Previously, I gave an overview of what pitch correction is and how it has become ubiquitous in modern commercial music. Below I try to put this latest technical innovation into context.
I’ll admit up front that I am not a fan of pitch correction. When it has obviously been used I do not like what I hear, and when something about recorded singing puts me off I will start looking for telltale artifacts that will let me blame it on pitch correction. But that is just personal preference. To conclude anything objective about pitch correction, good or bad or mixed, it’s necessary to spend some time thinking about the nature and purpose of music, of recording, and of sound modification techniques.
I’m guessing that even the most technology-averse music listener is comfortable with what is probably the oldest form of pitch correction, namely frets. And as with most technologies, the use of frets opens up new possibilities while closing off others; in this case, you gain the ability to play notes at precise intervals while giving up all the notes in between those intervals.
The balance of the tradeoff shifts with the importance of playing chords on the instrument. On the guitar they are vital. On the violin they are a hindrance. On the banjo the style of playing becomes more chord-focused when they are present, less when they are not.
Given this background, are frets a form of cheating? To ask the question in that way is to miss the essence of what has happened. The addition of frets changes the ecology of an instrument; the result is not simply the old instrument with frets, but an entirely new instrument.
And we need to ask ourselves: Is there any value to this new instrument? Perhaps it retains nearly all the good qualities of the old instrument while opening up new possibilities; in that case the new should supplant the old. Or perhaps it jettisons too many good qualities of the old to justify what new things it brings to the party, in which case it should be abandoned. Or perhaps the balance lies somewhere in between, and both instruments should continue to exist, choosing one for use in contexts where its particular strengths outshine its weaknesses.
Let’s move a bit further into the future, into the late 1920s. Beginning with the Carter Family and continuing on with duet acts such as the Delmore Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, and the Blue Sky Boys, country music singing underwent a dramatic shift of emphasis towards close harmonies. Alton Delmore points out that the shift was possible only because of the electric microphone, which was able to pick up the quieter, more delicate singing style and put it on a record or through an amplifier.
What exactly has changed when a roomful of people can comfortably hear harmonies that before only a small group could hear up close? For one thing, to the extent that such singing is intimate, before amplification the emotional intimacy corresponded to actual physical intimacy. With amplification, it is now possible to communicate “intimately” with people who are a hundred feet away. Moreover, the intimacy now only flows in one direction; the listener cannot communicate with the performer because the performer cannot see or hear them. Is the tradeoff worth it? It’s tempting to think that the history of musical performance responds with a resounding “Yes!”, but in fact I don’t think anyone thought much about what they were giving up in order to gain artificial, almost voyeuristic access to this intimate activity.
There are endless questions of this type that can be pondered. What did we give up and what did we gain when we introduced the idea of a recorded performance, frozen in time to be replayed and studied at will? When Bill Monroe took mountain music and, by speeding it up and adding instrumental solos, turned it from dance music to performance music? When it became possible to record instruments and vocals individually, to be cut and pasted and layered in myriad combinations? When someone figured out how to adjust the pitch of a sung note?
It’s much easier to consider these questions in retrospect, looking at exactly how a particular innovation fared as it matured. But I think we can also do some preliminary thinking about new and largely undigested techniques like pitch correction.
When evaluating the promise and danger of a new technique, we need to be careful not to dismiss it because of superficial flaws, because it is quite possible that further work will eliminate them. When electronic reverb was first introduced it sounded gimmicky, not very much like the resonance it was designed to imitate. Worse, it became a fad, and many otherwise good recordings from the 50s and 60s are almost unlistenable because of the huge amounts of echo that were applied.
But the technology got better, eventually engineers figured out how to use it, and now it is an accepted and even desirable way to enhance a recording. We use it on our own CDs, exactly because it tends to smooth out flaws in our performance. A similar progression is likely in store for pitch correction, and so we need to be careful to distinguish problems that plague early versions of the technology from problems that are inherent in the concept.
