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The New Yorker: The Gerbil's Revenge
June 10, 2008 7:09 PM   Subscribe

Tourists black out reflective retinas in snapshots before printing them, and millions of people refer to strangers they’ve never spoken to as friends, because they’ve connected through a social-networking platform. [...] It should come as no surprise, then, that singers sometimes choose to correct recorded flaws in pitch with modern software, like Antares’s Auto-Tune.

Sasha Frere-Jones on auto-tuning, in The New Yorker.

Non-print version

Via Antares's own site, interestingly enough.

Previously: 1, 2

Sasha Frere Jones's personal site, New Yorker blog.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (98 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Tourists are (generally) not professional photographers.

If you can't carry a tune without pitch correction, you have no business calling yourself a professional singer.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:19 PM on June 10, 2008


No one tell him about Photoshop. His head would asplode!
posted by cowbellemoo at 7:24 PM on June 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Hey wait a minute. Can't they do the reverse? Eg. take an unnatural step of pitch and make it a curve? Just do away with the singer alltogether, Idoru-style. Anyone know if they ran the GladOS dialog through this software?
posted by cowbellemoo at 7:29 PM on June 10, 2008


Er? Is the luddite who wrote the bit about "strangers they've never met" refering to the Myspace "Friends" thing, or are they being snarky about people who have met and spoken online, and from that formed a friendship dispite never being nearby in meatspace?
posted by sotonohito at 7:31 PM on June 10, 2008


Ok so I read this and between the repeated use of 'robot' and 'pitch' my random access brain got stuck on this bit from the Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy : Share and Enjoy
posted by MrLint at 7:32 PM on June 10, 2008


Sasha Frere-Jones writes some of my favorite reviews and some of the dumbest critical essays. If he spent more on why this is attractive, what it says about the listener, there might be an interesting point there, other than the anecdotal history of auto-tune.

I mean, even connecting it to a lineage like the talk-box (anyone that can't hear Frampton in Cher's "Believe" isn't listening) would be more compelling.
posted by klangklangston at 7:36 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Apropos of nothing, I've enjoyed the breath of fresh air that is Sasha Frere-Jones for years and always imagined the writer to be a six-foot-tall corn-rowed African- American with a great smile.
Imagine my surprise when I googled ol' Sasha, and hit the "images" button.
I'm such a dink.
posted by Dizzy at 7:39 PM on June 10, 2008


If you can't carry a tune without pitch correction, you have no business calling yourself a professional singer.

there's a reason why they say people like that are in the entertainment industry - they're not singers or musicians or dancers, although they may be able to do those things, they're entertainers

do movie stars go through all their lines and perform all their actions in the 2 hours it takes you to watch the movie, the first time they read the lines?

does your favorite author have his first draft published word for word as he wrote it?

do you think those people and things in magazine ads haven't been photoshopped and otherwise manipulated to an ace?

i'm not real keen on autotune, but if you think it's some kind of negation of professionalism then you haven't been paying attention much to what the other media professionals have been doing
posted by pyramid termite at 7:40 PM on June 10, 2008 [5 favorites]


I mean, even connecting it to a lineage like the talk-box (anyone that can't hear Frampton in Cher's "Believe" isn't listening) would be more compelling.

Yeah...no one cares about Frampton's wankery.
posted by limeonaire at 7:44 PM on June 10, 2008


A lot of electronic music is composed on computers with software. Why is using the computer to modify the voice any different?

And, as pyramid termite said, photoshop is a standard photographic tool these days. Not all professional photographers use it, but a lot do. Especially commercial photographers (weddings, family photos, etc in addition to magazines and such), although you'll find plenty of artistic photography that not only has been 'shopped, but wouldn't be possible without it.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:48 PM on June 10, 2008


I like to run traditional instruments through Auto-tune hell. Gives them an old warped cassette feel. I'm still waiting to blow up like T-Pain. Who knew a single plugin parameter could net you millions?
posted by naju at 7:49 PM on June 10, 2008


If somebody can use pitch correction to help create a decent recorded song and then make that song a hit, good for them.

They won't be able to recreate it live though.
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:49 PM on June 10, 2008


You shouldn't use pitch correction to cover up the fact that you have flaws in real life.

I correct eye color in photographs to cover up the fact that, in real life, I don't have glowing red demon eyes.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:54 PM on June 10, 2008 [11 favorites]


Anyone know if they ran the GladOS dialog through this software?

They had Ellen McLain do her vocals in a particular flat, toneless way (until towards the end, anyway) and then did a bunch of digital stuff to it to roboticize it. Dunno if autotune was part of it.

Somewhere on the net or in the Portal commentary are some samples of her original vocal takes and the final product.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:59 PM on June 10, 2008


Here's an example of live Auto-tune going horribly wrong. At the Superbowl, no less.
posted by naju at 8:01 PM on June 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


...no one cares about Frampton's wankery.

Nor Frampton's Camel.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:04 PM on June 10, 2008


This is the same toolbag who claimed that if you didn't like Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, and Outkast's Hey Ya you're a racist and a sexist and a horrible person. Previously here. Of note against him, it seems like he has sent three of the four linked blog posts mysteriously and ambiguosly down the memory hole, which hardly reflects well upon him.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:08 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Here's an example of live Auto-tune going horribly wrong. At the Superbowl, no less.

It makes him sound like human bagpipes.

That's coo!
posted by mazola at 8:09 PM on June 10, 2008


I'm a die-hard electronic music geek. And I fucking hate Autotune.

You can use a hammer to build a marvelous cathedral, or you can use a hammer to cleave in twain the skull of a retarded kid in a dark alley so you can take his Alf thermos.

You can use a computer to make beautiful music, or you can use Autotune.
posted by greenie2600 at 8:19 PM on June 10, 2008 [7 favorites]


You shouldn't use pitch correction to cover up the fact that you have flaws in real life.

