The live drummer is an endangered species in much of today’s popular music. Modern post-production makes it supremely easy to substitute programmed drums for an imperfect human performance, or even to buff out errors from a live take. Increasingly, a good drummer is simply an afterthought for producers.
But this trend is definitively misguided. Recent scientific studies show there are certain aspects of human-created rhythm that machines cannot replicate, or can only replicate poorly. These tiny imperfections are exactly what draw us to a real human drum player. Live drummers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Listeners crave imperfection.
Even the most professional and seasoned drummers cannot keep time like a drum machine. They fluctuate slightly when attempting to play along to a steady, metronomic beat. But these variations are actually extremely pleasing to the ear.
“The offsets are typically small, perhaps 10 to 20 [milliseconds],” wrote researcher Holger Hennig in a 2012 Physics Today article. “That’s less than the time it takes for a dragonfly to flap its wings, but you can tell the difference in the music.”
Many electronic music programs understand these principles and feature “humanizing” — aka “randomizing” — functions to help producers add imperfections back into the music. It turns out that human beat variation is not entirely random. In 2011, Hennig’s team had looked carefully at the timing of a professional drummer and found that while his hits shifted ahead and behind the beat, they shifted according to a set pattern. Not only that, the highly precise patterns lasted for minutes. “It is as if the human brain has an enduring memory for those deviations,” wrote the team in Physics Today.
These kinds of long-range rhythmic variations have been used to great effect by some of our culture’s greatest drummers. Questlove purposefully drags way behind the beat on D’Angelo’s neo-soul albums, to give that music its “drunk-sounding” swagger. Tony Williams, Miles Davis’ virtuosic 19-year-old drummer in his late ’60s quintet, was famous for his ability to “speed up” the beat by pushing just slightly ahead of the rhythm.
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Science Shows Why Drum Machines Will Never Replace Live Drummers – Mic