This is the first in a series of posts, probably four of them, which intends to end with a look at the worship wars. But it begins with an extended look at an aspect of modern recording technology that is simultaneously marvelous and disturbing: the ability to adjust the pitch of a sung note.
I’ve been studying up on an odd social phenomenon lately, namely pitch correction. I’ve known for quite awhile that it existed as a studio technology, but I remember being quite surprised a few years back when I heard Pete Wernick mention that there were now devices that could correct a singer’s pitch in real time, and that they were commonly used in just about all types of pop music performance.
Then last year I was talking with one of Pete’s camp assistants, an accomplished professional musician, about a new bluegrass group, Dailey and Vincent, which was causing quite a stir because of their razor-sharp harmony singing. He told me that he listened to their debut album, all the while thinking that there was something odd about it—and finally he realized that it sounded weird because the producers had gone overboard in applying pitch correction.
But I forgot about both those things until recently, when I stumbled across some articles and internet mentions that described how pervasive the use of pitch correction has become. I began listening more closely to recordings, by famous artists and by local unknowns, and after I learned to detect the sound of it, pitch correction really does seem to be omnipresent. And now I’ve started to wonder what it means, at least culturally.
As I’ve looked around, I’ve discovered that there hasn’t been much written on the subject, and only a bit of what has been written discusses the cultural implications. Mostly the subject has arisen because of a small fad in hip-hop music that uses pitch correction software with extreme settings to give vocals a robotic, synthesizer-like quality. It began with a single recorded by Cher in the late 90s, and has been carried on by various singers. You can read a short version of the story in this Sasha Frere-Jones New Yorker piece; I also recommend this short audio interview with Jones which has examples you can listen to, including a section where an engineer applies various amounts of correction to Jones’s singing.
More interesting, though, than its use as a novelty is its use to improve a singer’s performance, both on recordings and live. To see the Antares autotune program in action, look at the first part of this YouTube tutorial which shows how the pitch of individual vocal phrases can be adjusted. Another program, Melodyne, seems to have an interface that is much easier to grasp intuitively.
(And if you want to see something jaw-dropping, take a look at this demonstration video of a new version of Melodyne, which is able to take a recording of multiple simultaneous notes, e.g. a strummed guitar chord, and break it up into its component notes, each of which can be changed independently.)
This post rounds up ten examples of overblown pitch correction, what the writer calls “autotune abuse,” into a single short mp3 file that is worth listening to. Some of the examples are intentionally obvious, but some (as with the opening Dixie Chicks fragment) are not meant to be noticed.
According to the folks that make the recordings, the use of pitch correction to improve a vocal is standard practice these days.
Of the half a dozen engineers and producers interviewed for this story, none could remember a pop recording session in the past few years when Auto-Tune didn’t make a cameo–and none could think of a singer who would want that fact known. "There’s no shame in fixing a note or two," says Jim Anderson, professor of the Clive Davis department of recorded music at New York University and president of the Audio Engineering Society. "But we’ve gone far beyond that."
Some Auto-Tuning is almost unavoidable. Most contemporary music is composed on Pro Tools, a program that lets musicians and engineers record into a computer and map out songs on a visual grid. You can cut at one point on the grid and paste at another, just as in word-processing, but making sure the cuts match up requires the even pitch that Auto-Tune provides.
"It usually ends up just like plastic surgery," says a Grammy-winning recording engineer. "You haul out Auto-Tune to make one thing better, but then it’s very hard to resist the temptation to spruce up the whole vocal, give everything a little nip-tuck." Like plastic surgery, he adds, more people have had it than you think. "Let’s just say I’ve had Auto-Tune save vocals on everything from Britney Spears to Bollywood cast albums. And every singer now presumes that you’ll just run their voice through the box."
Why would singers not want it known that pitch correction had been used on their singing? The simple answer, I suppose, is that pitch is an important aspect of singing—perhaps the only aspect that is obvious to a non-singer—and so an inability to sing on pitch can be taken as an inability to sing. Neko Case is pretty hard on singers who resort to pitch correction:
Pitchfork: You seem like somebody who would be especially annoyed by the "American Idol"-ization of modern pop.