Recorded music isn't real life, though. It hasn't been since the utlilization of magnetic tape recording, tape splicing, and multitrack recording in the late 40s and early 50s.
posted by sleepy pete at 8:22 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's a little bit of related discussion on this subject toward the end of this other open thread.

I'm not a big fan myself. Not only because I've spent the better part of my life learning to become (or so I'm told) a reasonably passable singer without the benefit of auto-tuner, but also because it's the tackiest sounding thing I've ever heard. Talk about uncanny valleys!

And just so it's clear, the use of pitch-correction on vocals isn't just some rarity reserved for touch-up use in salvaging otherwise flawless vocal takes these days: Pitch-correction is ubiquitous now. Even singers who don't need it use it constantly.

What I can't stand about it is not the whole puritan, work-ethic betrayal angle (although I can go on a tear about that every once in a while) it's just how god-awful it sounds to someone who knows what they're hearing. Especially in country music. And it takes all the humanity out of the performance. I want to hear that singer's voice cracking; I want to hear the saliva in their throat. I want to hear them hit that wrong note because what they're singing about is so painful to them they have to inflict just a tiny bit of that pain on me, too.

Seriously, why not just build machines to sing our songs for us? And hell, why not let them listen to them for us too? Who cares. It's all good. I give up.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:23 PM on June 10, 2008 [11 favorites]


You know who else used technology to help their 'singing'?

NO, not Hitler!
posted by mazola at 8:29 PM on June 10, 2008


"You can use a hammer to build a marvelous cathedral, or you can use a hammer to cleave in twain the skull of a retarded kid in a dark alley so you can take his Alf thermos."

And both can be art.
posted by klangklangston at 8:30 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Autotune does sound dreadful. Thankfully, they tend to use it on music I never listen to.
posted by Jimbob at 8:36 PM on June 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


". Not only because I've spent the better part of my life learning to become (or so I'm told) a reasonably passable singer without the benefit of auto-tuner, but also because it's the tackiest sounding thing I've ever heard. Talk about uncanny valleys!"

Yeah, but that's the point!

I like it like I like distortion or compression or reverb—used for the effects of distortion or compression or reverb, with an understanding of the trade-offs inherent to the technique.
posted by klangklangston at 8:39 PM on June 10, 2008


If you can't carry a tune without pitch correction, you have no business calling yourself a professional singer. might be Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Kimya Dawson, John Darnielle, Roscoe Holcomb, Cole Porter, Tim Bracy & Shannon McArdle, Johnny Dowd, or one of many other delightful professional singers who embrace their human-sounding voices rather than trying to sound like yet another Stepford Star Search boob.

Not that there's anything wrong with beautifully tuneful voices, mind you, but an interesting "flawed" voice beats a colorless "good" one any day.
posted by FelliniBlank at 8:40 PM on June 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


And both can be art.

So can getting these damn kids off my lawn!

At this late date, it’s hard to see how the invisible use of tools could imply an inauthentic product, as if a layer of manipulation were standing between the audience and an unsullied object. In reality, the unsullied object is the Sasquatch of music.

Actually this point from the article is a good one. All music is art, which by definition means it's crafted not found. There's never really been anything 'authentic' about the recording arts. But they're an art in their own right, so it's legitimate to value good craftsmanship--though it's also reasonable that everyone brings different ideas to the table about what good craftsmanship means.

Yeah, but that's the point!

I like it like I like distortion or compression or reverb—used for the effects of distortion or compression or reverb


For that kind of thing, isn't a vocoder effect really a million times better, though?
posted by saulgoodman at 8:40 PM on June 10, 2008


or you can use a hammer to cleave in twain the skull of a retarded kid in a dark alley so you can take his Alf thermos.

And both can be art.


I didn't think they tended to use Autotune in Norwegian black metal.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:41 PM on June 10, 2008


Eg. take an unnatural step of pitch and make it a curve? Just do away with the singer alltogether, Idoru-style. Anyone know if they ran the GladOS dialog through this software?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocaloid

There is a software out there which lets you make your computer sing. Not very well, though.
posted by Charmian at 8:52 PM on June 10, 2008


The audio version was silliness. It probably seemed like an audio clip would be a great way to demonstrate the effect... but then it turns out the whole piece is really a software demo, and you only have the soundtrack to it.
posted by smackfu at 8:57 PM on June 10, 2008


I hate it how people use technology to do things! Boo!
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:02 PM on June 10, 2008


The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. End of story.
posted by pompomtom at 9:05 PM on June 10, 2008


Here's an example of live Auto-tune going horribly wrong. At the Superbowl, no less.

OMG, so THAT was what was going on there! I turned to my husband when that came on and said, "WTF happened to Billy Joel? That sounds terribly wrong!" He didn't think anything of it, but it bothered the heck out of me for a while. Thanks for clearing up that mystery.

As for using computer software to help your voice along in recordings, I can't see how that is any different than the 'shopping done in magazines/papers and the tweaking done to video. But just as I generally prefer natural images to heavily photoshopped ones, I certainly agree that an interesting "flawed" voice is a lot more satisfying to listen to than the over-produced dren that often passes for music these days.

I'm glad that it obviously doesn't seem to work all that well for live singing, actually. That's where the model seems to be going these days - where the money is made by touring rather than selling "records". That would hopefully mean that more authentic artists would rise to the top, as they should (theoretically, anyway) offer a better musical experience live.
posted by gemmy at 9:08 PM on June 10, 2008


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocaloid

There is a software out there which lets you make your computer sing. Not very well, though.


Creepy!
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:12 PM on June 10, 2008


There is no reason why, in this glorious new century of our unholy god, that those that lack proper vocal prowess shouldn't be able to synthesize what they hear in their head. I welcome pitch correction and beat matching and etc because it means that more people are able to achieve beyond their training or ability. I would mourn the end of the 'artist', 'savant', 'auteur', and 'virtuoso', but I am too busy dancing.

Furthermore, fuck yeah! turn that auto-tune up to zero, cut the midrange and drop the bass.
posted by fuq at 9:24 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


cowbellemoo: Previously on Metafilter.

Having a robotic singing voice isn't the creepy part, giving it an anime style avatar, and having it sing jpop is.
posted by zabuni at 9:41 PM on June 10, 2008


Man, wait till he finds out about Melodyne.
posted by sparkletone at 9:44 PM on June 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


And, as pyramid termite said, photoshop is a standard photographic tool these days.

Manipulation of captured images has been part of photogrphy since day one, basically. Halfwits love to cite past greats like Ansell Adams when poo-pooing modern gear and techniques ("Ansell Adams didn't need Photoshop! Ansell Adams didn't need exposure compensation! Ansell Adams did need...") without apparently realising Ansell Adams spent days in the darkroom for each print, fiddling around with different (and then cutting edge) developing techniques to get the perfect version of the print.

In a similar vein, I'm sure there have been sound engineers with bags of tricks since there was sound recording.
posted by rodgerd at 9:45 PM on June 10, 2008


BILL: I can't get behind so-called singers, that can't carry a tune, get paid for talking, how easy is that?

Well, maybe I could get behind that!

ROLLINS: Well, I can't! If you have to fix it with a computer: quantized, pitch corrected, and overly inspected, then you can't do it, and I can't get behind that!
posted by bwg at 9:46 PM on June 10, 2008


Ansell Adams didn't need

Ansel Adams didn't either.
posted by bwg at 9:47 PM on June 10, 2008


an interesting "flawed" voice beats a colorless "good" one any day

Rod Stewart would agree.
posted by bwg at 9:56 PM on June 10, 2008


SFJ is hit and miss with me, but I did find this cool song on his blog last week.

No More Blood Run
posted by vronsky at 10:32 PM on June 10, 2008


Apropos of nothing, I've enjoyed the breath of fresh air that is Sasha Frere-Jones for years and always imagined the writer to be a six-foot-tall corn-rowed African- American with a great smile.
Imagine my surprise when I googled ol' Sasha, and hit the "images" button.


Isn't there a black guy with long hair who writes music reviews for the New Yorker? Or maybe the NYT? He was all over Serious Television four or five years ago; Nightline and such. What's his name? I always confuse him w/ SF-J for some reason...
posted by mr_roboto at 10:35 PM on June 10, 2008


Elvis Mitchell?
posted by vronsky at 10:37 PM on June 10, 2008


No, no, much younger guy. I know Mitchell well; I listen to The Treatment all the time.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:58 PM on June 10, 2008


Akon calls T-Pain (youtube). It's not autotune, they do sound like that in real life!
posted by zsazsa at 11:38 PM on June 10, 2008


I love Autotune. When I hear it in pop songs I feel like I'm living in the future.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 12:06 AM on June 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, all you 'if you use autotune get a new job' hurf-durfers, I definitely know what I'm hearing, and have been on both sides of the digital workstation with these technologies, and I think pitch correction used subtly can be undetectable, and just as acceptable as makeup on a thespian or ADR in a film. Of course, the acceptability of the latter two is up to each individual, but I think the consensus is that as long as it does not detract from immersion, it's A-OK.

(rambling paragraph about hyperreality paraphrased from my English 410 prof redacted)
posted by thedaniel at 12:10 AM on June 11, 2008


First off, most of you all (myself included) are blissfully unaware of when you hear Autotune used correctly. In the same sense you have no clue when in the past 30 years a producer has used a Lark or Urei compressors or Neve preamps; it's off your radar. So forget the belief you have these untarnished Golden Ears; trust me: they're already sullied. Autotune doesn't sound like Cher.

The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Thank you for getting that idiom right. I grit my teeth whenever I hear someone say "The proof is in the pudding."
posted by sourwookie at 12:24 AM on June 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


mr_roboto, you're thinking of Kelefa Sanneh (Probably? Maybe? He doesn't have long hair from what I've seen), who used to be a music critic for the NYT and is now a Culture Editor at The New Yorker.

Sasha Frere-Jones writes some of my favorite reviews and some of the dumbest critical essays.

Totally disappointing, right? I remember (happened to be on the same day), I read his Mariah Carey piece in an anthology in the morning (which was fantastic), and his dreadful, dreadful, worst-pop-criticism-of-the-year funkless indie piece later that night, which soured me so much that I don't think I've read anything he's written since. And the whole "rockist cracker" thing? Uuuuuuuuuugh.

I'll just say that I'm happy to see Selefa at The New Yorker and can only hope that he begins drifting into music crit/review over there.
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 12:24 AM on June 11, 2008


I grit my teeth whenever I hear someone say "The proof is in the pudding."

Ain't no proof in the pudding,
ain't no cow in the corn,
and don't you put no auto-tune
on Ornette Coleman's horn!
So he plays a little sharp,
hey man, that's Ornette's sound!
You take that auto-tuner
and get on outta town!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:43 AM on June 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


First off, most of you all (myself included) are blissfully unaware of when you hear Autotune used correctly.

Correct. It's kind of like foley or ADR in movies: if it is done right, you won't hear it. Still, I am surprised by a lot of bad unintended warbling I hear lately in the radio. Almost every song from Avril Lavigne I am forced to endure has a noticeable warble that should have been done better. The same goes for Maroon 5. Here is a listening sample of Auto-Tune abuse in popular music. Some of it is more noticable than others.

I was surprised to hear that familiar Auto-tune "yaw" on Robert Plant's vocals on the record he did with Alison Krauss. I don't remember what song it was but it stood out. I'm not sure if it was a mistake though because I know Robert Plant likes to make his voice sound weird.

I have worked with a few professional singers who poo-poo the use of Auto-Tune publicly, but when sequestered in the studio they are very grateful to the engineer/producer if it makes them sound better. I have also seen producers use it when it is absolutely not necessary. I've heard vocal performances that almost bring me to tears, only to have the engineer throw up auto-tune to "just even it out a bit". Can you imagine what Billie Holiday would sound like if they auto-tuned her?

