News may filter through Boing Boing, Slashdot, and Reddit – and certainly, this story already has. But oddly, I learned of this item when I happened to meet up with the blog item’s author in Somerville, Massachusetts. He has digital analysis he believes may prove that a track was recorded to a click track.

Paul Lamere is a developer at Echo Nest, a brainy think-tank of music geeks developing new ways of processing musical metadata in the cloud. Whereas services like Last.fm focus mainly on content and community, Echo Nest’s API wants to make the computers in the cloud smarter about how they listen to your music. We’ve had a look at their work twice before:

All Christmas Music, Boiled Down to Sixteen Droning Singles
Musical Brain API: An API for Music on the Web – And it Makes Pretty Pictures

The Remix API crunches data about rhythmic information at a number of levels. Since we first saw it, that API has led to an SDK (read: something you can program more directly), all assembled in Python. The Python-based SDK is now capable of creating the world’s most unlistenable mash-ups, among other things – some oddly compelling. On Friday, I got to listen to tunes with every other eighth note removed and Michael Jackson crossed with tunes – that is, until the programmers in the office started to complain because they were about to lose their mind. (Echo Nest uses a Sonos system to pipe music office-wide. I hope we can give you a preview of those clips soon.)

Remix SDK (currently Python)

But perhaps the most interesting thing this team has done so far is Paul’s work on plotting rhythmic analysis. Plots of tempo deviation, measured in beat durations, yield two interesting revelations:

In search of the click track [Music Machinery]

1. Much of the music you know has a lot of rhythmic variation. (Dizzy Miss Lizzie by the Beatles, anyone? No Ringo Starr jokes, please.)

2. A lot of the other music has disturbingly little rhythmic variation.

As rhythmically flat as GarageBand: Britney Spears, right. (Beatles at left.)

Yes, indeed, the use of click tracks (and, I suspect, metronomes, drum machines, quantized loops, and the whole lot) seems to be sucking some of the rhythmic spice out of music. You’ve already heard complaints about the “loudness wars” that have quantized out dynamic range. But, after decades of drum machines and digital tech, there’s surprisingly little complaint about quantized rhythmic values. Okay, perhaps I should scratch that – some people complain an awful lot. What we haven’t had until now is a visual representation of what’s going on.

Note/update: Just for the record, I’m not opposed to quantized beats. We’re very big fans of techno around here. The post Paul wrote begins, “Sometime in the last 10 or 20 years, rock drumming has changed.” Note, rock drumming. I think there are all sorts of rhythmic possibilities in different musical expressions.

I could go on, but I’m not having a very smart day. (The evening pot of coffee is on; I have high hopes.) Instead, I’m curious what people think of Paul’s methodology. This was just a programmer working along a line of thought with some experimental code, so I’m sure he doesn’t claim this to be an entirely scientific method. But that said, do you think his conclusions are correct? Is there more to be said about this subject?

For that matter, would there be a way to do more scientific work along these lines?

As for the engine that powered this: the Remix API and SDK from Echo Nest should be capable of quite a lot more, from gorgeous animated visualizations like the album art for Matmos we saw last year to unusual, new collaborative Web remix apps. The one catch is the analysis must be performed on their servers, so it’s not something you can apply without sending your content to the cloud – but you do get the metadata back, so I still think some sort of self-remixing applications might be possible, too. I’m eager to see a Java version of the SDK and not just Python, because that’d make it easier to add 3D elements or work with tools like Processing. Can I get an amen?

Well worth checking out Paul’s blog for lots of commentary on a variety of musical enthusiast topics:
Music Machinery

  • Mattbot

    So when will my DAW get rhythmic variation automation and rhythmic variation wavetables? This could be the new swing for funking up Euclidean polyrhythms!

  • http://tomdavenport.co.uk Tom Davenport

    A case for giving your tempo maps consideration. Unless you have a great drummer to hand.

  • http://tomdavenport.co.uk Tom Davenport

    By the way, long ago I had an idea to solve exactly what Mattbot is requesting.

    If any smart musical programmers and/or interface designers want to know and work on it with me, please get in touch.

