Written by WATYF on Sunday, 07 August 2005 (5787 hits)
Have you ever seen an "artist" perform live (on some music awards show... or maybe a late night talk show), and they sound like absolute crap? And even though you're a mindless consumer who just gobbles down whatever the flavor of the week is that they're shoving down your throat, did you ever have that faint, small voice in the back of your head ask, "How come they sound so good on their albums, but every time I hear them live, they suck?".
Well ladies and gentlemen... It's my self-appointed job to reveal to you the mysteries of the universe, and I've decided to start with this one... You see... you don't need talent to sing like the pros... because the "pros" don't have any talent either...
What I'm talking about it something called Autotune. There are other brands of software out there that do similar things (Melodyne, et al) but basically, we're talking about pitch correction. The ability to take a note that was sung completely out of tune, and make it sound like the person singing it had perfect pitch. This is the software that is used to make Cher's voice go all crazy on "Believe", and which is now used to create the same effect in pretty much every R&B tune that's been recorded since... oh... I dunno.... the beginning of time!!! Now, the "Cher" effect (as it is commonly called) is actually an intentional mis-use of Autotune. One day, a record producer thought to himself, "How can I wave the tricks of the trade right in the faces of the sheep that unwittingly buy my farce of a product, and yet make it so that they never realize that they're being a witness to the very thing that allows me to turn no-talent boobs (pun intended) into world-wide super stars?". Well, maybe not... I'm guessing that Cher just hit a really bad note during a tracking session, and Autotune over-corrected it, and someone decided that it sounded "cool". Anyway... the proper use of Autotune is supposed to be "transparent"... in other words... you're not supposed to be able to tell that the person singing had all of their notes corrected because they couldn't carry a tune in a Samsonite ("Samsonite!? I was way off!")
This is nothing new, by anyone's stretch of the imagination, and it's really not something that bothers me.... but a couple things that happened recently got me thinking that I might as well take a few minutes to make fun of it. The first thing that happened was that I told one of my wife's coworkers about it, and he was in utter shock and disbelief.... lol... I really had forgotten that there are all kinds of people out there who don't realize how little natural talent most "pop stars" have (much like computer nerds tend to forget that not everyone knows all the little tips and tricks involved in using Windows). The second thing that happened was that I heard a new song on the radio by Kelly Clarkson, and it had thee most blatant, unabashed mis-use of Autotune that I'd ever heard.
It's in her latest single called "Behind These Hazel Eyes". Now, anyone who's already privy to Autotune may have assumed that I was talking about "Since U Been Gone", which has some pretty impressively autotuned parts at the end... I mean really... my 8 month old nephew can't hit frequencies as high as what she was singing at the end of that song. But in this case, it was at the end of the bridge in "Hazel Eyes", where she says, "Now I don't cry on the outside, anymoooooooooooooore". If you listen carefully, you can hear a fairly strong vibrato in the last word. (For you non-vocalists, "vibrato" is the thing that good singers can do to their voice to make it kind of "wobble" when they're hitting a sustained note.) Anyway... what struck me was that is was obviously not a real vibrato in her voice. (at least, I'd bet the life of my firstborn that it wasn't.... not that I have any kids - which kinda makes it an easy bet) I mean... I've heard autotune's pitch correction used on the voices of every pop star that's come down the pike in the last who-knows-how-many years, but I'm pretty sure that this is the first time that I've heard the grotesque over-use of Autotune's "vibrato" feature on a vocalist. You see, since a mediocre singer can't add that nice vibrato to their voice when they're hitting sustained notes, Autotune has a feature where you can just add it.... it's like, "Hey... that note was nice and flat, but what I'd really like is to hear it with a huge, artificial warbling sound added to it... yeah... that's the ticket".
Now, I'm not one of those purists (and there are plenty of 'em out there) who think that Autotune is of the devil and that all who use it shall burn in the fires of Gehenna for all eternity. I have Autotune myself... I use it in pretty much every song that is posted on my website... lol... but really... I'm just some crappy, amateur, home-recorder... I'm supposed to suck.
Really though... I don't mind using Autotune to clean up a spot here or there on a vocal track, or tighten up a harmony or something... but when the use of it becomes so obvious as to be comical... then it's probably time to call in the ol' vocal coach. It's gotten to the point with these professional "singers" that they might as well not even be called "singers" anymore... we should just call 'em "stage movement specialists" or "vocal chord surrogates".
In fact, I propose that we don't even need these "singers" to waste any of their valuable time in the studio anymore. Thanks to the magic of audio editing (another trick of the trade, where you can cut, copy and paste parts of a sound file however you want), you can just record individual words and phrases, and paste them together later to form a song. Think about it... all songs are pretty much the exact same these days, so what they should do is have their "artist" show up in the studio just once... have them say - in a completely monotone voice - all of the most popular words and phrases in today's music, and then whenever they need a new single, they can just tune the voice to whatever melody they want, and paste the words into the desired lyrical arrangement, and voilà....
....instant "hit"... just add water.