HomeBlogscaptaindownbeat's blogDylan Bell Blog: Shiny, Happy Robots

captaindownbeat's picture

I realize I'm swimming against the tide with this, and I know someone's going to throw something at me, but here goes...

[swallows nervously]

I hate Auto-Tune.

[ducks flying objects]

OK. Now let me elaborate. I don't really hate Auto-Tune (or Melodyne, or whatever you use). Next to the invention of the pitchpipe and Pro Tools, it has probably helped advance the sound of contemporary a cappella more than anything else. It makes the impossible possible, the unbearable, bearable. It levels the playing field, allowing less-trained singers to put out albums that people will actually enjoy listening to. And although I'm an oldskool "just learn how to sing it right" kind of guy, I'm glad that it helps people make better recordings. Auto-Tune-ing allows the audience to hear beyond tuning and actually listen to the arrangements and the artistry behind the album. It democratizes music.

So no, I don't really hate Auto-Tune. I just hate hearing it. I'm not talking about the Cher/T-Pain robot effect -- although I do hate that as well. What I'm talking about are vocal tracks that are purely-tuned, inflectionless, flat-sounding and flawless.

Shiny, Happy Robots.

I don't know if this is a genuine aesthetic, or just a product of lazy engineers, but these cybervocals set my teeth on edge. As a singer, I know damned well that even the best of us don't hit 100% of the notes (including those little throwaway runs) 100% in tune, 100% of the time. But most importantly, the human voice allows for a primal, visceral expression of emotion that even the most soulful instrumentalist can't fully emulate. We bend notes, we place notes "bright" or "dark" to consciously (or unconsciously) transmit urgency or melancholy. There's an infinite range of expression, not twelve equal-tempered semitones, in a human scale. When you take that away, the voice becomes a mere instrument. The soul is gone, and with it, the reason why most people are attracted to the sound of the human voice.

I liken editing to using cosmetics, or airbrushing a photo. A good makeup job highlights the natural beauty of someone's face: good airbrushing smoothes out a few potential flaws. A bad makeup job can make you look like a ghoul. Plastic surgery may be attractive to some, but an overdose of silicone and botox can make someone look like a caricature. A bad hairpiece can make a guy look like he's wearing a rodent on his head. Like any cosmetic work, editing/tuning works best when it is invisible, simply augmenting and correcting what's there. And I've seen/heard more "musical silicone" than a hot day on Miami Beach. Give me something natural... or at least something I can believe is natural!

But I don't believe in whining about something unless you have something constructive to bring to the table. So, as a producer, singer and musical-cosmetician, here are some thoughts.

Remember, perfect does not equal beautiful. I suppose it's logical to think that if we like hearing things in tune, than 100% flawless= more beautiful. If you believe this, try to imagine the most moving song you've heard performed live. Did you notice the intonation? Did you care? Were you even paying attention? Probably not... you were probably moved by the performance itself, not the quantitative accuracy of it. Or, go back to an older/retro song you love... anything up to the late 1990s. These were the days of Music B.A. (Before Auto-Tune), and some of the performances wouldn't have passed today's stringent tuning standards. But they're gorgeous. So what does that tell you?

Go for "plausible perfection". This is my mantra. I love it when a vocal part sounds like a perfect performance, but some something that actually could have been performed, rather than 100% pure/sterile. This means a few things.

1. Most of the time, skip the automatic mode. Or, at the very least, use very broad settings that only catch the worst notes. You can always go back and fine-tune if a chord still doesn't sit just right.

2. Use your ears, not your eyes. This seems obvious, but I often find myself doing this too. Tune by listening, not by watching the lines/blobs/whatever graphic representation tells you what's what. Put it this way... if you're listening to a soloed voice under the microscope and a you let a few notes slip by that are within, say, 20 cents of "perfect", what are the chances that your listeners are going to notice? Instead, these little imperfections will allow the track to still sound "hand-made" rather than factory-made.

3. Different Tuning Tolerances for different parts. A good rule of thumb: the more chordal and instrumental the part, the tighter it should be tuned.

- For basses, I usually use an automatic mode with fairly tight settings and tweak as needed.

- For guitar-y parts, sometimes automatic but with looser settings.

