Artifice, Authenticity and Auto-Tune

The list of fans that feel betrayed upon the realization of pitch correction’s presence in a given artist’s song or album is growing longer every day. The interesting part is that many of these disappointed fans find out about the role that auto-tune plays in an artist’s career from a third party, not from noticing it in the song initially themselves. It is understandable to feel let down upon the discovery of such news – that perhaps Taylor Swift isn’t as amazing at singing as you thought she was – but it is important to approach this disappointment carefully, as it can get in the way of enjoying the listening experience. I have found it useful to stop investing emotional energy in the topic and to just listen to the music for what it is, not what I think it’s trying to be. In other words, I have carefully separated in my mind what it means to appreciate a good singer versus a good songwriter.

If this poses a challenge for you, perhaps a change in perspective would help. If you were one of those listeners who weren’t aware of the auto-tuning in a certain song or performance until you learned about it from an outside source – rather – if the auto-tune didn’t affect your listening experience the first twenty-some times around, then why would you let it do so now that you’re aware of the pitch correction? Trouble is still just as fun to belt in the car, even if T-Swift had a little help from her computer friends to stay on pitch. If you’re looking for a great pop songwriter who is also an excellent singer or vise versa, although they are out there, you may have set your expectations too high. If you’re having a hard time thinking of auto-tune as just another tool available to songwriters and producers, you may have a long and disappointing relationship with almost every genre of music for years to come.

On the other hand, some people overly glorify pitch correction and can sometimes fail to appreciate the rawness of the untouched human voice. For example, in Jon Caramanica’s article in the New York Times about vocal producer Kuk Harrell titled: “Pitched to Perfection: Pop Star’s Silent Partner,” although it’s an interesting article, Caramanica goes a little too far with his faith in this production tool. “When superstars work with Mr. Harrell, they aren’t running to the machines and away from their own voices. Quite the opposite: they’re trying to ensure that they sound as engaged and alive as possible. Paradoxical as it seems, working with newfangled technology and old-fashioned pep talks Mr. Harrell makes singers sound even more like themselves.”

The opposite of running from machines isn’t “sounding as engaged and alive as possible,” it’s running to machines, and that’s what Harrell and his clients do. And they use them to sound less like themselves and more like who they want to be. I am not making a value statement here – no music is lesser because of its use of pitch correction – I simply think Caramanica gives auto tune too much credit. Immediately after this he quotes Chris Hicks, ex-president of Island Def Jam: “We want to enhance the artist’s authenticity. You buy a Bieber or Rihanna [record] because you believe in them, and this is part of that.” My MacBook’s dictionary seems to disagree with Mr. Hicks on the definition of “authentic.”

authentic |ôˈTHentik|(abbr.: auth. )

adjective – made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original: the restaurant serves authentic Italian meals | every detail of the movie was totally authentic.

Perhaps you could make an argument that pitch corrected sound bytes faithfully resemble the original, but that is like to comparing microwavable Italian dinners to the, well, Italian ones.

Again, pitch correction is not evil, but it certainly shouldn’t be credited with making someone sound more like themselves or more authentic.

It should also be noted that there is a way to use auto-tune “incorrectly,” per say. That is, there is a time a place to use auto-tune, but it only works when used subtly (like Beiber) or bluntly (like T-Pain), and almost nowhere in between. Some producers and artists fail to use auto tune carefully and find themselves at the awkward in-between, where the intention was to make the voice sound humanly perfect, but instead – usually only for an instant – it sounds just robot enough to take away from the listener’s experience. I have found this to be true in many genres, but I have noticed it the most in rock & roll. It is also significantly easier to detect auto tune in live performances. Here are some examples of people doing it “wrong.”

Bolded words are the particularly robotic sounding ones. The links are to specific times in YouTube videos.

Adam Lazzara in Taking Back Sunday’s Error Operator (Live From Bamboozle’09)

“…we can’t go back.

Tom Delonge in Angels & Airwave’s “My Heroine (It’s Not Over)”

“…to make me grin.

Of course, there is practically no way to verify the validity of my accusations, but it’s safe to say that pitch correction was used in these examples, and I could find many more examples if I felt like it.

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About nubsqueak

I'm a God loving kid who's exploring the world and everything in it.
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