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K-Pop Double Take: Zion. T And Crush Use Live Musicians To Achieve Something Special On 'Just' [VIDEO]

By Harper Willis | March 18, 2015 03:04 PM EDT


K-Pop Double Take is a weekly review column highlighting recent releases that have yet to receive the attention we feel they deserve.

Zion. T and Crush's new single "Just" from their collaborative project album "Young," is a timely reminder that live instruments still have a place in pop music.

On past releases, both producer-vocalists have straddled the line between organic and processed sounds. Take Crush's 2014 release "Sometimes," which features loads of acoustic instruments, but mostly in the context of sampled loops.

Zion. T takes a similar approach on tracks like "Babay."

But with "Just," released Feb. 2, both artists have totally committed to an organic approach, favoring human performances over programmed beats. Instead of continually introducing new programmed parts to hold the listener's interest, "Just" relies on the simple power and immediacy of select performances by real musicians.

"Just" opens with Zion. T and Crush performing close vocal harmonies supported by melodic R&B changes played on a Fender Rhodes.

Using a real keyboard player instead of programming synth parts seems to be a signature move of both producers. It gives their material an edge over other acts in the same genre. "Just" is no exception. Slight timing variations, tasty fills, musical dynamics, slick harmonic substitutions and a sense of individual style all make it apparent that we're dealing with a human keyboard player not a computer.

When musicians take the place of flawlessly time aligned and dynamically controlled elements synthesized digitally, interesting things start to happen.

Take, for example, the way the keyboard player's straight eighth notes rub slightly with the swing in the beat, creating depth and variation in the time feel. Listen to how the bass player interjects melodic fills in the space between keyboard parts, and how each bass note blooms differently depending on which fret is being played.

Each time the keyboard player plays through a progression, he uses different chord voicings and voice leading techniques, essentially developing an ongoing series of counter melody under the vocals.

There is an immediacy in a real musician playing a part, that's often lacking in purely programmed material. It creates the sense that what's happening musically is a product of a specific moment in time--the musician's mindset, what's going on with the rest of the track, the physical act of playing an instrument.

"Just" also goes to show that introducing human musicians into the K-pop equation can be more effective in keeping a listener interested than the massive amounts of individual tracks that make up so much of pop music in the era of recording on computers. The track demonstrates that embracing a more organic sound doesn't mean that the production can't also be slick, poppy, tight, accessible and commercially successful.

It's tough to say whether the drums on"Just" are played by a real drummer, programmed with enough nuance that they resemble a performance or are a combination of both programming and a live drummer. 

Either way, its important to accept that going forward there will inevitably be some use of MIDI technology in most modern recording. It is part of what makes this era in music unique and exciting. But wouldn't it be to everyone's benefit if pop, R&B and hip-hop allowed some more space for individual musicians to add their magic touch?

While most of the pop world is chasing sonic perfection in the form of artifically-attained perfection, Zion. T and Crush have taken a step back and shown the power of music made by people instead of machines.

Watch the music video for Zion. T and Crush's single "Just" RIGHT HERE

Harper Willis is a Brooklyn, New York-based producer and engineer. He has a passion for recording bands in crazy places, like ski mountains, motorcycle garages and swimming pools.

Tagged :  zion.t, just, crush, young


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