One difference I have noticed between old school engineers and new is I guess what I will refer to as a "plug-in culture". I assisted on sessions for a lot of old school cats. Their philosophy is get it to tape (or disk as the case may be) sounding good because it will save you a lot of work in the end. This involves using the microphone's characteristics along with its placement to get the best result. Most engineers still adhere to the same philosophy but many rely too much on plug-ins to fix it in the mix for them.

"Hey, can you pull the kick mic a bit away from the beater? I want to get more oomph."

"No worries, I got a plug-in for that."

*slap upside the head*

Get your fancy plug-ins off my lawn!
posted by chillmost at 1:27 AM on June 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


What if you just.. you know.. like it? What if it just happens to tickle your ears in a way that makes you smile? The same way that listening to Zapp & Roger does? A bunch of intellectuals pedanting from towers against ear sugar is what this sounds like.. I say stop hatin and start dancin.
posted by mediocre at 2:23 AM on June 11, 2008


I remember complaining about this back in 2003, when Cantopop was overrun with the auto-tune effect.

It still makes me barf, though Snoop can get away with it on Sensual Seduction, because he's, you know, Snoop.
posted by bwg at 2:34 AM on June 11, 2008


If I've sung an entire track in tune - and I like the feel of it - and one note is slightly flat, I'll put the autotune on that one note. I'd never use it live, though.
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:56 AM on June 11, 2008


it seems like he has sent three of the four linked blog posts mysteriously and ambiguosly down the memory hole

Wow, he actually buried one of his previous awful, thoughtless posts about racist rockers with a snide little "THE TEXT IS NEVER FINISHED." And this is the guy who's bemoaning the horror of folks who edit reality to make themselves look better?

Just. Wow.
posted by mediareport at 4:30 AM on June 11, 2008


> The same goes for Maroon 5.

Gah, don't get me started on Adam Levine. Maroon 5 were here recently for MTV Day 2008 and that guy can just not sing live. Like many modern singers, he's taken the falsetto as a stylistic choice and just can't keep it in tune. (Chris Martin also has this problem, but at least Levine auto-tunes it in the studio - some recent Coldplay stuff has been so far out of tune I can only imagine the engineers cringingly forced to choose between being fired from a peachy gig for questioning Chris, or being ridiculed afterwards for letting that dissonance make it to vinyl.)

As an effect, AT is awesome, Melodyne doubly so. But like any effect, it should be used sparingly or else it loses its impact.

When used to clean up individual notes, AT is an invaluable tool, saving expensive studio time or rescuing sessions that would otherwise have to be junked because something wasn't picked up and rerecorded while the artist was still present/sober/alive...

AT as a substitute for ability is less acceptable to me though... Either the style is slightly off-key, or wavers, or the singer is out-of-tune - neither is a case for auto-tuning.
posted by benzo8 at 5:15 AM on June 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


There's a little bit of related discussion on this subject toward the end of this other open thread.

Yeah, I guess that was my fault. Compression and autotune, however, are very similar in the fact that they are great tools when used properly and virtually transparent to the end user when applied as an enhancement. There's a difference between that and something like the verses on Lollipop though, for example. That's achieved by turning everything all the way up so that the note tracking makes that glitchy bleat sound. There's nothing wrong with it, but it's just getting played out already.

As I was trying to point out in that thread (obviously clumsily and open to misinterpretation though), since autotune is so prevalent nowadays in popular music, more artists are asking for it on their songs (the bleaty effect ok? I'm not talking about just fixing notes here and there) because they want to sound enough like the current hits to have a hit themselves. Whether it's "good" or not, it seems to be catching the ear of the music buying public, if only for the moment.
posted by First Post at 7:03 AM on June 11, 2008


well, for those of us who, while not necessarily morally opposed to the use of auto-tuner per se, consider it a badge of honor to forgo using it in our own recordings, i've created this handy little seal so you too can proudly affirm that all the vocals you perform are 100% Natural*...

*Important Allergy Advisory: Please note that the 100% Natural designation as defined under current international audio-production nutritional guidelines precludes only the use of so-called auto-tuner or pitch-correction effects processing techniques. 100% Natural Vocals may or may not contain high concentrations of compression effects, synthetic reverbs, and/or other non-pitch correcting ingredients, as well as trace amounts of natural talent, blood, sweat and tears.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:33 AM on June 11, 2008


CASE: And if Celine Dion is supposedly the great singer that she says she is why is there auto tune on every fucking word in her songs? Can't you just hit it, Celine? Do you have another baby book to shoot? You gotta paint your baby to look like a pot of peas? What are you doing that you can't be singing in the studio? It's your fucking job!

PITCHFORK: Hey, that baby book is beautiful.

CASE: You know that's the grossest thing I've ever seen. That was so nasty I almost had to hate some babies for that. But babies came back and said, "I'm not responsible for this, they made me do it." So I decided that I still love babies.


Neko Case on autotune. And babies.
posted by chinston at 7:33 AM on June 11, 2008


Cool Papa Bell: "I correct eye color in photographs to cover up the fact that, in real life, I don't have glowing red demon eyes."

Ironically I do have glowing red demon eyes in real life so in all my flash photos, I have hazel eyes. Win/win.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:34 AM on June 11, 2008


I've sat with our engineer with Pro Tools and corrected little pitch variations in vocals for a long time now. Its NO BIG DEAL. Why? Because in the grand scheme of the song, it nearly undetectable. I'd challenge anyone to be able to hear the difference between a corrected note and an untouched note.

There are, however, instances where its so damn obvious that the vocals were fucked with that you can't help but wonder if AutoTune is satan's little helper. The best example of this is Lisa Presley's solo album To Whom It May Concern. When I first heard it, I was all "Holy shit, this ain't half bad!" Then I saw her live (on TV) three times in the course of a week and the woman couldn't hold a note in a bucket. She's absolute shit, live. Her dad should have risen from his tomb and spanked her ass good. So in this case, I think autotune hoodwinked the public. It sure got me.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:51 AM on June 11, 2008


I'm glad that it obviously doesn't seem to work all that well for live singing, actually.

Naw, it's pretty commonly used in live settings now as well, just a lot less blatantly. The Billy Joel clip is a bad example, somebody should have been fired for that.
posted by kingbenny at 8:31 AM on June 11, 2008


I've sat with our engineer with Pro Tools and corrected little pitch variations in vocals for a long time now. Its NO BIG DEAL. Why? Because in the grand scheme of the song, it nearly undetectable. I'd challenge anyone to be able to hear the difference between a corrected note and an untouched note.

So have I. From little personal project studios to full-production studios that record demos for made-for-market bands like O-Town. And for me, the fact that it's so widely considered NO BIG DEAL is what's dangerous.

There are, however, instances where its so damn obvious that the vocals were fucked with that you can't help but wonder if AutoTune is satan's little helper.

That kind of use is exactly what bothers me--not when it's used as an effect, not when it's used to salvage an otherwise good take with a couple of bad notes--but when it's used to represent someone who really can't sing very well as someone who can to people who, if they knew about it, would mind.

Also, the recent past is chock full of cases where music producers took a strictly product development oriented approach to creating pop music--bands like O-Town, again, spring to mind. It's not a prevalent practice, to be sure, but some producers have made careers basically out of finding a couple of young, pliable patsies with pretty faces, a modicum of talent and an overwhelming desire for fame, and exploiting their inexperience and ambition to sign them to incredibly disadvantageous contracts.

To me, pitch correction tools just seem to offer a lot of potential for abuse by that Machiavellian type. Not only does it create new opportunities for nepotism in the behind the scenes deal-making that goes on at the fringes of the industry ("Heh! With my Antares, I can make nice and produce a pop album for that politically well-connected niece of Mr. Big Record Label Executive who likes to think she's the second coming of Ella Fitzgerald even though she can't carry a tune! Thanks Antares!"), but now producers of the sleaziest kind potentially have an even bigger pool of inexperienced patsies to draw on.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:38 AM on June 11, 2008


"What you're hearing is coming from the speakers, not the band." From a small argument with a coworker years ago, leveled at me. He was right.
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 9:06 AM on June 11, 2008


Autotuning and all other sound gadgets are great for making recordings. I don't care if you can't sing or play a note as long as you know how to get a good recorded sound and your songs are good.

But if you can't approximate or better that sound live, without just lip-synching to a recording everyone already paid for once, don't you dare sell concert tickets.
posted by pracowity at 9:19 AM on June 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


pracowity: "Autotuning and all other sound gadgets are great for making recordings. I don't care if you can't sing or play a note as long as you know how to get a good recorded sound and your songs are good.

But if you can't approximate or better that sound live, without just lip-synching to a recording everyone already paid for once, don't you dare sell concert tickets.
"

My point exactly.

Using autotune to fix a studio take is small beans. Our vocalists (three women) have great voices and can 'bring it' in a live setting. Sure, they may hit an occasional bad note but the emotional intensity of the performance can overshadow any little discrepancies. In the studio, they do multiple takes. If you've got a great take but theres a note that just didn't get hit right (a tad sharp or flat) it makes more sense to correct it then to have them drag their ass back into the studio.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:24 AM on June 11, 2008


To date, all of the auto-tune type software works only on monophonic signales - esp good for vocals and bass.

That is all about to change. Celemony have announced Direct Note Access which allows you to rip chordal information apart and affect individual notes. E.g. take a guitar chord and then change individual notes in the chord.

This has massive implications. Like the sound of a Beatles chord? Sample it, re-pitch it one, some or all of the individual notes and voila, you have a whole new sample set.

The video is well worth a look.
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 9:30 AM on June 11, 2008


I've sat with our engineer with Pro Tools and corrected little pitch variations in vocals for a long time now. Its NO BIG DEAL.

Not true, evident simply by the fact that so many people have a problem with it. You can call them luddites or Golden Ears or whatever, it doesn't change the fact that for a not-insignificant portion of the population, it is a big deal. I think the problem is that a lot of people have difficulty explaining precisely why it is a big deal to them, because as you point out, it's likely we AutoTune-haters have music in our collection that has been bastardized and we don't even know it.

My distaste for AutoTune has little to do with the music itself. Its use is pervasive, and as computers get better and better, the software will also only get better and better, until it will at some point reach a level that is indistinguishable from a natural voice. Much like the courts are now having problems deciding whether photographic evidence is sufficient on its own merits due to the ease of photo manipulation and its convincing results.

My problem is that it denigrates the concept of talent. By lowering the price of admission to the recording industry, it pollutes the waters with a sea of pretty faces with mediocre voices.

Plus, I know I can't help it, but every time I think of AutoTune I am reminded of this passage in 1984:
Under the window somebody was singing. Winston peeped out, secure in the protection of the muslin curtain. The June sun was still high in the sky, and in the sun-filled court below, a monstrous woman, solid as a Norman pillar, with brawny red forearms and a sacking apron strapped about her middle, was stumping to and fro between a washtub and a clothes line, pegging out a series of square white things which Winston recognized as babies' diapers. Whenever her mouth was not corked with clothes pegs she was singing in a powerful contralto :

It was only an 'opeless fancy.
It passed like an Ipril dye,
But a look an' a word an' the dreams they stirred
They 'ave stolen my 'eart awye !


The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator. But the woman sang so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound. He could hear the woman singing and the scrape of her shoes on the flagstones, and the cries of the children in the street, and somewhere in the far distance a faint roar of traffic, and yet the room seemed curiously silent, thanks to the absence of a telescreen.
It's the fact that she doesn't have a generated, synthesized voice that makes the music beautiful. Jazz and Blues music lovers have known this for ages. Rock will come around. Trite and true, but some people are just born with singers' voices, and the rest of us ain't. No amount of vocal lessons or AutoTune can change that. Talent has never been democratic in distribution, much as it burns the talentless to admit.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:59 AM on June 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


Well said Civil. Steve Albini has a couple of good points on this in this long but totally awesome lecture.

