Tradition and innovation, part 2

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.

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7 thoughts on “Tradition and innovation, part 2

  1. Rick,
    Wow. Thanks for ruining my appreciation of D&V…not really. However, I did go back to their debut album and listen to “By The Mark” more carefully. It is now somewhat annoying to listen to. There is something particularly artificial sounding with Darrin’s harmony. I suppose I’ll just have to sing along a little louder now!
    Waiting eagerly for the result of deep thoughts on your “initial purist reactions”….

  2. Keith,

    It is now somewhat annoying to listen to. There is something particularly artificial sounding with Darrin’s harmony.

    Don’t give up on them just yet. Right now it’s annoying because I brought your attention to it, and you’re not sure what to think about it. After a little more thought and a little more listening, you may decide that you like the sound. I just read a long interview with D&V about their individual histories, the formation of the band, and their gratitude for the good response they are getting. I don’t think there is anything coldly calculated about the sound they create; I think they just like that razor-sharp harmonizing, and if two singers as good as they are like the sound then there must be something to recommend it.

    You might want to read this short Wikipedia article about vibrato. I was surprised when I learned that the omnipresence of vibrato in classical, jazz, and popular singing is a relatively modern thing, and in some circles a controversial one. When it started to be used widely in classical music, there were quite a few authoritative figures that denounced it. Jazz and popular singing are new enough that they used it from the get-go, but go back to their sources and you’ll find it was an uncommon thing. Now it is the default approach to singing, and no one thinks twice about it.

    I only knew about this because when I started singing bluegrass and old-time music, the first bit of advice I was given was “Lose the vibrato.” My reaction: Huh? But it’s true, folk music in general is a vibrato-free zone, with only the popularizers (Kingston Trio, Joan Baez) and crossover performers (Allison Kraus) employing it much. It took me awhile to appreciate vibrato-free singing, and for awhile after I did the presence of vibrato annoyed me, but I got over that.

    Still haven’t completely eliminated the vibrato from my own singing, though; it’s a killer habit to break.

  3. The wiki article doesn’t really mention it, but I thought that vibrato in singing had its origin in opera — it helps the voice carry further. So it shouldn’t be used in most oratorios and that sort of thing, either.

  4. I appreciate the way in which you’ve approached this subject. I recently heard an engineer describe what it was like mixing a CD for a female teen foursome for Disney – I’m trying not to mention names. He was sent a hard drive with over 120 individual instrument and vocal tracks (per song) and was supposed to make something from it. He said they just recorded take after take and sent him everything. He copied and pasted and pitch corrected until he had sculpted a very commercial pop project. His overall impression? “The girls can’t sing.”

    When it comes to what I consider ‘real’ music, most engineers, producers, and musicians will work as hard as possible to capture the best real performance possible. Often, this is accomplished through a process known as “comping”. This is an old method which goes back to the days of recording tape and razor blade editing which involves recording the same song multiple times and then making a composite by selecting the best recording of each verse, phrase, chorus, etc. I was surprised to learn long ago that this is even a common practice in classical music recording. It’s a process made much easier by today’s DAWs (digital audio workstations). After comping, pitch correction is used as a last resort. Sometimes the time pressures involved in recording can make it difficult for an artist to give their best performance in the studio.

    In the case of our newest recording, we chose to do it at home again, rather than go to a studio and watch the clock tick away the $$. It was important to us that we capture a good performance. Since we’re not professionals, that means being able to say “My voice doesn’t feel good today, let’s try it again tomorrow . . . or next week.” After getting the best performance out of each member of the family that I thought they could give, I set about editing. I comp’ed most of the vocal takes, piecing together the best, but it was minimal. Usually once a singer got it, the whole take was good with minor exceptions.

    Then I decided to try my hand at pitch correction, and loaded Melodyne into my system. My first attempts sounded terrible. I tried using it in an automatic mode, which I think too many people do, and it was obvious. None of the members of my family liked the way it sounded. So . . . I undid it all and started over – without any automatic tuning. It took countless hours, but I manually tuned individual notes that were not close enough. They didn’t have to be perfect, just good. Using Melodyne, it is possible to affect pitch without affecting vibrato, which is the path I chose. A singer’s vibrato is part of the character of their voice and I didn’t want to touch that at all.

