Blair's Blog

Auto-Tune: Music Industry Steroids?

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve heard an awful lot about steroids in baseball. After all, isn’t our own Barry Bonds one of the alleged poster children for the “problem”? As a huge fan of both Barry and the Giants, this has been tough to go through, and I’m still conflicted about it. I remember being at Pac Bell Park the day Barry hit his 60th home run the season he went on to hit 73—I literally got chills; even post-McGwire and Sosa, 60 was still a magic number to baseball fans. And I’ve seen Barry knock a pitch into McCovey Cove or to the deepest part of the centerfield bleachers often enough to know that he possesses a talent that few in my lifetime have. But was it chemically aided? If so, does that cheapen the accomplishments? I don’t know. I’m still wrestling with those questions. It’s complicated.

But it got me to thinking the other day: Is using Auto-Tune or some other pitch correction device our industry’s equivalent of steroids? After all, they are literally performance enhancing devices/programs. Pitch correction is a dirty little secret that few engineers and producers (and virtually no artists) are willing to talk about publicly. After all, who wants to admit that a singer was unable to hit the notes he/she was supposed to; that a little “help” was required?

Speaking of “help,” there was, of course, the Milli Vanilli scandale a few years ago: The duo were such poor singers, their producers enlisted other people to impersonate them on their record! Wow—that’s chutzpah! Maybe if Auto-Tune had existed back in their day, Milli and Vanilli (okay, Rob and Fabrice) could’ve appeared on their own album!

Is their situation any different, though, than Marni Nixon singing Audrey Hepburn’s part in the film version of My Fair Lady? Nixon didn’t get a screen credit: “Miss Hepburn’s Vocal Performance By…” But actually it is different than the Milli Vanilli situation, because there was no real effort to conceal the fact that Nixon was the singer. Milli Vanilli and the tawdry crew behind them, simply lied. I often think about the climactic scene in Singin’ In the Rain, where Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds’ character) is forced to stand behind a curtain to sing for the hopelessly lame non-singer Lina Lamont (played wonderfully by Jean Hagen), who is lip-synching before a live audience until it all unravels and she is exposed as a fraud! “It was Kathy Selden all the time!” dashing singer/actor Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) finally announces to the crowd, who immediately embraces Selden and makes her a star, one supposes. Funny, I don’t recall the actual Milli Vanilli singers getting the star treatment after that deceit was revealed. The movies are so much simpler.

Getting back to pitch correction…not surprisingly, there have been whisperings and suspicions about this or that singer, mostly in the pop music arena, where slickness rules the day and perfection often trumps genuine passion. Take Britney Spears…please! And don’t bring her back! Now, I have no idea whether her producers used some pitch correction on her. And the reason I don’t know is because I’m not sure I’ve ever actually heard her sing. If you’ve ever watched any of her cable TV specials, they are so phony-baloney lip-synched it’s laughable…but even more, it’s pathetic. I can’t believe a cable network would pay big money for what is so obviously a pre-taped entertainment. It’s sad, too, that moms and dads shell out big money for their daughters to see this sort of canned nonsense in arenas. But even on her albums, it’s difficult to tell where the real Britney is: her vocals are usually altered with this or that effect and then hidden in the middle of endless layers of background vocals by people who really can sing. Get me Britney on a stage with a single acoustic guitar or piano, have her sing her songs unadorned, and I will happily retract my cynical diatribe…which will then revert to her producers, who are clearly not serving her well.

Other performers have similarly been tarred by notion that their vocals were “juiced” on an album. Avril Lavigne’s name is frequently bandied about. Again, I have no inside information about her, but this I do know: She seems to be singing for real in concert; her vocals are so much rougher than they are on albums (another reason some wonder about the studio performances). I remember when I took my daughter to see Destiny’s Child a number of years ago, someone in the industry told me upfront that a lot of their vocals were “canned” onstage and had been corrected here and there in the studio. So I had my skeptics hat on that night. I had fantastic seats and was on the lookout for any “augmentation” chicanery. Okay, it turns out there were a few added vocal embellishments here and there—even the FOH engineer admitted it—but man, those girls were really singing, too! You can’t fake that kind of soul and raw talent! A taped vocal part here, a percussion track there let them give their fans an amazing live simulation of their recordings.

This is nothing new, of course: most artists have always tried to re-create their records as faithfully as they can onstage. Did you see The Eagles’ Long Run tour 25 years ago? Bo-RING! All their hits performed note-for-note like the records! This from what had once been a great live band that actually communicated as musicians onstage instead of merely aping their recordings. One thing you can say about Fleetwood Mac (another ’70s giant that made “perfect” albums): They weren’t afraid to be a different animal onstage than in the recording studio. Lindsey Buckingham, the group’s resident madman genius, never forgot that spontaneity is a vital part of “live” music. Otherwise we could just stay home and listen to albums. But studio perfectionist that he is, would he use pitch correction to make a track better? Probably.

And I don’t mean to imply that a little well-placed pitch correction is always a bad thing. I know there are many artists who wouldn’t dream of using it under any circumstances—more power to them. But if that note there turned out a little flat and the singer isn’t around to do another take, what harm is there in adjusting it a tad to make it a little more spot-on? I was in a studio a while back where there was great debate over a certain note and the decision was made to try to correct the pitch. The Pro Tools operator isolated the offending note and did his magic keying and lo and behold the note was suddenly “correct”! Unfortunately, in this case it didn’t sound natural when combined with the notes that had directly preceded it (which were a bit dodgy as well, truth be told), so the idea was dropped. But on that same song, a guitar note was pitch-corrected perfectly, as were a few slurred bass notes. And there were also cases where bass notes from one part of the song replaced incorrect ones in another part of the song. This is never considered “cheating”: It’s skillful editing.

In a slightly different vein, I can recall being at a Grateful Dead concert back in 1992 and being very excited that the band was playing the gorgeous, harmony-filled ballad “Attics of My Life,” a song they’d rarely played in the previous 20 years. Now, you don’t need me to tell you that “Grateful Dead harmonies” was occasionally an oxymoronic concept; God bless ‘em, there were times when they were not meant to put three voices together. But on this particular afternoon, the vocals on this song were so unbelievably heavenly and beautiful I wondered if something was “up” electronically. I was sitting so close to the stage, though, I couldn’t really perceive the subtleties of the sound field—it was just an incredible wash of celestial beauty. It was only later, after I got a tape of the show and I looked into it a little more, that I discovered the vocals had been treated with the choral effect from an H-3000 and also skillfully blended with a pitch-perfect keyboard patch. And you know what—knowing that didn’t really detract from religiosity of my original experience; in fact I came away from it admiring front-of-house engineer Dan Healy’s ability to create such a gorgeous soundscape. And listening intently through the electronics, it’s clear that Healy’s legerdemain helped the singers with their pitch.

Is Auto-Tune any more “dishonest” than an engineer who comps together a vocal part word-by-word, even syllable-by-syllable from multiple performances? It happens…in fact it happens a lot, even with accomplished performers. Trust me, you don’t want to know what goes on behind the scenes of duets and tribute albums involving old, way-past-their prime singers. They don’t make an Auto-Tune strong enough for some of these cats! But comping vocals is an accepted—even essential—methodology that is taught to young engineers coming up through the ranks. No doubt Auto-Tune will be, too, because in the end it’s just another tool that can be used to make a recording sound better. If it helps elevates singers who are lacking, so what? Natural talents usually win out in the end, or at the very least have a career that lasts more than the proverbial 15 minutes.