Thursday, July 10, 2014

Auto-tuning and Pop

A while back I did a post on Auto-Tune, the software that corrects mis-tuned notes that is often used by pop singers. Go read the post and the Wikipedia article I link to for the background.

I don't know if I have said so in so many words, but my feeling is that a lot of pop singers are really musical amateurs chosen for their looks and ability to dance. I'm echoing something Giles once said on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I just ran across a story that tends to substantiate this view. Someone has leaked a recording of Britney Spears singing the song "Alien" without Auto-Tune so we can hear what she really sounds like. First let's hear the released version, with Auto-Tune:

And now the version without Auto-Tune--what she really sounds like when she sings:

UPDATE: The first clip I put up got taken down, so here is another one of the same performance. I will try and keep an eye on it. But if you are reading this post and the above clip won't play, just try searching yourself on YouTube for "britney spears alien without autotune". The clip is about 4 minutes long. You will see a bunch of shorter clips that are mostly people's comments. I would avoid those.

This is how weak, untrained voices sound without proper breath support. Amateur singing, in other words. The producer of the track, William Orbit, tries to spin it as follows:
“Warming up is essential if you’re a pro, as it is with a runner doing stretches, and it takes a while to do properly. I’ve heard all manner of sounds emitted during warmups. The point is that it is not supposed to be shared with millions of listeners.”
He continued: “A generous singer will put something down the mic to help the engineer get their systems warmed up and at the right level, maybe whilst having a cup of herb tea and checking through lyrics before the session really kicks off. It’s not expected to be a ‘take’.”
If you sing all the way through, with the correct words, as in this version, that's a "take" because no-one wastes time doing that if they are just warming up. Also, you don't need the whole song to adjust levels and modern digital systems certainly don't need to be "warmed up" like a 57 Chevy. For comparison, here is a recording of Christina Aguilera warming up:

The advantage of Auto-Tune is often presented as saving time in the studio because you can correct those minor little errors of pitch all singers make from time to time. The much greater disadvantage is that if Auto-Tune is always available, then that takes away the incentive to really work hard on your vocal technique. After all, before Auto-Tune came along in 1998, most professional singers were perfectly capable of singing in tune:

Incentives work, by the way. We musicians largely do what we do out of sheer love of music, but financial incentives always have an effect. If there were a few multi-million dollar prizes for musical composition, for example, that might have an interesting effect. Warren? Bill? Anyone?


Rickard Dahl said...

The second Youtube clip doesn't work. Copyright.

Anyways, I think auto-tune can mainly be used for two purposes. One is aesthetic appeal. Now, I don't think auto-tune sounds good but it can certainly be a way of making more interesting (?) timbre. The second one is correcting for bad singing (which is something I haven't really though about) as mention. Indeed, when so much money is on stake, it seems like a quick fix (something I haven't thought about either so it's a great point that you're making). Multi-million dollar prizes for composition, now that would be very interesting. Assuming the judges would be knowledgable, fair and have a great sense of aesthetic expression and in general great sense for music it would be a great thing. I can imagine it would get the public in general more interested in classical music and even in composition. I think parents would be more likely to pay for music (composition) lessons which would bring a new valuable source of income for composers. Maybe even more adults would be interested and try to find out if they have talent for composing. In general there would be more composers which would both give more people a chance to compose, something they probably didn't know they were capable of and it would more easily reveal the next big composers. One of the problems (if you can call it that) in our society is that we often aren't able to do what we are passionate about. Often people choose education and profession based on what gives them good money instead of what their passion is. And once they work in the profession they often end up too busy; too busy with work, too busy with taking care of their family, too busy with household chores and so on. So the next Mozart could be pursuing a degree in economics instead of composing. And, ofc only a few of the best would be able to get the prizes but more people would discover their musical ability and more people would find happiness in it (some might after all have musical ability but dislike focusing their efforts on it). I know it sounds very hypothetical and it is. Maybe I'm stretching it too far but it's interesting to think about how things could be.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hmm, funny, worked for me... Maybe if you just search on YouTube?