Case: You mean the horrible singing?
Case: When I think about Jackie Wilson or the Platters and then I think about modern, Top 40 music that’s really horrible, it makes me mad. Singing isn’t important anymore. I’m not a genius– if I had been around during the time of Jackie Wilson or Rosemary Clooney or Patsy Cline, I would be s—. I would be singing in some bar somewhere for $5 a week and that’s as far as I would ever go. But I’m living now and I write songs, it’s different. There’s some part about the craft of singing– craft is too important of a word, I hate that word but I just used it anyway– in a lot of places, it hasn’t really made it. It’s not to do with the people who are doing it as much as the people who are producing it. There’s technology like auto tune and pitch shifting so you don’t have to know how to sing. That s— sounds like s—! It’s like that taste in diet soda, I can taste it– and it makes me sick.
When I hear auto tune on somebody’s voice, I don’t take them seriously. Or you hear somebody like Alicia Keys, who I know is pretty good, and you’ll hear a little bit of auto tune and you’re like, "You’re too good for that. Why would you let them do that to you? Don’t you know what that means?" It’s not an effect like people try to say, it’s for people like Shania Twain who can’t sing. Yet there they are, all over the radio, spewing saccharine all over you. It’s a horrible sound and it’s like, "Shania, spend an extra hour in the studio and you’ll hit the note and it’ll sound fine. Just work on it, it’s not like making a burger!"
Pitchfork: She’s pretty busy making videos though.
Case: It’s rough, I know. She’s so rich she could get somebody else to do the other stuff while she spends that extra hour in the studio. Or Madonna! Just hit the note! Don’t pretend it’s William Orbit being crafty– we know you’re
not hitting the note because you have other stuff to do. You can do it, I have faith in you. But don’t leave the studio before you hit that note. And you know what? When you do hit it you’re going to feel so much more valid that it’ll come through in all the other stuff you’re supposed to be doing later in the day. Seriously!
And if Celine Dion is supposedly the great singer that she says she is why is there auto tune on every word in her songs? Can’t you just hit it, Celine? What are you doing that you can’t be singing in the studio? It’s your job!
Pitchfork: Anyway, I take it you’re not a fan of auto tune.
Case: I’m not a perfect note hitter either but I’m not going to cover it up with auto tune. Everybody uses it, too. I once asked a studio guy in Toronto, "How many people don’t use auto tune?" and he said, "You and Nelly Furtado are the only two people who’ve never used it in here." Even though I’m not into Nelly Furtado, it kind of made me respect her. It’s cool that she has some integrity.
[Edited for profanity.]
Case claims that pitch correction is primarily a means of covering up lack of singing skill, which stems either from laziness or sheer inability. This is a common criticism leveled at pop singers, particularly country singers, namely that what makes a star is more a matter of packaging and marketing and studio wizardry than it is artistic quality. This 2004 article on the use of pitch correction in country music, from a Nashville newspaper that is largely sympathetic to the country music business, agrees somewhat with that assessment but brings a bit of depth to the usual caricature of the pop music machine:
The late Owen Bradley, the Nashville producer responsible for some of country’s greatest recordings, once was introduced at an industry panel discussion with a flowery speech that listed the great singers he’d worked with, among them Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells,Conway Twitty, Brenda Lee, k.d. lang and Mandy Barnett. To start the questioning, Bradley was asked what it was like to work with a great vocalist like Patsy Cline, who had such perfect intonation. He replied that Cline not only sang flat or sharp on occasion, but that they often worked like hell to get those classic performances out of her; she often fought with him about having to sing lines over until she got them right.
But Cline was a great vocalist, and her pitch wavered less than most singers. Her voice also had an amazing richness, and she brought a preternatural depth of emotion to a lyric.
Still, Pro Tools undoubtedly would have made recording her easier and faster. Would the results have been as good?
At the same panel, Bradley was asked if he ever worked with a singer with perfect pitch. He said yes, and named the singer. Few in the room recognized the name. As Bradley explained, the singer had a great voice, but she just didn’t convey much personality or charisma. She didn’t have what it took to become a star.
Therein lies the debate: What makes a good recording? What makes a good entertainer? What makes someone a star? Is it talent and timing? Money and the right marketing campaign? Some combination of the above?