To paraphrase:

These choices are made by engineers and not musicians in general. Thus, they are used all over the place and are a fad. The music will sound dated and about the recording styles of the era rather than whatever the song happens to be about.

Albini points out that if Ella Fitzgerald walked into a recording studio today, they'd put her through autotune because engineers for major labels do it as a defensive move.
posted by lumpenprole at 10:53 AM on June 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


"The best example of this is Lisa Presley's solo album To Whom It May Concern. When I first heard it, I was all "Holy shit, this ain't half bad!""

I can't claim to be old enough to have heard it on the first go-round, but Linda McCartney's vocals were infamously "sweetened" before Autotune existed.
posted by klangklangston at 11:06 AM on June 11, 2008


I find on the whole that if I skip articles written by Sasha Frere-Jones, I enjoy the New Yorker much more than if I read them.

As for Autotune, it's a tool. Autotune doesn't kill music, people kill music. Or something like that.
posted by Outlawyr at 11:12 AM on June 11, 2008


Here is a listening sample of Auto-Tune abuse in popular music. Some of it is more noticable than others.

Wow, so that horrible sound is caused by incompetent Autotune misuse. Dopey me, I honestly thought it was some kind of hep, mod, now effect done on purpose by the with-it Pepsi Blue generation of today's wired world.

I don't necessarily hate Autotune or other pitch correction technology, and the point that it's typically used to fix slight glitches in a way that is totally imperceptible to the listener is well taken. But I sure would like to hear some of the "before" versions. I mean, so a singer or guitarist doesn't quite hit a note or three. Is that really that bad? But then, I speak as someone who enjoys listening to field recordings from the 1930s and enjoys them more because of the 78 crackles, "amateur" performers, and backyard recording conditions, so I'm the obvious outlier.

If you want to edit out the sound of Glenn Gould humming along with himself (and off-key at that) as he plays Beethoven's "Pathétique" sonata at a wonderfully too-brisk astringent clip, you'll have to pry it from my cold dead hands, buster.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:41 PM on June 11, 2008


On the other hand, if anybody feels like removing 87% of Scarlet Rivera from Desire, I can get behind that.
posted by FelliniBlank at 12:45 PM on June 11, 2008


Civil_Disobedient: "I've sat with our engineer with Pro Tools and corrected little pitch variations in vocals for a long time now. Its NO BIG DEAL.

Not true, evident simply by the fact that so many people have a problem with it. You can call them luddites or Golden Ears or whatever, it doesn't change the fact that for a not-insignificant portion of the population, it is a big deal.
"

Maybe I wasn't clear then. Auto-tune, when used sparingly, is a time-saver - much like a filter or brush in Photoshop. In the Lisa Presley example I gave, it was obviously used too much. Waaayyy too much. So, basically, I stand by my assertion that it really is no big deal as long as its imperceptible to the listener. Nine times out of ten it isn't.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 1:59 PM on June 11, 2008


FelliniBlank: "But I sure would like to hear some of the "before" versions."

Funny you should mention that. We edit bad notes in harmony arrangements and even then the edits are so small, you couldn't tell the difference unless you were there, heard it the first time and then heard the changed version. Its so fleeting and goes by so quickly, really.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 2:04 PM on June 11, 2008


Self-link alert.

I use the Cakewalk SONAR equivalent of Autotune, called V-Vocal, to turn myself into a female Japanese backing singer.

(At some point, I need to include some before and after samples.)
posted by NemesisVex at 2:06 PM on June 11, 2008


Here's a pretty good article about autotune as it has been used in Nashville. I get the feeling Patsy Cline would have welcomed autotune with open arms.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 2:06 PM on June 11, 2008


Case's comments remind me that Fox Confessor is one of the few albums I've purchased in the last few years. And its interesting that KevenSkomsgold's link reminds me that Van Lear Rose is another. But pop music these days strikes me as overproduced anyway. Which is why I was baffled by the examples linked by chillmost. All 10 examples sound overly processed and squeaky clean to me, the AutoTune just adds more.
Civil_Disobedient: My problem is that it denigrates the concept of talent. By lowering the price of admission to the recording industry, it pollutes the waters with a sea of pretty faces with mediocre voices.
I have the exact opposite view, and interpretation of that passage. Music belongs to everyone willing to do it. In a few generations we've gone from a culture in which a majority performed music of some form in front of other people, to a culture in which music is owned by the lawyers, and we have utterly stupid debates as to which recording of a song is definitive. As if any single performance can be frozen in time, packaged outside of context, and treated as a sterile museum piece.

And no, this is not a denigration of talent. Because unless you've struggled with the limits of your own musicianship, how the fuck can you claim to be able to appreciate the mastery of someone else? Which is why I often have trouble getting behind all of this bashing of the latest pop music figure du jour. While I think their recordings are often over-produced, over-rated, and over-played, they still are better musicians than almost all of the ignorant armchair critics on Metafilter chiming in with the herd. "Mooo, MoooOOooo, moo."

AutoTune, compression, and extensive post-processing strike me as a problem because it feeds into the growing malaise that I feel is dumbing down the arts. Rather than a human experience as universal as speaking, eating, and fucking, the arts have become a product fed to us in exchange for money. Buy this carefully produced and shrinkwrapped product we carefully edited and airbushed to remove any flaws. Plop down $50 for concert tickets. Come see this exhibition in a nice glossy studio, or just buy the book. Here, buy a fakebook with your favorite songs for $20, but don't you dare try to sing them outside of your own house. My parents are English Handbell ringers and I hear horror stories of cases where not even the composers know what restrictions the publisher puts on performance.

