Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Auto-Tune or Out o' Tune: Meh

Posted By on Tue, Jun 10, 2008 at 3:21 PM

This isn't really a new topic or anything, but Sasha Frere-Jones writes in this week's New Yorker about Auto-Tune, the audio processing tool that corrects pitch or, if desired, can be used to create the talk-box effect deployed in Cher's "Believe" and almost anything by T-Pain. Some people hate Auto-Tune. Frere-Jones rightly puts it in the bag with all the other tricks:

Aren’t some of the most entertaining and fruitful sounds in pop—distortion, whammy bars, scratching—the result of glorious abuse of the tools? At this late date, it’s hard to see how the invisible use of tools could imply an inauthentic product, as if a layer of manipulation were standing between the audience and an unsullied object. In reality, the unsullied object is the Sasquatch of music. Even a purely live recording is a distortion and paraphrasing of an acoustic event.

Anyone who's ever listened to a board recording (that is, a recording made directly from the sound board) of a live show knows that the recording you end up with is just as much "real" (it's a record of the actual sounds produced during that night's performance) as it is utterly unreal (it sounds absolutely nothing like the experience of attending the show).

Also, to Frere-Jones' list of "entertaining and fruitful sounds" I would add: tremolo (try to imagine Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover" without it); chorus, which is widely used to subtly enhance/smooth out vocals by, perhaps ironically, adding slightly off-pitch tones; compression, which makes it seem that a singer can maintain a consistent volume throughout an entire song; and, perhaps the most widely used and abused effect of them all: reverb. Of course, there is a "no mechanical reverb school" of audio engineering, but for the most part people don't get worked up over it. I mean, I get a little worked up over Hope Sandoval, but that's another story altogether.

The Scene's Michael McCall addressed the auto-tuning issue as it relates to country music in 2004, posing the question this way:

So is it cheating that [Faith] 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?

I find the idea of "cheating" in music to be a non-issue. As both Frere-Jones and McCall make reference to, the history of recorded music is full of artificial effects. All of them—from the very idea of multi-tracking, at various times and in various locations, a recording meant to fit together as a temporally simultaneous whole, to purposely overdriving preamps to create harmonic distortion—are fair game in my book. (I've always wondered, had I been alive to purchase a 45 of The Beatles' "Revolution," whether I would have returned it like so many did, thinking there was something "wrong" with the record.)

I mean, sure, there is a difference between doing 20 takes of a vocal track to get it right and using Auto-Tune to correct the pitch, just as there's a difference between hanging a picture to cover up a hole in the wall that you're trying to hide and tearing down said wall to join two rooms. But is it an important difference? For the most part, people who want their singers to be perfectly in pitch are not interested in the same kind of music I'm interested in—and the effect of Auto-Tune, while not distasteful to me on any grounds related to "authenticity," is really kind of bad-sounding, to my ears. Unless it's obviously being used as an effect, in which case it just seems sort of played-out, at this point.

Kottke's got a bunch of Auto-Tune-related links, including the free pitch correction software GSnap. (Related: A $50 version of Pro Tools? Don't fear REAPER—it requires no dongle!)

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