Let’s take another listen to the Dixie Chicks clip mentioned earlier. I assume because this group is so popular that the budget is there for extensive engineer labor on each song, and so the pitch correction here is as unobtrusive as an engineer can make it at this point. So it is not the telltale artifacts (on the phrases “parents” and “but I”) that I am interested in; those too will disappear with time. Instead, I am thinking about the sharp, buzzy, synthesizer-like quality of the phrase “I could never follow” at the end. It sounds like so much else that is on the radio these days. Whether or not this is an artifact of pitch correction that will eventually go away, it also represents a quality that people are actually aiming for; I think it is the same buzzy precision that makes Dailey & Vincent-style harmonies so popular.
Here’s an example from a group that is more or less on the same rung of the professional ladder as we are. I won’t mention their name for risk of embarrassing them, but it’s nothing they should be embarrassed about, any more than one should be embarrassed by releasing a CD as a short-run CD-R if the budget isn’t there for making a thousand manufactured CDs. It is just an example of what pitch correction is able to give you right if you don’t have the money to pay an engineer to painstakingly fix each note carefully. But given the decision to use pitch correction, I think the results are not bad, but simply the best that the money available could buy.
The only thing that bothers me about this example is that I’ve heard this group perform this song live, with no pitch corrector involved, and they sound perfectly fine to me, much preferable to this recorded version. But there are many things I don’t know that might factor into their decision to use it. Is their audience so accustomed to autotuning that not using it would make a group sound amateurish to them? Was there a problem with getting a good take in the stressful studio environment, making it preferable to autotune an existing take rather than trying again and again (at much expense) to get a better one? Is the singer overly concerned about her vocals, and unable to live with a recorded performance whose flaws are mostly noticeable to her? Do they simply like the sound of an autotuned performance better? Any of those reasons would be legitimate ones for deciding to go with it.
Finally, an example from a group that is several steps above the ladder from us and experiencing a go
od amount of success, even scheduled to give a showcase performance at IBMA this fall. Here is a video of a song that they perform very well; I assume autotuning was not involved, partly because I don’t hear it and partly because they are singing around a single microphone. It sounds good to me. I am sure if I carefully studied a soundboard recording of this performance I would be able to pick out flaws in the vocals, but as I watch the video I don’t notice any. And I am personally grateful for the absence of razor-sharp harmonies, although others might miss them.
Here’s a clip of the same song as it appears on their CD, with obvious pitch correction. Notice the fluttering of the lead singer’s held notes; I think that this is an artifact caused by correcting her vibrato. And after the instruments kick in, her first line (“When troubles seem to overcome”) sounds particularly robotic, especially the word “overcome.”
Now, I vastly prefer the live version to the recorded one, but not because I think that pitch correction is cheating. To my ear, using it was just a bad and unnecessary decision. And there may be some behind-the-scenes factors I don’t know about which justify the decision. But I suspect that what is actually happening is that pitch correction has taken on a life of its own, a trend where expectations both real and imagined are pressuring performers to use it.
Part of the reason that most modern bluegrass music sounds more or less the same is that with respect to airplay it is a very bad thing to sound markedly different from the song before and the song after. Listeners don’t like it, and DJs don’t like it. Pitch correction is now so pervasive that I’m guessing performers feel pressure to use it just so they don’t raise a red flag with those folks.
At this point I am going to move on from pitch correction to some more general matters. But I think it is a fascinating technical innovation that is worth studying, for these reasons:
- It is new enough that the concept still unsettles people.
- It brings out the purist in many; somehow it seems like cheating.
- There are many valid reasons for using it, none of them fraudulent.
- Our specific objections tend to evaporate when we think them through.
- And still, in the end, its use strikes us as vaguely problematic.
In the next post, I will describe some of the technical choices that Chris and I have been confronted with as we continue to play and record music, choices that have forced us to think much more deeply about our initial purist reactions to them.