Back in the 80’s one of my flatmates worked for a high end audio store. He would sell Linn turntables and similar for what seemed like an absolute fortune. The payoff for our house was that we got to try out some great speaker / amplifier combinations of all things audio.

In those stores the sales staff used to have what they called reference music. A vinyl or CD of something they considered to be exceptionally well recorded and technically able to show off all of the nuances of any sound system. So of course Steely Dan was a perennial favourite on those tester albums.

China Crisis came out with an album called Flaunt the Imperfection in 1985 produced by none other than Walter Becker of Steely Dan and so that album became part of my music collection. I always thought that the title referred to the essence of musicality that are – the imperfections. Ironically imperfections on an album produced by Walter Becker who is /was famous for over production is a memorable ambiguity. I liked that idea and I still have the album.

What makes music so vital to many of us is the human connection. When you go to see a live performance you don’t really expect that the vocals will sound the same as they did decades ago. Part of the joy of live music is the time travel aspect of it all. The reference points are more than likely what was happening in your life when you first listened to those songs.

A month or two back I was at a live music performance by Hello Sailor and Dragon. Two of New Zealand’s ancient bands from the 70’s on a kind of 50th anniversary tour. In Hello Sailor the two most famous founders Graham and Dave are long deceased but somehow the two surviving members Rick Ball and Harry Lyon were more than capable of delivering the memories and the songs. My point is even without two irreplaceable founders the show went on and may have even been better given some of the drama of real life.

I’m not really a fan of Hello Sailor or Dragon but both of them have written some great songs that are reference points for many. After 50 years it is the songs and the memories that hold it all together. The audience was quite grey ( myself included) and it was amusing seeing old people (just like me) trying to get their moves on dancing in their chairs.

The last song of the set was Blue Lady. An audience sing along but I know what a blue lady is and so couldn’t sing along to that. But once again that song is just a song to many and has no literal context for them. On the other hand at least three members of Dragon died from drug use and there is only one original member left in that band. Todd who is 73 plays a Steinburger stick bass and looks like he is having a great time. Mark Williams on lead vocals* is the same vintage and is a fit 69 year old. He was energetic and the live concert for both of them was just great because of the memories and the songs which are bigger than the individuals. *Photos and video taken by me on my phone.

Over on Rick Beato’s channel is story about how AI prompted music using a programme called Udio is going to be a serious challenge to many. Depending on your hearing ( and probably age) you might be able to tell the difference between AI generated music or not. I suspect that many of the people on Ricks channel are music obsessives like me. That is music is a bigger part of our lives than for most.

On the other hand for some people music is just a digital library and the equivalent of wallpaper that you can access for free. So maybe it doesn’t matter (to them) as much if the music is processed or generated based on stealing the back catalogue or decades of music ( training material to feed the LLM’s.)

However where it gets very tricky is when a live show now costs hundreds of dollars and you are not even sure if it is live any more. Fil from Wings of Pegasus has a story about the Eagles song Desperado being mimed to live in concert. There is no doubt that getting a good sound live is an extreme challenge but I’d rather hear the unique performance of whatever happens on that night. The randomness and imperfections are what makes it real. But if you are paying really steep prices for a live show what do you want to hear?

Do you want to hear a few bum notes and odd sounds? or do you want to hear the note perfect rendition of what you heard when that song was first on your turntable etc.? It is a tough choice but auto tuning and pitch correction in a live situation is not ideal at all in my view.

Fil uses some pitch analyser software to review vocal performances. In a real un-mediated performance vocals especially float around, over and above the actual notes because of vibrato. A human vocalist needs to breathe and this is partly what you are hearing. A kind of wobble in the voice but a pleasing effect most of the time. When we listen to live music we often hear the imperfections but our musical brain quite possibly experiences something else which is partly the audio but also very much so the shared experience of being live at a show with your friends.

In my view AI will be used to generate the equivalent of samizdat muzak but it is an audio pastiche and is missing the real essence of life. It is an audio simulation. Part of the reason that it will be OK for many musical contexts though is that for years commercial music releases have used pitch correction and auto-tune as well as over production techniques. It is only older folks who have old records at home and can still listen to them on turntables and other non digital playback devices.

P.S While writing this post I am listening to the album Highway 61 Revisited. In particular the song Desolation Row from 1965. Despite having had various copies of the album for a long time I forgot the liner notes are just a word salad that was a bit of fun for Bob at the time. My theory is that the absolute best songs articulate ideas that cannot be understood on a simple technical level.

Bob Dylan launched a million arguments about his song lyrics in the old days and it didn’t matter. What was he on about? Does it even matter? It is 2024 and I’m still listening. Part of the reason its this song is because The War of Drugs last album has a line about going to a concert and dancing to Desolation Row. What is that about?

I reckon it is a celebration of life in all its messiness and imperfections and AI can’t touch this. As Dylan said “Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is do you Mr Jones?”


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