  • http://www.badmindtime.com SkyRon

    ho hum. the robot vs. human drummer issue was laid to rest in 1984. devo's drummer out-drum-machined anything roland has ever made.

    we all just need to re-read donna haraway's brilliant 'cyborg manifesto' (from the waning days of the last century – -1992 I think) and move on. nothing to see here.

    and, p.s., "a lot of other music has disturbingly little rhythmic variation": what has more rhythmic variation, 99% of pop music in 4/4 time, or, say, Les Noces or the Boulez Second Piano Sonata or almost anything by Elliot Carter after 1950? Just sayin' . . . .

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @SkyRon: Well, you know, I'm not exactly anti-technology. (Ahem!)

    What's interesting to me is that some of the things you'd expect to be regular have such dramatic changes in them.

    And for all the reasons you say, you know, it should be possible to make music with machines that have all kinds of interesting variation — even to imagine things you may not be able to play. And that's a good thing.

    So to me, part of the interesting question isn't whether the click track is bad, but whether these graphs do show something, and what exactly they show.

  • http://www.badmindtime.com SkyRon

    well, graphs never really show anything interesting unless your grapher dood is like, edward tufte.

    you want interesting variations? two words: Conlon. Nancarrow.

  • michel

    i think it helps a lot to realize that a 0.01 second variation (y-axis) means about 2.35 bpm. so there is rhythmic variation in ringo's performance, but i wouldn't call it dramatic (as in big).

    i think for some music, a click track can be appropriate. a lot of pop music is mixed to sound very artificial. everything upfront, the cher effect, etc. so to keep the tempo straight there makes sense. it's a stylistic choice.

    i think nancarrow's player piano pieces would possibly show even less rhythmic variation than garage band ;)

    that's what i think.

  • http://www.badmindtime.com SkyRon

    Ok, well, maybe 'variation' means something else when you have two voices, one accelerating, one decelerating, over 3 or 4 minutes (as in NC's etude 'X').

    Is it just me, or is nobody interested in tempos that change over time? Nevermind, it's just me. . .g'night!

  • Mattbot

    Interesting story: I spoke with drummer Martin Atkins (Pigface, P.i.L., Killing Joke) once about the rhythmic variation in his playing style. He said while playing with Killing Joke, one of the other band members complained that he wasn't keeping a steady tempo and they had a sound engineer record and time his playing. Sure enough, he altered the tempo slightly around the songs structural elements to give them more charge. The engineer told him that was a characteristic of Ringo Starr's drumming style. Atkins was tickled pink by that; he learned to drum by playing along with Beatles records.

    @Tom Davenport I haven't really tried mucking about with automating the tempo in my DAW (Ableton Live 7) but creating number ramps with keypoints based on beats/bars/etc in Max 5 is pretty easy. This sounds like a nice weekend project. What sort of tools are you considering? A Max/PD patch? VST/AU plugin?

  • relaxing

    Wait, are people actually making the argument that not having a steady drummer is desirable?

    You guys remember Ringo is the butt of jokes, right?

    This has nothing to do with loudness wars. It's more about "disco sucks" bigotry.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @relaxing: you might want to read the article before saying this has anything to do with disco. Now, I'm a very big fan of techno, so, please, bring on the robots / pocket calculators, etc.

    For his part, Paul begins his article with "Sometime in the last 10 or 20 years, rock drumming has changed."

    Note, *rock* drumming. And even then, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Stewart Copeland has talked about how they got the early drum effects in The Police, and a lot of them were effects and things being produced mechanically. Ironically, it's after that recording that other drummers started duplicating the effects live, without the use of technology, so a trend in the opposite direction.

    In other words, this has everything to do with recording, which makes the loudness wars metaphor absolutely apt.

    Paul's assertion is that this is more than just a "steady" drummer, that it's a drummer listening to a click. You can be "steady" but modulate tempo.

    I'm not necessarily even accepting that at face value; I'm happy to hear people debate what the graph is saying, and certainly the musical implications.

    And, incidentally, to whatever extent Ringo is the butt of jokes, I think he gets the last laugh as one of the most successful and influential drummers of all time.

  • Mattbot

    @relaxing Although my original comment was somewhat tongue in cheek, I find the idea of feeding machine analysis of a human drummer's "slop" back into a machine drummer interesting. I would also make the argument that being a steady drummer isn't a requirement for producing interesting percussion.

  • Jaime Munarriz

    On the contrary, good rock and pop music SHOULD not be regular. Rythm is an expresive element that musicians use to emphasize the mood of parts in music. A good group always acelerates before the chorus.

    Since the 80's drummers have to learn to follow the click track. And it's hard, because it goes against their own expresiveness.

    Electronic music is fine with a regular beat. However, it can also benefit of some acelerandos, than can help get the audience into the rythm.

    Cheers from 96bpm !

  • Jaime Munarriz

    Tempo tracks exist on almost every DAW.

    You can begin with a normal 120bpm grove, and slowly ramp up to, say, 126bpm. Audience is not going to notice, but they'll uncosciously get more into the rythm.

    Mind it, DJs may hate you music.

  • Jaime Munarriz

    Mattbot, for the Weekend Project, what we need is a [RingoMetro] object!

  • rhowaldt

    i had no idea drums were about rhythm, i thought they were just nice background-noise..

  • Kyran

    No one ever noticed the word "rallentando" on a piece of music paper?

    Modulating the tempo around keyparts of a piece can greatly improve the expressiveness of your playing.

  • http://rpi.edu/~mcdonk/ Kyle McDonald

    We can tell when a drummer makes dramatic changes, but more subtle ones can be hard to hear. I think this makes it seem like anyone playing to a click track must be "hiding" something, which makes it suspicious and "bad".

    You could do the same thing for acapella songs in the pitch domain, and check for use of Autotune. These results would make us equally suspicious.

    But there is no right or wrong here. There is a place for all kinds of music making, and genres like "rock" are always expanding their influences and directions. It's neat to see this insight into which songs take which direction.

  • james

    really glad you covered this, right on the zeitgeist.

    a few months ago, before i switched to live i worked out how to make cubase's tempo track follow the rhythm of something i'd played in. but it took a whole evening (like almost anything does in SX..), then i smoked a joint and forgot how i did it.

    is there an easy way to create a tempo track from something you've played in on ableton live?

    oh and this reminds me of an interview with connie plank (producer of lots of the seminal kraut records) where he talks about hating the metronomic pulse and so using triggers from a human drummer to drive all his sequencers. this was in '69-'74, and somehow it seems harder to pull off now.

    making djs hate you = an admirable objective.

  • http://mmi-music.blogspot.com/ MMI

    Yes, the graphs might show a lack of rhythmic variation.

    As I'm sure everybody reading this blog knows, it is not correct to automatically infer that a click track was used. Or that a click track is inherently bad. Heck, the click track doesn't even need to be a click, could be a kick drum and it could make it all the way to the final mix.

    But as several people noted working to find a way resurrect rhythmic variation does seem a noble goal.

  • http://www.johnpazdan.com JohnPazdan

    When Ringo does (did?) a fill, which usually involves (ed?) a roll around the kit, he would sometimes loose the tempo, speeding up through the fill, as though to get it DONE, over with. I think the graph shows that too. I used to work with a lot of drummers like that, and the band would usually adjust to it.

    I think we are missing a big point here though. It's not so much the tempo plot, it's the reaction of the musicians to each other that makes the groove. The bass player drags a bit here, the djembe player kicks his ass up a notch, the drummer's kick drum splits the difference, etc. It's the interaction, and not a pre calculated plot. I am yapping about live improvised music here, which can also be "dance" music.

    One of the best things about live playing by great musicians is this interaction. When the audience actively listens (and they can do that and be dancing as well, it's not mutually exclusive) they discern this interaction, and get deeper into the expression of the musicians.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @MMI: Right, exactly, I think assuming this is a "click track" per se is probably an oversimplification. And, of course, part of what click tracks can allow you to do is to play more complex rhythms and polyrhythms. Depends on how they're used.

    James: ("making DJs hate you") – ha!

    Well, Live 8's groove extraction is designed to do exactly what you're describing. And I'm sure we could find other techniques, as well.

  • http://microsong.blogspot.com Dan Gillespie

    I know I'm late on this one, but I agree with the concept that how the tempo changes over time is part of what can give music feeling. Most groove extractors in software seem to work on a 1 or 2 bar section of music which isn't really the same thing.

