Cher can sing, but it’s commonly thought that the warbly electronic effect applied to her voice on her multi-platinum hit Believe was achieved with an infamous piece of pitch-correction software called Auto-Tune. Recording nerds debate whether it was that program or a less interesting vocoder-type gadget (Digitech Talker) that really did the business, but Auto-Tune can be used to get exactly that kind of sound if it is set up in an extreme way.
Auto-Tune is certainly used widely in a milder way to fix the shonky intonation of many a dodgy C-list celeb with a recording contract—not to mention a bigger name in the business who has managed to parlay tabloid confessions and cheeky boy-next-door ordinariness into a career of glorified karaoke accompanied by backing tracks pastiching various 80s and 90s musical styles.
Where are his lips?
Thing is, even applied with moderation, I always thought I could hear Auto-Tune compensating for singers’ shortcomings like this. There’s a “snatching” of the correct note that sounds robotic, a metallic change in the singer’s natural vibrato. Now that I have finally taken delivery of my own copy of a new computer-based pitch-correction tool, Roland V-Vocal, I realise how naïve I was. (I should point out here that I didn’t order this software specifically; it was a freebie with a larger music-recording package—not that I wasn’t itching to try it out myself.)
What I have learned, PooterGeekers, is that it’s the “Auto” part that is the weakness. Starting with a reasonable vocal, the “Tune” part can be applied manually to undetectable effect. (I realise that “starting with a reasonable vocal” is a little too much to ask from some of today’s performers, but bear with me here.)
I’ve had a sore throat over the past couple of days, so I’ve been unable to properly re-record a lead vocal I put down a few weeks back. [Yes, I split an infinitive, but it’s the best way to express what I wanted to say, grammar-nerds.] This presents an excellent opportunity to reveal to you the full horrible power of pitch-correction technology.
Do you remember my strange post a while back in which I was trying to get in touch with, er, a collaborator in France who goes by the handle “magmavander”? Magmavander lives in the south and makes all kinds of electronic music online using an amazing collection of free (that’s free as in “free beer”, but sadly not free as in “free speech”) tools called Buzz machines. We’ve been putting together a song about a Hollywood divorce, “Moving Day”—a process in which I have been something of a slow-coach; sorry, magma.
One of the many reasons for my slowness is that I’ve been sloppy about keeping noise out of those recordings, and not been very successful at cleaning them up—as you will soon hear. Having all those vocal tracks to hand is, however, useful for demonstration purposes. Listen to a (slightly re-arranged) extract of the original [MP3, 900K]. Focus your attention on the lead vocal which comes in at about 19 seconds and, in V-Vocal, looks like this:
The yellow line is my original, the red line is what I should have been singing. Notice that I sang flat in the penultimate bar and, as I ran out of breath, sharp over the last few beats. Now listen to the pitch-perfect corrected version [MP3, 770K]. Can you spot any artefacts? I can’t and it’s my own voice that’s been manipulated. Evil, isn’t it? There you have it, listeners: against all odds I have found another reason to hate Robbie Williams.
Always great to hear real-world examples, and that’s most impressive. Auto-Tune was the pioneer, but there are a lot of these plug-ins around now, and not all are equal. Yamaha do one called Pitch-Fix, which I’ve had a bit of a play with, but I didn’t like it very much (though the demo I saw at Yamaha HQ was pretty damn good).
I’ve got a copy of a package called Melodyne which can do truly amazing things with both pitch and timbre. My aim was to create harmony vocals and so on, but the truth is I’m too lazy to dedicate the time to it.
One great feature of Melodyne is that it will convert a tune to MIDI information and/or notation. So for the non-schooled, you literally can hum it and then play it, or at least write it down for someone else to play.
technology is frightening, but these sort of things do underly the fact that the recording industry is just that: an industry that manufactures a product for profit.
As such anything that streamlines the workflow of manufacturing will be used always.
Most singers are on a salary if they’re lucky or fixed musicians union rates. They don’t get royalties so much now. But even so a singer taking only two shots, even, at a song is twice as much time and money wasted as on a single take.