- For lyrical/stringy parts, I tune manually, and especially allow them more "drift": it's the synth-like drone of an absolutely-unwavering long note that causes a lot of the "over-tuned" sound.

- For lead vocals I try to use the least tuning of all: if you've taken enough lead takes and you make a good comp, 90% of the tuning will be taken care of, and you can manually tune the rest.

4. Different Tuning Tolerances within parts. For the Wibi album "In the Pocket", we had an average of 2-3 singers per part. I chose the strongest singer and spent some time making them sound next-to-perfect. The next singer was the "blender": I let the part stay natural and tuned only the bad rubs. Ditto the 3rd singer. If someone was overall weak, I tuned them hard to avoid dissonance and mixed them in low. If you do this, your ensemble parts will stay in tune but still have that nice warm ensemble sound.

Ironically, artfully tuning an ensemble to "near-perfect" isn't the easy way out: it's actually harder, and takes a lot more time. But, the end product is more believable and organic. No more Shiny, Happy Robots: now we have happy humans who sound not 100% perfect, but 100% beautiful.

About the author:
In a word…multifaceted. Juno-nominated, multiple-CARA-winning Dylan Bell is a performer, composer/arranger, music director and producer/engineer. As an a cappella singer, arranger and producer, Dylan has worked with many of the world's renowned vocal groups including Cadence, the Swingle Singers and the Nylons, as well as his own groups Retrocity and the FreePlay Duo. He’s played stages across the world from his native Toronto, Canada to Stockholm, Sweden, to Calcutta, India, and his compositions and vocal arrangements are performed everywhere from Arnprior to Zurich. Dylan also has a secret life as a freelance multi-instrumentalist, touring internationally as a pianist, bassist, and guitarist. Visit Dylan at www.dylanbell.ca

Comments

Throwing the first object

Dylan said:

"I know someone's going to throw something at me, but here goes...
[swallows nervously]
I hate Auto-Tune.
[ducks flying objects]"

Yes, Dylan, we're throwing things at you...  flowers and confetti! Maybe a ticker-tape parade is in order too.  Stand and take your accolades!   :-)

Sage advice from a wise man - Listen up, people!  :-)

-B

 

 

 

Bill Hare Some dude who records and mixes people who can't play instruments. http://www.dyz.com

AGREED!!

Kudos!!  So nice to hear such a well-reasoned, fair and balanced (sorry, can't think of a better expression) perspective on tuning technology. 

With a background in vocal jazz perhaps I value 'locking' chords in live performance more than some others might, but I find it mildly offensive when a recording is unrepresentative of the performing capability of  an ensemble.  I also have a recording engineering background that goes back to analog days, and I can appreciate the desire to want a studio take to be a 'best-case' sound that perhaps a group might not consistently hit in live performance.  But when processing takes the sound out of the realm of even the remotest possibility, then the recording is no longer a product of the performer, but the product of the engineer.  I really like your term 'plausible perfection,' which maintains a standard of artistic integrety on the part of the performer, and perhaps should be the mantra of all engineers and producers. 

I'd like to add that everyday use of tuning technology does not do what, say, the Chicago Symphony does live and what high-quality vocal harmony groups with great aural skills ('big ears') do intuitively -- adjust the tuning of particular notes in particular chords according to their harmonic function.  The software can adjust tuning to approach a just or mean temperment within the context of a particular tonal center, but what about when, say, a D7 chord occurs in a song that's in C major?  That's a fairly common chord in pop music, the dominant II7 or V7/V chord.  When that chord occurs in a piece played by the Chicago Symphony, a section leader or staff member marks each individual part so that wherever that F# appears the player knows to tune it slightly higher, as the major third should be.  Likewise the 7th of that D7 chord -- a C -- would be played a little flatter than it would when played as the fundamental of a tonic C major chord. So what's ironic is that the "perfect" tuning achieved by plugins is often not perfect at all, but rather somewhat out of tune.  Heaven forbid that we sing an E major chord in the key of C, the third of which the computer would tune a bit flatter than a tempered G#, instead of a slightly higher G# needed in that chord.

