Is it cheating?

As always there is a growing divide of opinion over the advances in music technology and it’s effect on the purity of talent vs the distinctly untalented.

Can automatic software band generators and vocal correction tools fool the public into accepting music from fakes as something made by the truly gifted?

Well it’s a pretty loaded question, on the one hand there are the individual musicians who perform the original parts of what is later turned into a sample loop. Then on the other hand there are those that use software like “Reason” or “Ableton” to find a way to drive that loop into a hook of a song that sells a whole bunch of units and takes the music far beyond the expectations of the original players.

Well, there is always one sure method to sort out the great from the fakes and that is the promo tour!  Eventually every singer will actually have to sing and sing live somewhere without the aid of their favourite piece of tech and there are no shortages of smart devices to capture that awesome moment when it all goes terribly wrong or very right and confirms the artist as the real deal.

So probably the one piece of software that cops the most criticism and abuse (not because it’s bad, it’s actually very good) is the pitch correcting tool of Auto-Tune and all similar software such as “Melodyne” & Waves “Tune”.

The critics would normally say something like “there wasn’t anything like this before the 90’s and the vocalists back then proved themselves without it” which sounds on the surface sounds like a good argument but there is another way of looking at it…

A few years ago I was recording a client who had a fantastic jazz big band voice, he had come to the studio to lay down a simple pre-production demo and brought a midi file along with him to use as a music guide.

We did a couple of takes and each time found that while the tone was excellent the pitch was just a bit out. We did a few more takes & still it wasn’t getting any better, now I have recorded a lot of vocalists and I knew this guy could do the job, so I wasn’t sure why he wasn’t hitting it.

I decided to think about the genre of music that he was used to singing and realised there was a floor in my approach.

When I thought about it, back in the days of full live big band recording they where dealing with instruments that where not perfectly pitched themselves. In fact the beauty of a saxophone section was that five horns generated a pleasant chorusing effect as a result of each one being slightly detuned to the other.

Multiply this over all the instruments and we find that the centre of perfect pitch didn’t happen in those recordings, as a result a singer had a really large sweet spot to pitch the vocal against. I then realised that the midi file was generating instruments that were perfectly tuned on the sound module and thus the sweet spot had shrunk to a tiny point.

So without re-recording my vocalist I randomly detuned all the instruments on the sound module up and down a few percent each and suddenly the vocal seem to come into tune and the midi even sounded bigger (chorus effect). 

So what can we draw from this? I guess in answer to the critics we could say that in the modern music the perfectly pitched sample generated instruments (which are bit unnatural) have changed the goal posts and make it really hard for vocalists to be relatively in tune all the time.

In fact like every other acoustic instrument you could say that being slightly out of tune in parts of the range is a naturally occurring thing, so using a pitch correcting tool at times seems only fair.

Now just a short comment on some things to watch out for when you are using these tools….

The biggest problem with auto-tunnig is the automatic set and forget function. While this sounds like a good idea it causes producers to stop considering every aspect of the vocal take that auto-tuning colours in it’s correction of the pitch.

I personally like to use the Waves plugin called Waves-Tune. This tool works best (at least for me) when you feed small amounts of the vocal (4 bars or so) into the tuning processor at a time. This makes you consider what your vocalist was trying to achieve in the emotion of the take.

On the plugin you are presented with a piano keyboard on the left and a pitch line on the right (similar to Melodyne)

Now this is the cool part… Automatic correction (depending on how it’s setup) shoots for the middle of the correct note but doesn’t really consider the approach and the decay of the vocalist to the note and this is where it can just make things sound strange. Imagine a trombone where you can’t hear the slide between notes (Weird) well all vocalist have a natural slide on and slide off that tells other humans that a human is singing to them and not a machine.

With “Waves-tune” you can see on the pitch line what the vocalist was going for and draw a new line over the top without messing up the approach and decay. The result is really transparent and if your careful doesn’t sound like it’s been artificially tuned.

Of course a bad singer is always a bad singer and you shouldn’t waste your time on them in your studio with pitch correction but on the other side of the argument I have never worked with or heard of a vocalist that always sings in tune and when you get that killer emotional take that has just a couple of pitchy moments I reckon this Waves plugin is a real winner.

For those that are interested here is a short video from the guys at Waves about this plugin.