone has a bit more freedom to deviate from the tempo. The polyrhythms are not so dependent on each other, and usually the electric guitar and the singer take the front role. They are flashy, and often given priority over the rest of the instruments. This is commonly why Americans don’t know what a bass guitar is.
So when the Wailers took their demos of Catch a Fire to London to prime it for the international market, Chris Blackwell and his team rocked up the reggae. They added shredding guitar solos, clavinets, and harmonicas. They eventually changed the name to Bob Marley and the Wailers. The music needed to be more flashy, more individual based, to break through to the white audiences.
We have been influenced by all of those musical mergers. Studios have changed music. The ability to manipulate time and space, overdub and edit, and autotune have moved us into a magical future. Is it safe for our souls?
Through studying reggae, I have wondered if it is actually the perfect music to manipulate. Science has given us the ability to create polyrhythmic perfection for the public to enjoy. Physiologically, the overlapping rhythms create infinite sonic patters of brilliance that work your body like a deep massage. Why wouldn’t you use it?
It is a perfectionists dream. We have the ability to hit each drum once, and record a full album, building rhythms upon rhythms to a grid inside a machine. Apparently, Damien Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock, had drums built entirely on the computer. Fuck me, because it certainly never sounded like it. It sounds like they got the perfect reggae drummer, on the perfect day, to lay down a perfectly human track of rhythmic symmetry.
The best of anything that I have ever been a part of recording has been a mistake. Music is a difficult avenue to dive into with profound intentions and expectations. I have never been a part of a recording experience where we got what we were going for. It turns into something else. It has its own spirit. You are working with it. Sometimes it is dangerous to box it in. With each experience we learn.
Day one of the studio is done. Day two has begun. We are still not using a click. Many hours will be spent deciding if the groove sounds right. Today it might. Tomorrow it might not. I will close my eyes, think about D’Angelo records, and try to ride that wave as if it has always been there, swaying hips with the sound of perfection.