Talent doesn't spontaneously appear like Marry Poppins to knock on the door of a recording studio. Most master musicians started young in environments where performing music was just a part of how you lived your life. If we are going to have great performances in the future, we need to not only lower the price of admission; we need to kick open the box-office and mug the ushers. We need a vibrant amateur tradition of millions of mediocre voices in the bars and the dining rooms.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:32 PM on June 11, 2008


And personally, I'm a big fan of recordings of live performances that catch the incidental sounds of a performance: the soft slide of fingers on strings during a chord change, the sound of an inhaled breath just at the start of a movement.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:39 PM on June 11, 2008


the sound of an inhaled breath just at the start of a movement.

I agree that this adds something, but you can have too much of a good thing: I've got a recording of the Schoenberg string quartets where somebody takes a really loud sucking breath every couple of measures. Totally annoying.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:26 PM on June 11, 2008


While I think their recordings are often over-produced, over-rated, and over-played, they still are better musicians than almost all of the ignorant armchair critics on Metafilter chiming in with the herd. "Mooo, MoooOOooo, moo."

I know this wasn't directed at me, KJS, but it still rankles. I've struggled against my own artistic limitations to make myself a better musician and to teach myself the art and science of audio production for almost 20 years of my life. I taught myself to sing reasonably well, despite having a fairly meager natural talent for it (I have a good ear and could always roughly hold a tune, but becoming a decent singer if you aren't born one like my wife takes discipline and serious commitment), I taught myself to play the trap kit and worked my ass off for many years as a drummer. Then I gradually worked to develop my skills as a guitarist and songwriter until I was able to become a guitarist/vocalist--and of course, then I tackled bass guitar.

More recently (the past eight years or so) I've focused on teaching myself how to produce decent recordings on the cheap.

So I've personally devoted more than two-thirds of my life to music, and while I respect the point you're trying to make, I really wish you'd chosen to express your opinion in a way less offensive to those of us among the herd who have good reason for our endless, tiresome mooing.

And sorry, but a lot of lesser-known independent musicians I've known over the years could fucking outplay at least three-quarters of the guys in constant rotation on the radio on any instrument of your choice, all while simultaneously booking their own East coast tour, reading the final chapter of a Dostoevsky novel, and polishing off a bottle of Jameson.

This is an exaggeration, but not by much.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:55 PM on June 11, 2008


While I think their recordings are often over-produced, over-rated, and over-played, they still are better musicians than almost all of the ignorant armchair critics on Metafilter chiming in with the herd. "Mooo, MoooOOooo, moo."

wrong animal, buddy
posted by pyramid termite at 6:27 PM on June 11, 2008


wrong animal, buddy

Good god. What a song, what an arrangement. White peoples is weird, man...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:10 PM on June 11, 2008


anything to convince themselves that they're not going to become insurance adjusters
posted by pyramid termite at 7:31 PM on June 11, 2008


@mediocre:

A bunch of intellectuals pedanting from towers against ear sugar is what this sounds like..

This metaphor would be appropriate if Autotune were sugar. However, it's aspartame, at best—you can tell it's supposed to taste sweet, but the dominant flavor tastes like a byproduct of drywall manufacturing.

Then again, Autotune is really only useful for polished, radio-ready pop music, which I despise with or without Autotune. Maybe I just hate shitty music, and I'm unfairly projecting onto Autotune. We may never know.
posted by greenie2600 at 8:06 PM on June 11, 2008


We need a vibrant amateur tradition of millions of mediocre voices in the bars and the dining rooms.

You don't sing in the shower? You don't sing in your car? We already have a vibrant amateur tradition of mediocrity... it's called the human condition. But what makes humans fundamentally better than our hairier brethren in the trees is that we place a great amount of emphasis on trying to make ourselves better. Some of that is through rigorous study and practice, but most of it isn't. Most of the time, it springs up out of nowhere like Athena from Zeus's skull. We don't know where it comes from, we can't reproduce it, all we can do is appreciate it for what it is, and let it be an inspiration to the future.

I was at a bar a couple weeks ago, and some Otis Redding came on the jukebox. Some of the people started singing along. Maybe you would have appreciated the vibrant tradition in the moment; personally I really wished those people would have shut the fuck up so I could hear Mr. Redding.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:33 PM on June 11, 2008


all right, i'm getting drunk now, so i'd better not say too much more, but a couple of last things.

it's funny how many different angles there are to this subject, and how passionately some feel pro or con about the use of pitch-correction technology. to me that suggests there's more latent controversy here than some want to admit.

here's a final thought: when people buy recorded music, they generally expect that they're buying music from people who've worked at developing certain musical skills and who actually can perform at the level represented in the recording. from a consumer's point of view, that's not an unreasonable expectation.

and even if you never notice the difference (as in the many cases when auto-tuner is barely noticeable), you have an implied right to know what you're buying, as a consumer.

if you go to a butcher to buy a pound of hamburger meat but he gives you a pound of horse-meat instead without telling you about the substitution, even if the horse-meat is completely indistinguishable from hamburger meat, you have a right to know what you're getting. i think many ordinary music consumer's (over)reactions to the use of auto-tuner stem from an understandable sense that the butcher has been ripping them off. whether or not such reactions stand up to closer rational scrutiny or not really doesn't enter the equation.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:03 PM on June 11, 2008


here's a final thought: when people buy recorded music

they get what they hear - the fact that they may not be able to perform it that way in person isn't an issue because that's not what the consumer is paying for, unless they buy a concert ticket

jimmy page couldn't play 3 guitars at once, so he shouldn't have overdubbed?
posted by pyramid termite at 2:58 AM on June 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I have to say, saulgoodman, while I respect your quest for the pinnacle of your personal ideal of good musicianship, I'm finding your "if you can't do it live, it shouldn't be on a record" attitude a bit, well, surprisingly rigid and old-fashioned. pyramid termite's point above about overdubbing is just one out of a thousand possible examples of how a record should be viewed (and in fact is viewed by most everybody, really) as something distinct from a raw, live performance.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:32 AM on June 12, 2008


I'm finding your "if you can't do it live, it shouldn't be on a record" attitude a bit, well, surprisingly rigid and old-fashioned.

