I was doing some session work the other day and was having a bit of a lively discussion (!) with the producer about pitch correction devices such as autotune. He seemed to think that autotune was just another editing tool that could be used in the same way that reverb and other effects might be added to the vocals, and made the point that even legends like Frank Sinatra had their work edited.
I feel quite differently; it’s one thing to ‘cut and paste’ the best parts of a performance during a studio session – but to change the actual notes that a singer decides to sing interferes with the artistry of singing, in my opinion. When a machine is used to alter these notes by measuring and gauging whether they are perfectly ‘in tune’, I think we can run a real danger of removing some very important nuances of the singer’s performance.
Pitch correction software such as melodyne shows each vocal note on the screen. Every little ‘flaw’ is made visible, making it very easy for producers to ‘pull’ the errant note back into perfect pitch; effectively editing with their eyes instead of with their ears.
But why this need for everything to be so ‘perfect’?
Some of my favourite songs are full of ‘imperfections’ in terms of pitch. In fact I think those very imperfections are what makes them so unique. Take Billie Holiday’s ‘The Very Thought of You’, or Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ – two very different styles of singers – but it would be a travesty to change a single note of either of these performances, in my opinion.
When I compare Marilyn’s version of ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ with the more modern ‘Glee’ version, I am in no doubt as to which one I prefer. I would much rather listen to a performance with pure heartfelt emotion, as opposed to a technically perfect, but soulless version.
Imagine iconic moments such as Audrey Hepburn’s rendition of ‘Moon River’ in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, taken and hacked neatly into submission by a pitch correction machine… would it remain such a poignant and unforgettable piece of movie history? I personally don’t think so.
Now, I don’t completely disagree with producers who claim that autotune is a vital time-saving piece of studio equipment; used judiciously I agree that it can be a useful addition to the producer’s toolkit, especially in time-limited situations. However the problem arises when people get ‘lazy’- doing a couple of quick takes and leaving the rest to the ‘post-production magic’.
Pitch correction software first came out in the mid 1990s, and ever since it has become more and more ubiquitous in the world of popular music. Like it or not, it seems it is here to stay. Just like when we see models with flawless complexions in the pages of magazines, we will never again be sure that we are faced with the ‘real’ thing, or a technically altered version.
I just count my blessings that this kind of technology was not around in the days of Billie, Ella, Frank, Nat, Judy, and all the other legendary singers whose artistry we are fortunate enough to be able to listen to in unadulterated form.