This begins to bring out the fact that there is a tension that needs to be recognized, between an individual’s artistic skills and the resulting product that is packaged and marketed. Which is the more important factor in judging the quality of a particular recording?
One producer mentions working with a singer who had performed a song at least 10 times in the studio and still wasn’t getting it quite right. "It was a complicated song, and it was hard to sing," he says. When asked to try it again, the artist said, "Man, I’m tired of this damn song. Can’t you just use that machine I’ve heard about and fix it for me?"
Another producer recently worked with an artist who had never used auto-tuning, but the singer had pitch problems. For the session, the producer used pitch correction on the first round of vocals, then played it back for the artist. The singer was delighted. Only the producer thought the performances needed more emotion and planned to bring the singer back into the studio to recut the vocals. But the singer was busy with a full concert schedule. Eventually, he said he was happy with what he’d already cut and thought it unnecessary to redo his parts.
"The record ended up not selling as well as the record company had hoped, and it was because the emotion wasn’t there," the producer says. "That wasn’t the fault of Pro Tools. It was because the singer was too lazy to take the time to work on getting a stronger performance."
And then there is Neko Case’s point, that pitch problems are something that can and must be overcome by working harder. It may not be true that every singer can achieve perfect pitch this way, but study and practice can do much to remedy pitch problems as well as making for a better overall singer—and the easy availability of pitch correction is a tempting excuse for avoiding such work.
There are indisputably talented singers—LeAnn Rimes, for instance—who have trouble making the most of their talents. There have been strong, on-pitch performers with stunning voices like Jason Sellers, Shannon Lawsonand Sonya Isaacs who slipped through the major-label system because they weren’t given the right opportunity or didn’t hook up with the right song or the right producer. The reason one singer soars while another struggles is a conundrum in which vocal ability is only one part of the puzzle.
Patty Loveless, revered by many as one of the best country singers of her time, often has struggled with pitch; on occasion, it’s on record for all to hear. One Nashville producer says he can’t listen to Loveless’ records because of her pitch problems. Another Nashville producer responded by saying that the producer who said that "needs his ass kicked. Nashville needs more singers with as much feeling in their performances as Patty Loveless."
The last third of the article compares Faith Hill, a very successful product of the country music machine, with Shawn Camp, a promising and very talented musician who was considered but passed over by the machine and has had much less success as a result. The easy answer is to say that Hill is just a slickly packaged commercial product, marketed to people who are much less discerning than you and me. But it’s closer to the truth to acknowledge that Faith Hill does a very good job of being a country star, with all that implies, and that many people are willing to shower their money and attention on a good country star.
With Faith Hill, many on Music Row emphasize how hard she’s worked to overcome her initial limitations. She’s devoted an immense amount of energy to working with vocal coaching, to understand her voice and make it work for he
r. Listen to her albums, and it’s apparent how she lowered her register and began using a breathy delivery that covered up her shortcomings. She’s also learned to open up and go for notes that early in her career she never could have reached.
But Hill also is cited whenever people debate whether Music Row is interested in great singers or just beautiful creatures who are willing to submit themselves to a rigorous process that banks more on charisma and sex appeal than on talent. […]
So is it cheating that Hill’s career relies on studio fixes? Is it a sham that she, like so many modern music stars, uses auto-tuning in her live performances? Or is it just a good use of the latest of studio technology to take an ambitious and dedicated young woman with an appeal beyond mere vocal ability and, with the right packaging and investment, help her become an international superstar?
It’s easy to get distracted here and begin railing against commercialism in general, but I think we need to take the commercial nature of music for granted. As soon as listeners are involved you have to take their concerns into account, even more so if they are paying to hear you. An audience that comes to hear you is entitled to go away from a performance happy that they came, and it is the performer’s job to provide that happiness. On the other hand, there are good reasons, both ethical and practical, not to pander to an audience or to give in to laziness.
In between those two boundaries lies a wide range of permissible options, and it takes wisdom to choose well among them. In the next post, I will give a short tour of some of them, focusing especially on choices that have confronted me and Chris in our own brief and modest recording career.