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Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Death by Autotune

There has been a lot of controversy since we all found out that a device known as ‘Autotune’ was used on X-Factor to improve some singers on the show. However, we all need to realize that this technology has been around for twenty years and is used on the majority of recordings in the charts. For me, it’s not ‘Autotune’ that we should be worried about but some of the recording techniques as a whole and our attitude to what we think make a great artiste. This is similar to the modeling industry and the use of airbrushing to correct imperfections. Is it right?
First…’Autotune’, what is it and why use it? Autotune was originally designed as a hardware unit and is now used as a computer software plug-in to correct the pitch of a vocal or instrument. This allows singers to perform perfectly tuned vocals regardless if they are in tune or not. Although its main use is to adjust sung notes to the nearest correct pitch it can also be used as an effect. The most obvious use of this is Cher’s 1998 hit ‘Believe’ where the extreme use of Autotune became the latest cool effect to use. Personally, I have nothing against people using it as an effect in this way as it is so obvious to the listener that it is not the singers natural vocal. However, I think it is deceitful to correct or adjust a singers voice because they cannot hit the note or runs that they want to achieve.

Now you know what it sounds like you will probably notice it on countless songs in the charts. Listen out for the end of a sung line where there is usually a run of notes that the singer hasn’t quite hit and you may hear the use of ‘Autotune’. Obviously some singers are better than others so it is used to varying degrees but should they be using it and what do they do when it comes to performing live?

The sad truth is that many artistes are forced to sing to playback and lip sync their vocal. Due to public expectations, most managers / record companies won’t risk a poor performance, especially on a live TV show, otherwise it may expose them for being a poor singer which could ultimately end their career. I can’t name names but most have had to do it at some point. Even a certain major female artiste from the US has done her fair share of miming. Shame on you!

It’s not just ‘Autotune’ but there is a whole host of products used in the studio that were designed to improve things, thus saving time and money. With the use of digital recording you no longer have to record a whole band in one take and can copy, move and transpose parts. There has got to be a lot said for some of the old bands from the 60’s and 70’s whether you like their music or not. The sad truth is that there are not many bands, let alone singers or musicians that can play a song perfectly in one take anymore.

During my formative years recording, I would be offered to drop-in a part and overdub a small section. Every time, I would refuse to overdub anything because I was determined to record it in one complete take. My theory was that this was my perfect opportunity to practice my part before having to play it live with a band. I was determined not to cheat myself and ultimately it’s how I improved as a player.

In 1992, I had some studio time with a major record label. During one of these sessions someone came up to the band and said that we needed to lose one of the band members because he didn’t look right, despite him being a gifted multi-instrumentalist and musician from London’s Guildhall of Music. Most of the member had fashionable long hair and trendy clothes and he had short hair and glasses and just had to leave the band. What a shame….

The point that I’m making isn’t necessarily about ‘Autotune’ or any other technology that is out there, but our expectations as the buying public. After all an artiste has to look right first don’t they? We seem to be judging with our eyes and not our ears. I don’t want to dramatize the situation but there is a real lack of talented singers and musicians out there that can deliver the goods in a live environment. Personally, I feel we need to get back to live performances despite there minor imperfections. The entertainment industry is slowly dying and it’s ‘Death by Autotune’.

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