Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Auto-Tune™ Goes Public

Auto-Tune™ is digital processing software used to correct the pitch of vocal or instrumental performances. It was introduced to the market in 1997, by Antares Audio Technologies. However, I’ve recently noticed the word/phrase ‘autotune’ being used as a generic term, –regardless of whether the lawyers at Antares, think that's a good thing or not.

Other trademarks have slipped into the public domain: Kleenex, and Xerox, for two examples. Henceforth, when I use the word as a descriptive, I will refer to ‘autotune’ and ‘autotuning’ (no capitalization; no hyphen).

I define autotune, or autotuning as:

Fixing or otherwise enhancing a vocal performance, using modern mojo.

Many point to Cher’s ‘I Believe’ as the first commercial pop song that brought autotuning to the general public’s attention. There are conflicting reports whether the effect on Cher’s voice was the result of an extreme Antares Auto-Tune™ setting (whose effects are usually transparent on minimal fixes), or the sum results of another technology. The British recording magazine Sound-On-Sound does a pretty good job of documenting that the song was in fact produced using Antares technology.

Whatever the technique, the result may be inhumanly perfect pitch, but the sonic artifacts that one hears as the pitch is centered to an absolute setting is not the result of a heavy handed producer, but rather an intentional artistic decision. Quite simply, –and most twelve year olds agree– the heavy-handed effect sounds cool.

What did recording engineers and producers do before Antares made Auto-Tune™ pitch correction available (there are other similar DSP solutions to correcting pitch, such as Melodyne™ (Celemony), which I also include as autotuning software).

Before the advent of either Auto-Tune™ or Melodyne™, producers and engineers might have used digital samplers to fix vocals –a painstaking task. Before samplers they might have ‘comped’ vocal passes (which continues to be a common technique). Comping is the art of splicing (now cutting and pasting) a number of vocal takes together in order to create one perfect master take. Equally common is the art of 'punching' in a new vocal or instrumental take over a pre-recorded take, that is recording a live bit of new performance over a bit of pre-recorded material.

Punching in a word or note here and there may not seem the egregious bit of studio magic that autotuning is, but punching in every single word of a lyric, or note of a solo– certainly is. On the other hand, if the end result sounds great, why not do it? Is the purpose of a commercial recording A) to document a musician's skill set, or B) to document the best performance of the work/song. The answer is invariably –but not always– 'B'.

There are other ways to create perfect vocal. For example, a touch of reverb or chorus has long been a producer’s best friend in this regard. Unlike autotuning, which centers the pitch, reverb, chorus and other similar effects serve to mask a poorly pitched vocal.

Effects aren’t just used to correct a vocal performance. Just as often they are used to enhance a vocal performance. Consider Alvin and the Chipmunks, for instance, and enjoy the technological marvel of slowing the tape down during record, and playing it back at regular speed (thus speeding up the vocals at the same time as raising the pitch).

One device, the Eventide’s H3000™, has long been a staple in recording studios for it’s ability to facilitate ‘Harmonization’ techniques – whereby a recorded performance is doubled and then the replication is re-pitched, and/or delayed, thus creating a harmony, of varying realism.

Vocoding –that robotic effect we sometimes hear, is essentially the sum of a a vocal signal modified by an electronically produced signal.

Some argue people who have no business singing are using autotuning to cover up imperfect performances. However, it is just as often the best musicians and singers who demand autotuning because they want to sound even more perfect than they are.

I sometimes wonder if there is also a racist or sexist component –or a bias against homosexual oriention– that underlies criticisms against autotuning and other similarly creative digital signal processing. I know that sounds patently ridiculous on the surface, but consider the DEATH TO DISCO movement during the nineteen seventies: At the time it was thought an innocent backlash against an overplayed trend. But from our current perspective, we can see that it was propagated by a mostly white, heterosexual American male population upon the collective popular works produced by either gay, European or African American artists.

Similarly, much of the bemoaning over autotuning, vocoding and harmonizing, comes across as a wholesale prejudice against urban, pop and dance music genres. Any armchair pop anthropologist has have to wonder: Is it the technology? Or the people using the technology?

Further, I’ve never once heard any guitarist decry the use of Fuzz or distortion. Yet, guitarists have been hiding sloppy technique behind torn speakers, overdriven amps and stomp box emulations of both since the sixties.

Remember a DC comic book character called Bizarro Superman? Bizarro Superman was Superman’s doppelganger: an Anti-Superman who was everything Superman was not. Thus Bizarro logic dictates black is white, strong is weak, good is evil, etc.

I’ve come to think of rampant distortion as Bizarro autotuning. Instead of centering guitar pitch, it masks it. That’s why it’s called distortion! –And it is the constant friend of many a hammered fingered rocker.

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