Saturday, February 7, 2009

Inside the Studio: Perfect Vocals?

I just read an article about how two well known R&B artists have just been caught using “Auto Tune” software to correct the pitch of their vocals on their latest CDs. I had to snicker a bit inside, as if this is some sort of major revelation, or something that is an anomaly in the recording industry. Truth is, nearly every vocal recording made these days is run through Auto Tune, at least in part. Some artists, on the other hand, base their whole careers on the ability of the Auto Tune software to correct their pitch, because otherwise they couldn’t sing their way out of a wet paper sack.

The process is called “Auto Tune” after the software that is used to do it, AutoTune by Antares. You have all heard the effect… remember the chorus of “Believe” by Cher in the late 1990s? That’s AutoTune, just cranked up to it maximum correction level. I, too, have this software, and have used pitch correction on virtually every recording I have made in my home studio for more than a decade (though I have moved on to something better since… more on that in a minute). The difference, I believe, in the way I use it vs. many pop artists is that I only use it to fix a handful of notes that are slightly off, not to construct a passable performance from one that wouldn’t be otherwise. There is a real expectation of perfection for anyone attempting to perform vocally by the public, and using pitch correction software is really the only way to achieve perfection. Even with those who have excellent vocal abilities, I still will run through their performance and fix anything that is even slightly off. Recordings are permanent, and nobody wants to be remembered for that one sour note.

Using technology to achieve a better recording is certainly not a new thing. Before AutoTune came around, singers would be asked to perform pieces of their music over and over again until a perfect performance could be put together from the various takes… use a little from Take 1, a little bit from Take 6, pick up a syllable from Take 2, go back to Take 1, and so on. This was typical of recordings made in the 70s and 80s, but the process still continues today, even before Auto Tune is added to the mix. (In fact, it isn’t uncommon for parts of a song that occur multiple times, like a chorus, to be recorded only once, then be copied and pasted elsewhere in the song.)

Like all technologies, pitch correction can really be abused as well. In fact, virtually all of the pop music scene has abused pitch correction technologies for years, but it is worse now than it has ever been. Many very well known performers would have no career if it weren’t for the ability to correct pitch. I dare say that a lot of the most popular artists, no matter their preferred genre, rely on the technology to make their careers viable. I won’t name names, but more artists rely on it than don’t. These days it’s more about how a performer looks rather than their singing ability, because even if someone sings poorly it can be fixed. So if you have a favorite performer who you believe to have an outstanding vocal ability, the odds aren’t in your favor that they actually do. And there isn’t any 100% sure way to know if they can or can’t sing either, unless you see a live performance which is really live (and not taped [taped performances are usually remixed in a studio afterward] or lip synced). But even in those cases Antares and others make processors that can correct pitch in real-time; all they need to know is the chord progression of a song (and some even create the harmony parts automatically too). Cheating, isn’t it??!?

As if this isn’t enough, the newer generations of pitch correction software correct more than just pitch. These days I’m using a product called V-Vocal (screenshot), which in addition to fixing pitch can also correct timing. So if someone doesn’t have a good sense of rhythm, no problem. If they always come in late or end early, it’s easy to correct with a single click and drag of the mouse. Not only that, but it can be setup to match the timing of another instrument or vocalist automatically. And as if that wasn’t enough, but it will also alter the formant of someone’s voice in case they sound too nasal or thick. Anybody want to sing like a chipmunk?

While I believe that software like this does have a place as a single tool in a much larger collection, somehow it has become the real performer, not the vocalist whose pipes are being run through it. It’s sad, too, that so many people who have genuine talent are cast aside because they may not look the part, or aren’t willing to sell their souls to a record company in order to get ahead. I certainly wouldn’t make AutoTune, V-Vocal, and other similar tools go away in a perfect world, but it would be really nice to see them take less of a critical role in the arsenal of tools used by recording engineers. But that’s out of my control, so I guess the best I can do is to use my own best judgment when it’s me at the controls of the mixing board (or computer, as is really the case). And so far, I think I’ve done okay.

No comments:

Google Search