Robair Report: Waves of Innovation

There’s a scene in the film All the President’s Men where Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, need to research a name they received from their anonymous source,

Gino Robair

There’s a scene in the film All the President’s Men where Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, need to research a name they received from their anonymous source, Deep Throat. So they immediately head for a stack of phone books and leaf through them furiously.

Listen to the Foley in this film: It’s chock-full of typewriter clicks and bells. When was the last time you were in an environment that included those sounds? Can you remember that far back? How about the ring of an analog telephone? (The sample on your cell phone doesn’t count.)

Technological innovation has made these sounds and activities extinct. We don’t even think about using the Internet to locate information; we just do it. Like all successful innovations, search engines are nearly invisible to us largely because they work with ever-increasing reliability. As a result, they’ve replaced much of the printed reference material we used to rely on, just as the noise level in an office has been significantly reduced thanks to the word processor. It’s as if waves of innovation sweep out the old and deliver the new, and we barely notice.

But the waves keep coming.

I just witnessed the latest one, embedded in an inexpensive electric guitar—the Peavey AT-200. In this case, AT stands for Auto-Tune. At sweet 16, the oft-derided pitch correction technology is now available in a decent, mid-priced solid-body guitar that costs less than $500. Cool! But the revolution isn’t because of the price or that the software is available inside a Peavey guitar. (Antares will offer a “luthier edition” that can be added to any electric guitar.) The innovation is the degree to which pitch correction has been implemented in a polyphonic performance instrument.

The Antares demo I attended took place in a room full of editor-guitarists who have seen and heard everything, yet everyone was impressed that Auto-Tune was virtually inaudible in the AT-200. As the instrument was being played, we heard none of the artifacts associated with poorly implemented or misused pitch-correction—no T-Pain or Cher effects here. I use the phrase “virtually inaudible” because you have to know what to listen for if you want to hear the technology working, and even then it isn’t obvious. Sure, you can make the artifacts more identifiable by playing in an exaggerated manner. But if you play the guitar normally, bends and all, the AT-200 is indistinguishable from a normal guitar, except that it offers perfect intonation everywhere on the neck, among many other features.

If you’re curious as to whether Peavey’s Auto-Tune guitar will help untalented guitarists fake it, the answer is no. It will not play the guitar for you—yet. The strings on the demo instrument were purposefully kept out of tune. After 30 minutes of showing off the AT-200’s drop tunings, virtual capos and classic-instrument models, the Antares rep shut off the pitch correction and brought us back to reality: The instrument wasn’t in tune at all! Even at a moderate amp volume, we couldn’t hear the acoustic sound of the strings, nor could we they feel that the strings were out of tune under our fingers. As each of us played it, we quickly forgot that Antares’ algorithms were at work. The implementation of Auto-Tune is so seamless and straightforward that even a guitarist will want to use it.

Therein lies the tipping point: you don’t know it’s there.

By now you are probably wondering why you should care that an inexpensive instrument has high-definition pitch-correction onboard. The good news is that you don’t have to care because, very soon, pitch correction will be in products you didn’t realize needed it. And it doesn’t matter whether or not you like real-time tuning software. The technology is here to stay.

I view pitch correction as a distant cousin of CGI: It’s just a tool. We don’t really believe that living dinosaurs were used in the film Jurassic Park any more than we believe that every super model has a good enough voice to become a pop star.

Although the AT-200 has normal guitar pickups that you can use instead of the Auto-Tune feature, tone snobs will hate the instrument simply because it has a hex pickup, digital converters and an onboard computer. But they’re wasting their scorn. The sound quality of digitally enhanced guitars has improved to the point that the convenience they provide often outweighs any concerns about tone.

I’m not here to evangelize for Antares. Rather, I’m pointing out that we’re in the midst of a sea change that is visible from the point of view of the electric 6-string: Pitch correction is another technology that we’ll take for granted once it is embedded in everyday products. Thankfully, the change doesn’t require us to accept a reduction in consumer-audio sound quality the way that MP3s did at the dawn of digital distribution.

In a few years, a generation of instrumentalists will wonder how we got along without real-time pitch correction in our instruments. At that point, they’ll use a standalone tuner as often as we use the Yellow Pages.

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