I reckon every commercial release, without exception, will have been corrected electronically. You’re right: you can hear the artifacts most of the time, but most people aren’t bothered by it, any more than they are by the occasional flange-like modulation of extreme MP3 encoding, or those hideous squares that flicker over our TV screens caused by compression. And kids don’t know any better.
To be honest, I couldn’t hear anything bad about your first example. Some singers made a handsome living without pitch fixing: Sting was a notorious “always slightly sharp” singer, and it’s only the Western tradition of classical music that insists on the precise 12 tone scale. It’s a tuning compromise afterall, and is mathematically wrong. As a guitar player yourself you’ll be familiar with blues notes that depend upon being somewhere in between for their flavour.
I don’t know whether its important that the music-consuming public know whether their stars aren’t quite as talented as they sound. It isn’t quite the same as buying chicken that retains water because it has gelatine made from argentinian cow hooves injected into it in a shed in Holland.
My gut feeling is that there is a scam to some degree, and my nature makes me want to shout “Robbie can’t sing you know!” But I don’t suppose anyone listening would be bothered. They don’t want the gory details: just the end product in all its processed pre-packaged goodness. Indeed Robbie Williams is just a chunk of imported pork steak sealed in carbon dioxide to preserve freshness.
I also have a deep suspicion that all very fast widdly guitar is also treated with pitch fix (maybe not real time). It’s probably true of all lead guitar on commercial recordings too.
And how much music is just a collage of cut and pasted loops? The only practical result is that amateurs like me end up sounding even more rubbish.
I think we live in a world where technology would allow a pro studio to put together a full commercial quality recording in half a day tops. I don’t think it will be long before the creative side of songwriting is automated either. There’ll be no royalties to have to cough up at all then. Maximum streamlined profit.
The only thing that truly bothers me is that half of this software is still very very expensive relative to my purse. Even though I might now have the equivalent in software of Abbey Road in the early seventies sitting on my laptop, it’s still hard work.
Excellent harmonies by the way!
Richard won’t let me use pitch correction. [“But, you can sing!”] Trouble is getting it exactly right can be very time-consuming—sometimes to the point of damaging my voice. Richard mostly plays keyboards and (deliberate de-tuning notwithstanding) you either hit the right note or you don’t. Voices are a fascinatingly different matter.
As you say, Queen Catherine, I think most non-classical musicians agree that there are ptiching errors that matter and others that don’t, but people have wildly different tolerances. Also, context is crucial. Ella Fitzgerald farts out at least one humdinger bum note on one of her Songbooks (it’s too low in her range for her to cover it properly) and my first thought when I heard it was: “Maybe the strings are out.”
So far I haven’t fiddled with my published recordings or photographs like that. I don’t prescribe to others, but, while I have been very strongly tempted, I probably won’t do it myself.
This is the advantage of listening to stuff from the 1930s. You never have to worry about whether Leadbelly or the Carter Family have been digitally altered, you just need to ignore the hissing sound in the background..
> it’s commonly thought that the warbly electronic effect applied to her voice on her multi-platinum hit Believe was achieved with an infamous piece of pitch-correction software called Auto-Tune.
It is commonly thought because she explained it in interviews. It’s not a gossipy showbiz secret, I’m afraid. (Though I forget whether it was Auto-Tune or one of its competitors.)
“Commonly thought” doesn’t imply any kind of secret. I used the phrase because the congnoscenti (probably rightly) don’t put much trust in someone of Cher’s standing to know exactly which effect was applied where. Like Madonna, she has people to twiddle her knobs for her. (In fact, she almost certainly has people to twiddle knobs for her people’s people.)
I didn’t mean to imply that you were implying it was a secret, though. My “I’m afraid” was supposed to be of an expression of oh-isn’t-it-a-shame-type regret, but my English skills are slipping from having written in little but bloody Cobol for the last month.
[…] I don’t have perfect pitch. One of my long-suffering former Flatland music tutors would, however, be amused to read that the other day I noticed that my toothbrush was playing the key note of a Kelly Clarkson song and I wandered over to the piano and played the scale along with it—first time! I never seemed to master that trick; she should have tried putting a tuning fork to my jaw. […]