The Specter Haunting Pop Music

Sasha Frere-Jones has a fascinating article in the June 9 The New Yorker about Antares's Auto-Tune software. In case you aren't familiar with it, Auto-Tune is pitch correction software that is used almost universally in contemporary pop recordings—sometimes just to "fix" an off note, increasingly frequently as an effect in its own right.

Personally, I'm not a huge fan, although having accompanied John Atkinson on various recording projects, I can attest that on some days even the best musicians in the world just can't hit a certain note or nail a particular passage. Demanding them to record take after take after take can sap the life out of a recording just as certainly as over-reliance upon software fixes. (I'd also like to point out that, watching JA in such circumstances, I learned that the hallmark of a real producer is his ability to make the frustrated musician comfortable enough and confident enough to nail that problem passage.)

Besides, the "imperfections" in recordings—such as on almost every track cut by the Beatles—keep them sounding fresh to me, even after 40 years of listening. I wonder if anyone will be listening to "Lollipop" 40 years from now—and still finding it fresh?

As a bonus, Frere-Jones has bravely posted an audio file on Auto-Tune in which he sings "Since You've Been Gone" and engineer Tom Bonjour fixes it in the mix.

Ariel Bitran's picture

"People subsequently hearing the singer live may be disappointed." Its always very disturbing to listen to a song a million times and grow to love it and then have your heart broken by the performer who you thought made it so great.

jamesanubis's picture

very kool demo; on the way to work this morning i heard auto-tune's pitch correction on a song by Panic at the Disco.

Ariel Bitran's picture

The part where they tune all of his notes to G is amazing. Although, he really did sing too in-key for the effect of the program to actually work. Is it wrong of me to want Auto-Tune? Not to correct my voice, but to make me sound like a computer. 0000111010101101.

Dismord's picture

Can I suggest there's something amiss in today's musical training that has artists singing off tune often enough to require the crutch of such software? To put this in perspective, consider the fact that groups such as King's College Cambridge have been singing in tune with perfect ensemble for 100's of years. And half of them are children! ! !

Robert Deutsch's picture

Fascinating stuff, inded. I knew that this goes on in recordings of pop music, where it seems to be accepted as normal practice, but what about classical music? How about a debut recital recording by a new tenor or soprano? Multiple takes, and splicing together of the best parts may be fairly common, but what about correcting pitch with software rather than asking the singer to record it again? It must be very tempting, but it's ultimately dishonest, and people subsequently hearing the singer live may be disappointed.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

in terms of pitch correction in classical music, there was a major furor some years back when, if memory serves me right, on an Aida recording (Sony) with Domingo and Milo, Domingo sang "Celeste Aida," splicing in the high note with a lower note whose pitch was raised. Though I never heard the recording, it seems the change in vibrato was obvious. What classical musicians do all the time is re-record sessions and splice in notes digitally. All the time. And Horowitz, for example, spliced and redid like crazy. Von Karajan, as is well known, tweaked everything in the studio. And there you have it.

Costin Fodor's picture

When asking the question "Why is that young female vocalist driving a Mercedes and wearing clothes & jewellry", the answer used to be "Because she has a nice voice and knows how to sing".Now since voice, intonation, phrasing, etc. ar no longer required, could we replace the answer with "Because she is great in bed and sleeps with the producer"?

Robert Deutsch's picture

To my mind, there's a distinction to be made between a recording that represents the "best bits" of a singer's performance, where the individual parts are still what the singer produced, versus the correction of pitch and timing that is purely electronic--and, for all we know, the singer may *never* have sung the piece with the correct pitches. I see this as analogous to portrait retouching with specialized software. Removal of blemishes, whitening teeth, softening wrinkles is one thing (and acceptable in the context of portrait retouching). But there is processing that goes beyond that: changing the shape of a person's face to conform to a predefined definition of "ideal beauty," and changing the shape of the person's nose, mouth, etc. That, for me, goes too far, and so would pitch correction that attempts to turn Florence Foster Jenkins into Renata Tebaldi.

John Arnold's picture

There is a long history of conservative 'audiophile' types resisting the march of progress, and this anti-auto-tune stance is no different. It's just a tool, like reverb, compression, delay or anything else used to improve the sound of a mix (and I don't see any objections to those). Personally I like flaws in music, which is why I don't listen to yawn inducing classical music. There's a lot of interesting music around that uses these tools in creative and interesting ways (Autechre, Radiohead, Plaid and Haujobb spring to mind) to create something challenging and full of digital life and spark. Popular chart orientated music is crap anyway so who gives a toss if they use auto-tune or not?