TCS Daily

Perfect Pitch

By Edward B. Driscoll - July 7, 2003 12:00 AM

Next time you walk into your local Tower Records, you may be surprised by the following label on Miss Fortune, the new CD by singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, apparently placed at the behest of her producer, R.S. Fields:

"Absolutely no vocal tuning or pitch correction was used in the making of this record".

If the label rings a bell, it may be because back on Sunday, April 27th, TCS contributing editor Glenn Reynolds (aka The InstaPundit) linked to a story about it in the Chicago Tribune, and briefly discussed the pros and cons of pitch-correction in music.

While the Milli Vanilli scandal still resonates for many people, the real question is why this pitch-correction has struck such a nerve. In some respects, vocals are the last bastion of expected honesty in recording. The Beatles started the ball rolling, by creating Sgt. Pepper's, an album full of overdubbed sound effects, backwards tape loops, and for its climax (pun not intentional -- honest!), bringing in a symphony orchestra to create the "giant orgasm of sound" (as producer George Martin has described it) on "A Day In The Life". Having retired from touring, they deliberately set out to make an album that would be unplayable on stage. By the late 1960s, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page were overdubbing layers and layers of guitars to produce sounds that they knew they could never reproduce onstage.

Jan Hammer recorded the soundtrack to the Miami Vice TV series working alone, with no other musicians in the recording studio in his Connecticut home. Most of tracks had layers of instrumentation on them, including layers of synthesized keyboards, guitars, drums and percussion. And while he could play those tracks live, it's only because virtually all of the rhythm tracks could be pre-programmed, that he only had to play a melody live on a keyboard.

And overdubbing, since at least the 1950s, has long been a way to camouflage mistakes on a recording, in very much the same way that multiple takes allow for mistakes in a movie or TV show to be eliminated. The result is (ideally) a product that can stand up to repeated listening, with no mistakes to take away from the recording.

In other words, the instruments on the music we've been listening to for decades has been put through electronic "transmogrifiers" for decades, and can be reproduced live only with the help of an assortment of electronic helpers and gadgets. And no one has been upset about it.

A Boon To Amateur Musicians

What's curious about Field's label is that it highlights one of the points I made in an earlier TCS piece about Silicon Valley versus Hollywood. The recording industry is doing everything in its power to both prevent the legal duplication of commercially purchased music, as well as monopolize the distribution of newly recorded music. But meanwhile, in an effort to attract new customers, as well as sell new products to their existing customers, manufacturers of recording software and hardware have continually innovated, to where, as I wrote recently, the creation of music via home studios is in its golden age. Never before has the technology to produce recordings at home been more affordable or easier to use. A 17-year-old kid, with a modicum of guitar or keyboard skills, can produce a recording easily as sophisticated sounding as anything that can be generated by a group recording in a state-of-the-art Los Angeles, Nashville, New York or London studio.

Except for one thing... the vocal, the most important part of the recording, and the part that often gives away how professionally the song was made. That all changed in the mid-1990s, when the Antares Auto-Tune debuted, first as a stand alone rack-mounted effect, and later as a plug-in for popular PC recording programs. When the Antares Auto-Tune device is maxed out, it produces the strange effect first heard on Cher's "Do You Believe" hit single, and now forever known as "the Cher Effect". But used more subtly, it can correct the pitch of either a single bum note by a singer, or his whole performance. (Ironically, despite its name, the Auto-Tune is virtually imperceptible when used in its manual mode on individual notes. In its automatic mode, sharp-eared listeners can often detect it doing its thing.)

But perhaps the most advanced vocal effect is TC-Helicon's VoiceOne product, which may be the ultimate -- or at least certainly the most technologically advanced -- solution to altering vocals. The patches built into the VoiceOne allow the user to edit and change not just pitch and timing, but alter the vibrato, breathiness, tonal characteristics, even the throat and neck sizes, and/or add a Louis Armstrong-like growl to a recorded voice. A female vocal can be made to sound like it's been sung by a mature deep contralto, and by a light teenage soprano, all with a few clicks on the computer. It can be controlled manually or in real-time, via the MIDI electronic music programming language.

Coming Soon: The Ronco Voice-A-Matic

In 2002, Line6 debuted their GuitarPort product, an interface through which electric guitarists can plug their trusty Stratocaster or Les Paul into the USB port of their computer. As part of its software, it allows guitarists to download patches that are often excellent recreations of the tones used by Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and other guitar heroes. I have no doubt that within a few years, a similar product will be available for budding vocalists. Who do you want to sound like? Al Green? Paul Rodgers? Barbra Streisand? Aretha Franklin? Simply dial in a patch and sing into the Ronco Voice-A-Matic!

In the meantime, today's technology can go far to improving vocals, both on professional and amateur recordings. It's the benefits for the latter musicians that make the products that Fields is railing against so important: because they can improve the quality of a vocal on a homemade recording, they allow simultaneously for unknown songwriters and musicians fluent in today's technology to have a shot at getting signed with major labels, and they level the playing field for independent artists to compete with the big boys who have enormous recording budgets and access to the latest technology.

Of course, if Mr. Fields wants to continue to label CDs, here's one label I'm definitely in favor of.

Too bad most of the music industry isn't.

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