    What you thought was an artifact of auto-tuning on the long notes of the intro of “Amen, Higher Power” is actually just my daughter’s voice. She doesn’t have a professionally trained voice and has some little flutters like the ones you noticed. She has fewer and fewer as she matures. I could have corrected that, but chose not to since it’s part of the character of her voice. There is very little pitch correction used at all in that song (maybe a little more on my voice than the others!) and none on the lead singer’s voice on the line you point out. The video is from the first time we performed that song in public and the CD recording was done a year later, with a more mature voice. My daughter had just turned sixteen when the CD was recorded.

    Your postings on the subject are thought provoking and you do a good job of raising discussion points without being judgmental. You touched on the issue of commercialism in part 1 of your post.. Some people will consider the integrity of their ‘art’, be it visual or aural, above all else. It’s unimportant whether or not anyone else appreciates it. On the other extreme, are those entertainers whose sole mission in life is to build as much material wealth as possible and will do (almost) anything to achieve it. The area in between is vast, and where we find ourselves. We really don’t consider ourselves to be artists. Rather, we are quite humbled that the Lord has, and is seeing fit to somehow use us to His glory through our attempts to play and sing.

    If we are going to continue moving forward with our music, then we must necessarily give consideration to what people want to hear, what they will buy, what DJs will play, and perhaps even what a record label is looking for. It is very important that we do not prostitute ourselves in any way, along the way. We believe that God has for some reason called us to do this, and we (by God’s grace) will not compromise the Gospel in the process.

    And so, as you mentioned, we have made informed choices regarding the songs we choose to sing, and how we present those in recorded form. Not only did we use (however sparingly) pitch correction, but other musicians (as credited in the liner notes) in order to present what God has given us in the best and most effective way possible. If we are going to continue on this path, and even be able to support ourselves in this way, then consideration must be given to the commercial appeal and acceptability of the recorded project. If that allows us to eventually appear in front of more people and tell them that “I’m not holding onto Jesus, He’s holding onto me”, then here we go!

    I also want to respond to Ethan who said that D&V came across as genuine nice guys. They are. We have shared the stage, and meals with them, and they are as genuine and nice as they seem. They sing incredibly well live, with no technology. At the last show we did with them they were carrying their own digital mixer with them so they have consistency everywhere they go both in terms of the house mix, and their monitors. But I can tell you that there was no pitch correction equipment involved. We heard exactly what they sang.

    Since you mentioned IBMA, if you visit our web site at http://www.bankesterfamily.com you can register to win tickets to this year’s IBMA fan fest.

  5. Phil,

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed comment. And thanks for taking the post as I intended it; as this series continues it should become ever more clear that I have no objections to recording technologies, much less the musicians who choose to employ them.

    My goal for this series is to get past the usual initial phobic/philic reaction to a technology, where it is either rejected or embraced for superficial reasons, and to spend some time considering the idea that all technologies offer benefits while at the same time posing dangers. Some are relatively benign (e.g. rollerblades) and thus a matter of indifference.  Some are very dangerous (e.g. chemical fertilizers) and the benefits probably do not justify using them. But most cases are nowhere near this clear, and the benefits have to be pondered, weighed, and judged. And any technology we do adopt ought to be continually scrutinized for dangers that might not have been apparent to us when we first chose to employ it.

    My guess is that in twenty  years pitch correction and its relatives will be no more suspect than comping or even multi-tracking. By then it will be much easier to have an informed discussion of its benefits and drawbacks, and musicians will be able to make wiser choices about how to fit it in to their overall approach to performing and recording.

  6. The way you’re approaching this reminds me of the way the Amish approach techonological changes, which seems the wisest way to do it.

  7. Kelly,

    Learning about how the Amish view technology has been a big influence on me. Perhaps the main difference I see is that the Amish see social separation as a fundamental means of protecting their community from the downsides of unapproved technologies. I think this is at odds with the Christian calling to be salt and light in an unbelieving world.

    But more important from a practical point of view, it leaves them unthoughtful about technologies (and social trends) once they have rejected them. This has burned them many times, in small ways and big ones. Dairy farming comes to mind, where the Amish committed themselves financially and socially to selling milk without understanding the power that would be wielded against them down the road by state authorities. Much of their viability depends on a certain amount of tolerance on the part of their neighbors and of government, which could evaporate at any time.

    This is one reason why, for all my enthusiasm about agrarian living, I can’t endorse any movement that espouses it. As salt and light, I think we are called to bring our peculiar brand of wisdom to bear in whatever situation God chooses to place us. City-dwelling Christians need to dwell on the benefits and drawbacks of both urban and agrarian living, and bless their community with the insights they glean. Country-dwelling Chrisitians need to do the same—and, believe me, along with the benefits there are plenty of dangers to guard against out here.

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