That being said, once AutoTune or Melodyne or Digital Performer begins to easily correct for these variables, the vocal harmony will become even more "soul-less" and without the "infinite range of expression" you discuss and that humans need from music.  

Thank you for calling the a cappella world out on equating beauty with perfection.

In his interview with Mickey Rapkin, Ben Folds discusses his choice to record collegiate a cappella groups live, rather than using AutoTune processing:  “I grew up listening to those old Nonesuch Records from the seventies,” Ben explains. “Which were all about being there at the event. Those records are more of a time portal. Something we don’t do much in modern recording is document an event and a moment. The last thing I wanted was to wring it out with computers.” He likens the project to those old National Geographic field recordings. “Simple live recordings, documents of music being made in real time that capture the inimitable thumbprint of a culture as it is in motion. I love that shit.”  (http://www.benfolds.com/sites/benfolds6/files/fullbio.html)

What is sad is that the work of a cappella groups who have spent so much time and money in studio production has, in a sense, been lost forever.

AMEN!

You have eloquently stated something that has bugged me for years! 

Too bad Glee feels the need to take the notion of shiny, happy robots to the nth degree - it may perpetuate the notion in today's generation that perfect=beautiful.

add me to the list...

...of agree-ers. I find that I don't have a lot of interest in a cappella recordings that are so perfect that every notion of humanity is wrung from them (becoming quite common). What you're suggesting is such a nice compromise: use these tools - some - just not to the order of "perfection". I even like some stuff that's heavily affected, so it's not that. There are many advantages to home recording being so available now, but one disadvantage is that we can now spend essentially endless time tweaking a tune that long ago lost its heart.

Amy Malkoff http://www.amymalkoff.com/harmony CASA (Contemporary A Cappella Society) Program Manager + Director of Web Content - http://www.casa.org Judge - ICCA, ICHSA, Harmony Sweepstakes, etc.

Individually, it's easy to

Individually, it's easy to agree that we'd all love to hear in-tune but believable vocals.  But, collectively, listeners have much different standards for what they consume.  Which is why I think getting to that ideal is less about what engineers can do (because we're already capable of that kind of balance) and more about what people are willing to listen to.

Both Melodyne and AT Evo make it really easy to selectively tighten tuning while preserving pitch center variation and pitch drift.  But, in my experience, anything short of a (very strict) tolerence level usually results in a picky MD writing up a huge laundry list of pitch fixes or a RARB review calling out the tuning, etc.

Right now, that's just what (most people) are trained to consume, whether they "agree" with it or not.  As mpanda wrote, Glee is the standard.  It's tuned like crazy and people eat it up.  Even a "jazz" artist like Michael Buble is tuned way beyond believability.  Not to mention anyhting country...

Eventually, we'll get over it (like we got over the synth-happy 80's).  But, until that happens to the collective listening commmunity, I don't think we can expect any sort of real change in production trends.

Oh, and while I'm ranting....and not to be a downer...but most of the expressive bends and non-tempered tuning techniques people are mentioning simply don't happen among the vast majority of a cappella singers.  "Stale" sounding recordings are usually a result of parts that are sung with no expression to begin with and whose only human attribute is being out of tune.  A sustained "oo" with no pitch variation, tonal modulation, dynamics, or vibrato is going to sound like MIDI when it's even remotely in tune.  Computers in, computers out.

 

So true, Ed!

(from the artist formerly known as mpanda)

Sure, the producers want to put out the best album....but you are right - it's the MDs that push for the sterile perfection. There is the mistaken belief that auto-tune will help the average groups compete with the top groups and, to a certain extent, it has.   It does lead to a very disappointing experience when going to see a live show (at least for me).  And I can only hope that your prediction that the overuse of this one effect will go the way of the 80s synth....more isn't always better!!

Awesome Dylan

Exactly how I feel.   This needs to be required for every album made.    We are producing the hell out of albums now.... Even when we have singers who don't need it!   Not only is this regarding Autotune and Melo, but during the mixing stages with using effects that we don't need.   It all starts with correct tracking.  If you record it well from the beginning, everything else will fall into place.

www.PeterHollens.com
http://www.youtube.com/peterhollens
"No one can arrive from being talented alone. God gives talent; work transforms talent into genius."

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.