Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Thoughts on Pitch Correction

It's been a while since we last posted. Most of our time has been spent finishing up the recording and mixing of Dead Language's new CD, Interwar. We hope to have the release out around the end of April.

Dead Language is a bit different from our other band The New Rags. Silent Stereo Records' philosophy is about trying to continue styles that have been passed over by time and society. So The New Rags do a great job with that by giving their own twist on ragtime. Dead Language's set-up is still mainstream (guitar based rock). But the difference you'll find with Dead Language's recording is the rejection of a lot of the modern digital tricks used to sweeten up an artist's performance.

Admittedly it's hard to know where to draw the line. You want to have progress and it's good to experiment. Looking at how The Beatles invented new techniques in the studio shows that experimentation and new technologies are not all bad. But one trick I'll say is definitely on the wrong side of the fence is digital pitch correction.

Digital pitch correction is using a computer to "fix" a musician's performance. It can be used on any instrument, but I think it's mostly heard on vocals. Basically you can program into the computer the key and scale you want to use. The computer then monitor's the vocalist's performance and adjust any notes that are not in tune. Or after a vocal has been recorded you can pin-point individual notes and nudge them into the right note after the song is recorded. The software can do a lot of other things too. Most can provide computer backing vocals and change the timbre of your voice if you don't feel like learning how to sing with different styles.

With this technology, we've entered a time when you can give a singing performance without being a real singer. In a lot a cases your success as a singer is based upon looks and charisma. This was true in the past. You could look at Elvis' success compared to Carl Perkins and say Elvis rode his looks and charisma to the top. There's truth to that, but at the same time all of those artists in the past still had real talent. The Supremes were beautiful, but at the same time those harmonies are real. The vocals are theirs.

Today, you can't be totally sure of that. Listen to a modern recording and when a vocalist hits a high note and holds it, is she really hitting the note or getting a little support from a computer? The technology has gotten really powerful and is so prevalant, you never know when it's used. I saw Brian Wilson a while ago, and it was a great show, but there was always a little tinge of doubt in my mind. "Did he really just nail that part or was he getting help from a computer?"

Pitch correction software is a short cut. In the past, a singer who couldn't nail a part would have to work through it. Do another take or change their breathing technique or just quit singing. Not anymore. They can run through a take once, and have the computer adjust performance for them.

A singer who embraces pitch correct is not a musician but more like an actor in a Hollywood blockbuster action flick. When you watch a movie you know that the actors are not doing the stunts. They're not really jumping out of an exploding building or racing that car 150mph. The moviemakers have created a fake world that when you watch the movie you buy into that. You suspend your disbelief; you know that Harrison Ford didn't really just beat up 4 guys half his age, but you enjoy the show anyway. I guess people feel the same way about entertainment personalities who portray singers on recordings. The person was digitally assisted in hitting the high notes, but the listener buys into the myth of singing created by the record producers. Well, I do enjoy a light-hearted Bruce Willis flick, but I would never buy a CD of him singing.

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