    Sometimes I'll pick a song that has a cool timeline and sync the midi timeline to it in Logic create sort of a template or time arc. From there you can speed to whole thing up or down or change parts of it and start making techno that feels a bit more human.

  • http://www.onar3d.com Ilias B

    One very crucial aspect has not yet been discussed: Editing the recorded sound after the fact to "correct" mistakes. This is done more often than not in commercial recording, there now (to the best of my knowledge) being software to automate the process.

    Can the analysis performed by the articles writer separate this process of "correcting" the recording from having recorded to a click track? I'm guessing not.

    The reason I feel this distinction is important (as a drummer) is that in one case, it is still a fully live performance recorded, with a drummer hearing a click through his headphones, while in the latter case what you hear is in a sense analogous to singing with autotune, ie, a bit of the "soul" is lost.

  • james

    @JohnPazdan – great point, i'd forgotten that a little.

    it's a unique and special thing about bands or groups playing together – the fact that variation is a bidirectional interactive thing. just thinking, because i make music with inanimate objects due to a lack of friends, like every other electronic producer (joke).. is there a way to simulate this?

    i'm thinking a max patch (or whatever) not to make the shaky ringometro object, but to put inbetween the midi and the synths that realises "oh the drummer's sped ahead" and reacts to it like a person would – slightly overcompensating then drifting back. or whatever it is that people do. so then i'll hear that and probably fluctuate myself, and the whole thing'll spiral into the worst sort of sozzled hippy-jam.

    there's something in the way people react to musical timing changes that makes it special isn't there? it's certainly more than the 'coming together' feeling when a dj pulls a slightly out record into sync. time to learn python and stick some jazz through the musicbrain thing.

  • Mattbot

    @Jaime Munarriz Ha, [RingoMetro]! The project has a name!

    @ james Sounds like we need a Echo Nest API call that isolates the bass tempo and so we can plot a new line on the graph. :) [RingoMetro] could drive another [transport] object with a slight delay that sets the tempo for the bass track. CAN in a can!

  • Jaime Munarriz

    [RingoMetro] can have a second input where a [bang] tells a change is coming. Tempo can acelerate and then roll back. It's default value, say 32, will make it fluctuate just before this pattern lenght. And maybe some extra patterns for secondary randomness.

  • Adrian Anders

    I like balance. A little bit of tempo variation creates a more engaging "swing" sound to drums… but when there's too much and I can't anticipate the changes it just feels odd to me.

    My girlfriend LOVES Metal (yes I do realize the irony considering some of my previous remarks on CDM)… especially the complex avant-garde stuff. While I appreciate the technical skill involved with playing rhythmically challenging music I can't really relate to it when I’m listening.

    I guess it comes down to taste. There is no single "right" way to do music (but a whole lot of wrong ways). There is always stagnation when music becomes too homogeneous in one way or another. If we were all playing off beat “natural” sounding music with acoustic instruments again I would be bored as fuck with it. But then again when even Country acts are doing songs with house beats as backing its gone way too far in the other direction.

  • prevolt

    James-

    "is there an easy way to create a tempo track from something you’ve played in on ableton live?"

    Yes. Any clip in the arrange window once warped can use its tempo (however elastic) to drive the entire arrangement. It's the "master" or "slave" button in the clip view. You could give John Lee Hooker's groove to Juan Maclean if you want.

  • james

    @prevolt: ah thanks. i'm a bit of ableton newb, having utterly wasted years of my life on cubase.

    @mattbot: if you make [ringometro] will you post about it here? i'm thinking i might try and build something separate where the master clock comes from a human drummer, and other objects pull the midi for the remaining parts in/out of time in response. it'll be easier once max for live comes out..

  • Mattbot

    @james Sure thing. I'm hoping to get to it on Sunday. Yeah, I'm stoked about M4L too.

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  • Soundsurgeon

    I've been working with recording to a click track with my current band, for which I'm the bass guitarist, and having a hard time doing it with a particular song. We play reggae & African-inspired groove music. We tried a click on quarter notes and on half notes, but the groove was deadening out.

    Then we took a "clave" rhythm on our DB-90 and overlaid it on a quarter-note click, and it felt infinitely better! Apparently I had been playing my bassline in a clave rhythm, but the drummer was playing to the quarter-note rhythm, and a big part of the groove was that interaction.