When Jack White came to Nashville to produce Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose, he refused to work in any of Music Row's state-of-the-art studios. "We weren't going to use Pro Tools or any kind of trickery to make it sound perfect," he said. "I wanted it to be soulful. I didn't want it to sound like a modern Nashville country album."
Allison Moorer put it just as bluntly in the credits of her 2002 album Miss Fortune. In large type, she stated that Pro Tools had not been used in the recording of the album.
So what is this demon Pro Tools? It's a digital recording system at the center of the debate about how technological advancements affect the sound and creation of music. The most heated issue involves a specific device, the auto-tunerdigital computer software that allows a note that's sung off-pitch to be corrected or, as common parlance has it, "fixed in the mix."
In the bluntest terms, auto-tuning allows a singer or instrumentalist to flub a note and later have it mended digitally by a computer. An imperfect vocal performance can come out sounding like every word was sung perfectly on key, even if the performer couldn't sing an entire song in tune to save his or her life.
Some see this as cheating. Even worse, some believe the music industry has entered a "twilight zone" in which marginally talented yet attractive performers can be packaged and turned into mega-stars. Meanwhile, truly gifted yet less magnificent physical specimens are left to struggle in the shadows or are pushed aside altogether.
Others see it differently, claiming that using auto-tuning is simply availing oneself of every device available to make the best recording possible. Since the inception of audio technology, engineers have tinkered with equipment and tampered with the studio process, all with the aim of creating a dynamic recording with mass appeal. The most famous producers of all timeincluding Sam Phillips, Phil Spector, Berry Gordy, Billy Sherrill and Mutt Langeemployed technological tricks to make their records stand out.
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?
Then there's the related question: Does modern music's obsession with "perfection" process out the peculiarities that, in the past, resulted in some of the best-loved records and most revered artists in popular music? Imagine Johnny Cash being auto-tuned. Or Hank Williams. Or, for that matter, Mick Jagger, Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan. All of them sang off-key at times; some of them rarely, if ever, hit a "correct" note. Each of them typically hit the "right" one, though: Their performances are legendary, despiteor maybe because oftheir imperfections.
In modern-day Nashville, though, perfection is definitely the goal. No wrong notes here. (Well, not many.) And each artist has his or her own way of attaining that goal. It won't surprise anyone to know that Martina McBride refuses to use an auto-tuner. Yet she'll perform a new song 20 times, 50 times or even more than that before recording itnot because she can't nail the pitch, but because she's constantly toying with her phrasing or her interpretation of the lyrics, looking for the most effective way to get it down. It's a laborious process, but that's how she gets the performances she wants.
Vince Gill and Trisha Yearwood, two other widely respected singers, also refuse to allow pitch-correction tools on their vocal work. "They both told me, 'Don't use that shit on me,' " producer Tony Brown says with a laugh. Brown recalled once asking Yearwood to take a third pass at a song, to see if she could get an even better take. She glared at him and responded, "Yeah, I'll sing it again. But if I can't get it right in three tries, just shoot me."
Garth Brooks also distrusted auto-tuning. Listen to his records, and it's apparent that his pitch occasionally wavers. He knew it, and it didn't matter to him. He wasn't going for perfection, he was striving for the most emotional performance he could create.
"I've heard that Garth would say, 'That's the one I want to use, right there,' " a Music Row executive says. "He was told there was a slight problem there, and he would say he didn't care. He didn't want to mess with it, because he was afraid it would take away from what he thought made the song work. Obviously, he was right."
On the other side of the coin, 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."
These stories underscore a point nearly every Music Row insider emphasizes when asked about Pro Tools: There are a million ways to make a finished recording, and figuring out what works and what doesn't is a crapshoot. Most important, they all say, is whether there's some palpable but ineffable qualityan emotional truth, a flash of personality, a startling innovationthat makes a record connect with listeners.
There's another aspect to record-making that comes into play: Every popular record and every successful artist has detractors. Music preferences are, of course, subjective; there's no wrong or right.
There are indisputably talented singersLeAnn Rimes, for instancewho have trouble making the most of their talents. There have been strong, on-pitch performers with stunning voices like Jason Sellers, Shannon Lawson and 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."
Other Nashville stars evoke more intense disagreement. Along Music Row, it's widely known that Tim McGraw, Sara Evans, Faith Hill, John Michael Montgomery and Gary LeVox of the group Rascal Flattsto name just a few prominent examplesstruggle perennially with pitch problems.
As one Music Row executive pointed out, you'll never see Tim McGraw pick up an acoustic guitar and sing in front of an audience without using a microphone that's run through an auto-tuning device. But his records not only sell, they're also praised as some of country's most broadly appealing and progressive work.
"For years, people have told me that Tim McGraw can't sing," says one Nashville producer. "I say, 'Yeah, so what? He makes good fricking records. What other Nashville star would've recorded 'Angry All the Time' or 'Please Remember Me'? Tim McGraw's a star because he chooses great songs and he makes them into great records. People react to them, and the audiences go crazy at his live shows. Isn't that what it's all about?"
For each Nashville star known to struggle with his or her vocal performances, there's someone who will step forward to defend themand to argue for why they made it and someone else didn't. Sara Evans' producer, Paul Worley, says that her voice has a uniquely emotional quality and a throaty texture that makes it stand out and appeal to listeners. It's worth working with her to get the performance right, because the result has a special characteristic that makes the song connect.
John Michael Montgomery, another producer says, is a master at delivering romantic ballads because he's so good at phrasing and bringing an intimacy and believability to a lyric. He's also recorded several hits with a challenging, rapid-fire delivery. He performs those songs live most of the time, but on the occasions he comes up short, the difficulty of the song makes his mistakes more apparent.
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 her. 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.
As one insider observes, Hill was signed to Warner Bros. the same year as the multitalented Shawn Camp. Hill had climbed her way up the Music Row network, working in the offices of singers Gary Morris and Reba McEntire, establishing relationships with industry insiders and, eventually, working in the studio with plugged-in men to create the best product possible. She didn't work her way up by performing live, other than an occasional gig singing harmonies.
Camp, on the other hand, was a multi-instrumentalist who graduated from bluegrass groups to play in the road bands of Alan Jackson, Shelby Lynne and others. Besides mastering several instruments, he wrote strong songs (including No. 1 hits for Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn), he sang well and he had boyish good looks. He made a good debut record for Warner Bros. in 1993, the year Hill was introduced by the same label. At some point, the company had to decide to pool its resources behind one of its two newcomers in hopes that one of them would break through in a big way. Warner Bros. put its money on Hill. Camp only made one record for the label. He's since gone on to work in alt-country circles and to be championed by Jack Clement, Guy Clark, John Prine, Jim Lauderdale and other revered outsiders.
Of course, Hill's massive success has provided Warner Bros. with all the support it needs to say that it made the best investment. Indeed, in the last few years, Faith's record sales carried the Nashville division through a difficult period. Millions of people around the world responded to her music, not only buying it, but taking it to heart and cherishing it as well. Over the last six years or so, she's been one of a handful of stars who've lent country music a public face, performing on the Academy Awards, looking stunning on the cover of widely circulated fashion and women's magazines, appearing on network and cable specials, and now landing a starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster.
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?
Everyone interviewed for this piece says it's the audience that ultimately decides who becomes a star and what kind of music gets made, just as politicians say that it's the voters who decide which people become our leaders and what kind of government we get. But music, like politics, is carefully packaged to sway opinion. For now, all that's certain is that the debate on music and technology will continueand with it, differences of opinion over what's real and what's not.
Illustrations by Christopher Silas Neal
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