Yes, those are some of the things I was thinking. It would be great to put a huge incentive out there for good compositions. I got thinking about this when I was thinking about why I don't teach guitar any more. I could have a great studio of students and transform guitar playing in Mexico. So why don't I? Apart from just because I could and there would be a benefit to a small number of prospective guitarists, there is just not enough incentive. After many years of teaching, I find teaching boring and draining of energy. I would far rather focus my creative intelligence on composition. People respond to incentives...

Shantanu said...

I thought that apart from sounding tired, Britney seemed to be singing the wrong notes.

Bryan Townsend said...

You should go back and read my previous post on Auto-Tune. It is software that takes whatever is sung and, if it is close to but not exactly on a musical pitch, corrects the frequency so it is on the note. It tunes the note automatically. Of course, along with eliminating errors it would also eliminate, for example, an intentional slide into a note. So it makes the voice sound a bit mechanical as well. But used a lot in pop music.

shadi said...

Oh dear! All pop singers do weird stuff and sing badly, but it's Britney Spearses who always gets the flogging, doesn't she?

Now, I'm not a fan of pop music...

But we've to consider that programs like Auto-Tune and Melodyne didn't just spring into existence; they're the culmination of the efforts of countless people over centuries, who used input from sciences such as mathematics and physics, as well as *classical* music theory and analysis. Besides, those applications are not the "wonder-ware" they're marketed as; they are actually quite hard to use and come with all sorts of settings and subtle tweaks (perhaps the "artist" here is the music producer/engineer? Whom I'm sure gets no less revenue than the singer.) If it was that easy, then we'd have many Britney Spearses. But have you noticed that we've had more or less the same names and faces of pop singers for so long (Britney's been singing since the '90s). Clearly, it takes more than a simple pitch-correction software to break in and stay successful and famous.

Another point: we're not *supposed to* listen to that rough recording. I'm sure Cecilia Bartoli would sound less impressive if somebody leaked a recording of her in a particularly uninspired rehearsal. Besides, Britney didn't have the resouces Cecilia had, such as teachers or a musical household, etc. Perhaps she can now partially make up for that in the form of Auto-Tune?!

The point I'm trying to make is: yes, side by side, classical singers win hands down, because of their God-given talents and the great time and effort they put into, all of which somehow pay off and seep into the quality of the final music. However, as listeners we often simply enjoy the music, unaware of those "background" factors. But if we got into the habbit of digging up recordings of this soprano when she was a student or that tenor in a tired rehearsal, some of us may become disenchanted even with classical music! It's like watching an eye-popping movie and wondering, "How do they do that?", then go seeing some making-of. Some people would still enjoy the same movie; others would think: "Mehhh!"

Interestingly, Christina Aguilera is purported to be opposed to pitch-correction software. But hey, both she and Britney Spears have their fans, most of whom won't care about Auto-Tune.

Having written all this, I'll end up by saying (and hope this doesn't make me a hypocrite): Give me Cecilia Bartoli everytime!

Bryan Townsend said...

Shadi, welcome to The Music Salon and thanks for your thoughtful comment. And as a matter of fact, there may be a tape recording out there of me badly screwing up the final chord in a concert performance of Sevilla that I hope never gets out!

Perhaps the subtext to what you are saying, and it was something I hinted at, is that the performance realities and demands are very different between classical singers and pop singers. Classical singers spend a great deal of time and energy on vocal technique and languages. They have to be able to sing with a convincing accent in several different languages besides English: German, Italian and French for sure and perhaps Spanish and Russian as well! But for stage presentation, pretty much all they have to do is buy a nice evening gown. Pop singers on the other hand spend a lot less time on vocal technique and no time learning languages, but a great deal of time working out, dieting to stay slim, learning dance routines and all sorts of promotional schemes. So comparing pop and classical singers is kind of apples and oranges.