Friday, February 02, 2018

Microtiming jive

Microtiming is a term that gives me hives every time I hear musicians use it. To me it suggests misaligned priorities, a disappearance up one's own rear end, and the resulting degraded musical abilities. The way most drummers use it suggests micro-perfection of execution: metronomic perfection and machine-like accuracy. I've seen other people use it in place of subdividing, because microtiming sounds more cutting-edgy.

What the word actually refers to is deviation from machine-like accuracy— meaning expressive, human rhythm. What it actually is is a theoretical term betraying the cluelessness of the people who made it up.

Consider this horrifying headline:

Towards Machine Learning of Expressive Microtiming in Brazilian Drumming  


In this paper, we propose a new method suitable for the automatic analysis of microtiming played by drummers in jazz recordings. Specifically, we aim to estimate the drummers’ swing ratio in excerpts of jazz recordings taken from the Weimar Jazz Database. 


Where expressive human rhythm comes from is vocal rhythm, body rhythm, and a complex interaction of the human body with a musical instrument via technique to express a rhythm; and the performer's perception of his own sound in interaction with the musical environment via sounds coming through his ear hole. Intention goes in there somewhere, too: what the performer wants to do and believes he should do.

Let's take a common real world example: you grab your guitar and screech are you ready to rock, and begin playing Smoke On The Water windmill style, which you suck at. The drummer joins in and he's twirling his sticks so his backbeats are landing late— basically you can fly the 101st Airborne between the bass drum and snare drum hits that are intended to be in unison. The bass player is blasted out of his mind on a galaxy of uppers, downers, goofballs, and ketamine, and he's hearing everything in radically phase-shifted quintophonic and his execution tonight is a little fluid. He's usually quite meticulous. The singer is dry-humping your Marshall stack and it throws his rhythm off, too. And he's a heavy smoker so he's struggling to breathe. The tamborine player is dead on. The conflicting tolerances are massive, but somehow overall it still sounds pretty cool— I once heard a Melvins bootleg like that.

One could write an equally complex, multi-layered, less fun scenario involving more skilled musicians, or of the evolution of rhythm in most forms of music. But the attitude of the microtiming people is basically yeah yeah yeah just gimme a number. Tell me how to program the machine to simulate that. And that's when drummers will complain about not being able to do it. You see the level of missing-the-boat going on with this whole way of thinking. The music would never have happened in the first place.

So what do we do with this? Stop using buzzwords and stay focused on the real goal: we want to know how to play rhythm to a professional standard, with an expressive and stylistically-correct feel, while playing creatively. The way you do this— in addition to continuing to refine your time, rhythmic understanding, and execution, in all the normal ways— is to develop big ears. Be an active, focused listener when you're playing music and listening to music. Develop some precision in hearing the attacks of your notes, and the attacks of the notes of the other musicians. Do these things and the expressive timing and feel, and the “micro-perfection”will take care of themselves.

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