no, no, no--please understand this: that's definitely not my personal attitude! far from it. a lot of my favorite music is almost exclusively recording oriented. and i have no problem with whatever studio tricks and techniques are used to achieve a particular recorded result (assuming the results are good).

i was just speculating about why so many music fans do have such immediate, strong reactions to the idea of artists using auto-tuner. i was also arguing that since they're the consumers of music, it's not fair to just dismiss their reactions, even if they do seem irrational.

for myself, i generally do have a slight preference for vocals with flaws and all intact; it's more an aesthetic thing, really, though i do respect the ideal of a singer who's willing to put in a little extra work to get the result they want with a more human touch (meaning, for me, a recording in which just the right kinds of flaws remain intact). but i don't personally subscribe to the rigid authenticity mindset either, and i'd hoped to make that clear. musical puritanism is made of the same stuff as the religious kind, and tastes just as bad.

hell, i can't play drums, bass, three guitars and synths all at the same time live, like i do on my recordings. (now, that's not to say i couldn't adequately reproduce any one of those performances in a live setting after a little rehearsal with a band to accompany me, but that's beside the point.)

recording art is not music making--it's recording making. i think we agree here. recordings--not musical performances, not even songs--are the finished products of recording artists. but that understanding, sadly, isn't widely shared by the music consuming public (i think it should be). so otherwise brilliant recording artists who probably have no business on a stage (not because they aren't skilled, say, but because the pressures of live performance and the rigors of touring are too psychologically taxing--or the stage just isn't where their skills shine most) are forced to perform anyway, which does nobody any real good.

that's not what the consumer is paying for, unless they buy a concert ticket

i think this isn't as clear-cut as you think. many music consumers--even some of the more sophisticated ones--are still operating under the old assumption that a recording is an attempt at a faithful representation/approximation of a live musical performance. i agree that that's an invalid assumption, but it's still a persistent one. so a lot of consumers don't think of it as buying a work of recording art. they think of it as buying a way to listen to a musical performance that's been frozen in time.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:05 AM on June 12, 2008


i think this isn't as clear-cut as you think. many music consumers--even some of the more sophisticated ones--are still operating under the old assumption that a recording is an attempt at a faithful representation/approximation of a live musical performance. i agree that that's an invalid assumption, but it's still a persistent one. so a lot of consumers don't think of it as buying a work of recording art. they think of it as buying a way to listen to a musical performance that's been frozen in time.

I was pretty fundamentalist about that approach maybe 10 years ago; I was way, way, way too into Uncle Tupelo at the time, and had gotten it into my head that their last two albums were recorded live in studio with no overdubs, and kind of went around being a cock to anybody who didn't agree that that was the only way to record anything.

I've loosened up a bunch since then, but I still skew really heavily towards unpolished music. I like vocal quirks and little fuckups and incidental noises-- it might be because I'm a musician myself and it helps bring the music alive to have these little glimpses into the process of how a recording was created. KevinSkomsvold says he uses AT for tiny edits that you don't even notice; my question is, then why use it? Why not leave the little imperfections?
posted by COBRA! at 7:24 AM on June 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Aha, I see. Thanks for the elucidation, there, saulgoodman.

oh, and... you gonna do something for this month's MeFi Music Challenge? Lotta activity over that way this month, and we'd love to hear you bring something in! And you too, pyramid termite!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:26 AM on June 12, 2008


COBRA!: "KevinSkomsvold says he uses AT for tiny edits that you don't even notice; my question is, then why use it? Why not leave the little imperfections?"

Mainly because we notice the imperfections. Even though I'm not a singer in the band (just a useless guitar player ;), I can pick things out of the recording that aren't quite right. Our vocalists are brutal in terms of hearing even more and being self-critical.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:33 AM on June 12, 2008


Fair enough. But I'm curious how far that extends beyond vocals-- if, say, you record a guitar track that tottaly kills except for a couple of Jimmy Page*-esque dead notes in the middle of a solo, do you still run with it, or do you rerecord (or try to fix by, say cutting and pasting)?

*mentioned because he's the most prominent example of a guy regarded as a great guitarist whose work is totally littered with little flubs and dead notes, tolerated in the name of energy or emotion or what have you...
posted by COBRA! at 8:47 AM on June 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


*hehe - agreed.

Yes, I do punch in only if theres a glaringly obvious stray note (mostly overbends or over-fretting). Rarely though. Honest! Another guitarist who comes to mind for some reason is Buddy Guy. I'd be pissed if I found out he punched in notes because his crazy style is a huge part of his charm.

posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:22 AM on June 12, 2008


oh, and... you gonna do something for this month's MeFi Music Challenge?

I'm hoping to, but there hasn't been much time for fun lately after work, 'cause one of the bands on the label is putting out a new record and touring in September, and it's been hard to justify not spending most of what free-time i have working on helping them pull that together. still, i'll definitely try to squeeze something out...

posted by saulgoodman at 9:57 AM on June 12, 2008


many music consumers--even some of the more sophisticated ones--are still operating under the old assumption that a recording is an attempt at a faithful representation/approximation of a live musical performance.

science fiction criticism had a phrase that best describes this - a "willing suspension of disbelief" - one knows that a live band wouldn't sound that clean and perfect, but the fans are willing to go along with it anyway

it really doesn't help matters that a lot of today's rock bands really don't seem to be going for much more than the band's live sound and that the live bands want to "play it just like the record"

i think they're two different things with two different goals and sets of possibilities and should be treated that way

i also think that the main flaw in autotuning, protooling and effecting things to death is that the music stops breathing - it may be perfect, but it doesn't have feel - on the other hand, there's nothing wrong with looping a guitar part to get a good take - i've done it and i'm not ashamed to admit it

the autotune stuff just kind of sounds like little lonely robot love dolls to me - it's a bit strange, except in country music where it just does not belong
posted by pyramid termite at 1:16 PM on June 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


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