Friday, March 20, 2009

Shoot the Singers: A Discussion on Live Auto-Tuning, Prerecorded Vocal Tracks, Onstage Failure & More

Posted by on Fri, Mar 20, 2009 at 7:30 AM

Last week I posted about a guy who developed a click track detector, keeping the never-ending debate of technology and its relation to soul in music performance going. I figured that since I spent enough time beating up on my fellow brethren (drummers), it would be good to expand the dialogue into some broader territory. As annoyed as people may get at stentorian drumming, I think the argument of bad vocals taking the cake of unendurability is a worthy one. Maybe it's just me, but I'd much rather hear a drummer slow down ten BPMs than hear a "singer" go a half-step flat. That of course was until I saw the video above capturing Britney Spears' actual live singing voice, which has now been widely posted on YouTube. Spears actually sings during her concerts, but the audience actually hears a pre-recorded vocal (or "guide") track. In fairness to her, she knows that the audience isn't hearing her so she doesn't have much incentive to hit notes, but still she sounds like shit even when she's not out of breath from dancing. The video has 139,356 plays from me watching it over and over 139,356 times.

The obvious debate here is whether or not it's worth forgoing the actual "live music" component of a concert to accommodate the phantasm of choreography, costume changes and other smoke and mirrors that are flawlessly executed in a Spears show. It's Cirque du Soleil for 'tweens.

One option Britney could have utilized in place of prerecorded vocals is live Auto-Tune. For those of you who don't know, Auto-Tuning is when a singer's voice is run through a processor that corrects pitch. It is a tricky process that can go horribly wrong. If the processor is improperly programmed, the vocoder will over-correct and, instead of going to close notes in the melody, it will simply default to the high or low notes diatonic to the key of the piece being performed. (I'm sure one of you techies out there will correct me if I'm not understanding this fully.) Such is the case in this video of Billy Joel singing our national anthem at Superbowl XLI. The Piano Man was once a great singer, but it now seems like one too many times drunk-driving into glass houses in Allentown has weathered his pipes a bit. So he rests on the crutch of technology when performing in front of a television audience of 1 billion. Listen closely and you'll hear the Auto-Tuning take on a life its own, making him sound like T-Pain. (I recommend headphones to get the full effect):

As you can see, technology can be slippery slope to performance failure when the inevitability of human error is thrown into the mix. Take for example this video of Van Halen's "Jump" encore filmed at the second show of their lucrative 2007 reunion tour. The song's timeless synch line--either prerecorded or played by someone offstage--is played at the wrong sampling rate, causing the entire hook of the song to be fractions of a note off key. Hilarity ensues as Eddie Van Halen and his 16-year-old son Wolfgang try in vain to find notes in a key that doesn't exist, while David Lee Roth giddily fronts the band as if nothing is wrong. The audience still rocks out, seemingly oblivious to the atonal nightmare that must have gotten someone fired.

Another person who got fired is whoever was responsible for this train wreck that occurred during Evanescence's performance at the 2004 Billboard Awards. They were playing their balladic third single "My Immortal," complete with obligatory grand piano--or keyboard-inside-grand-piano façade--and a string section. The majority of the song is played by frontwoman Amy Lee as accompanied by a string section, with the rest of the band exploding into a dramatic emotional climax for the song's 12 bar hard-rockin' finale. The only problem being that there was apparently some sort of miscommunication between the string section and Lee's nu-metal cohorts, causing them to come in a half-step flat, marring the song's "beauty" by making it sound like Armageddon. Lee's proclamation of "wow" and the end says it all. This is easily one of my favorite videos on the Internet. With the exception of the epic fail at the end, the song is REALLY boring, so you might want to skip ahead to the 3-minute mark for the good part. I promise it's worth it.

To get back on the subject of vocals and technological trickery, I'll include this montage of Oasis singer Liam Gallagher's drunken antics during a 1997 concert in France. Filmed at the height of their fame it was during the tour on which they had some truly absurd stage props that pale in comparison to Britney's multimillion-dollar whathaveyou. This performance has no live Auto-Tuning or prerecorded vocals. However, Liam sounds fantastic, despite his inability to stand without falling or speak comprehensible English. Regardless of whatever your feelings might be toward England's most hilarious rock quagmire, that's impressive.

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