Saturday, August 28, 2010

Auto tuning and vocoding- the jury's out

Dear Readers:

Welcome to my brand new blog!  As most of you must know, I am an audio engineer/producer with a background as a musician, and a career that has now spanned several decades.

I find my head buzzing with things to say about the impact of tuning technology on making recorded music!  Here in the audio trenches, we grapple daily with a digital genie that will not go back in the bottle:

When I drive in the car, radio tuned to the R&B station that my kids insist on, I hear almost nothing that sounds like it was sung by an unassisted human voice.  Technically the stuff is interesting to me, as I use many of the same digital editing techniques used to create these effects.  But my use of Autotune, or my new fave, Melodyne Editor, is very different in emphasis.  Usually I am trying to leave no trace, to give the impression that the singer just naturally sang more in tune than they really did.  The contemporary R&B use of retuning is an entirely different animal.

Current R&B producers use the software to superimpose the desired melody on the original recording, leaving very obvious distortions of timbre in their wake, and sharp-cornered pitch stair-stepping that no human voice could actually do.  Plus, the kind of hashy digital buzziness that this extreme processing adds to the voice has become the standard sound for vocals in this new world.  It's a style now, a very identifiable one, and in R&B pop it is the new normal.

Many producers are taking it further into vocoding, an old technique that is experiencing a renaissance.  That is when the articulation of a human voice is mapped to the sound of another instrument- usually a synthesizer. The effect is an even more pronounced "sung by robots" effect because the base sound is no longer that of a human voice.  The current single "Take it Off" by Ke$ha uses liberal amounts of vocoding, as does "Fireflies" by Owl City and "Stronger" by Kanye West.

So there it is, it's new, it's fun, it's hip, to geeks like me it's an interesting technical challenge, but- and it it was inevitable that I would come to a but- is it a permanent part of the pop music vocabulary now- or is it a novelty that will fade sooner or later into obscurity?

In my heart of hearts I have to vote for eventual obscurity:  When I listen to contemporary pop, it has the feel of a well-crafted novelty record.  It is very hard to imagine that all these singing robots will sound good ten years from now.

Even now, the Rihanna single "Rude Boy" seems to spell the beginning of the end. The track is a pop juggernaut- compelling ear candy from start to end. But even so, the vocals have been cleaned up so much as to nullify the emotion that should form the core of the song.  The song is a pretty unvarnished sexual come-on, yet the sex seems to have been leached from the core of it by the antiseptic vocal.

I've always felt that the essence of pop music is the power of the human voice to convey emotion and to draw us in. Ultimately those towering vocal performances are what hooks us, whether by Frank Sinatra, Little Richard, Patsy Cline, Aretha, Bono, or any and all points in between.  These records can still call to us across the decades and mean something, because the human voice stirs us on a level beyond artifice.

To be continued...

1 comment: