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Nathaniel Kunkel InSession: Gosh, I Sound Great!

April 1, 2009
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Auto-Tune and Melodyne: if you ask a well-respected singer, they are four-letter words. If you ask a not-so-good singer, and they answer you honestly, they will probably tell you that it is the only reason they have a chance of being on the radio at all. More important, if you ask the record-listening public, they have no idea what you mean. Well, that is changing.

I recently got an email from Antares (the makers of Auto-Tune) telling me about all the exposure that Auto-Tune has been getting in the press. I know why they are happy about it. I just don''t know if it''s a good thing. One of the keys to Auto-Tune''s original success was that no one knew about it—in some cases, not even the singer it was used on.

This public airing of the music business''s dirty little secret started with a New Yorker article by Sasha Frere-Jones. When most people are able to grasp what Auto-Tune does, they get disheartened, if not disgusted. Not one person I have asked thinks that this trend of “Tune everything” is cool. While record executives were thinking that all listeners wanted was a hot young artist singing a hit song, they forgot about one important issue: they were lying to their customers. Most people who buy that hot new twenty-something''s release actually think the person can really sing like that. No offense, but no one sings like that. Remember how much everyone loved Milli Vanilli before it was exposed that they did not sing on their own album? How fast was their fall from grace? Is there a difference between Milli Vanilli and a singer who has every word rephrased and tuned? If a tuned vocal is credited solely to the singer, should the keyboard player who uses Vienna Symphonic Library string samples credit the Vienna Orchestra exclusively?

While many artists can make a record without using Auto-Tune, almost every new release currently on popular radio is tuned, even if only a little bit. (Sometimes more than you could ever imagine.) One observation I have made is that some singers have been getting tuned for so long that they actually think they sound that way. I have worked with singers who issue a “Never tune me” order and then reject every comp until they are tuned and phrased clandestinely. The denial is spectacular.

Well, that''s not the case with the public. If our last election showed us anything, it''s that we as a society are trying to face the truth. Our truth is that singing talent is less necessary than ever to make a hit record. Most of these high school kids actually can sing as well as the “stars” whose albums they buy.

Remember when Ashley Simpson was caught lip-syncing on Saturday Night Live? You think she was the first? She just got caught. How about the recent Kanye West performance on SNL? He didn''t even try to hide the fact that he uses live tuning and backing tracks.

So maybe Antares''s press isn''t as good as they think. People appreciate real talent as much as they disdain dishonesty, and that''s all a tuned vocal passed off as real currently is.

I think we are about to witness a significant shift in most listeners'' expectations. I think music lovers are soon going to demand real performances if they are going to turn over their hard-earned respect. But who ever said that listeners need to respect the people who make the music? Why can''t they just like the music and buy it? The truth is, that is exactly what happens. People seem to care about the man behind the curtain only if they are forced to. Again, Ms. Simpson and the duo Vanilli prove the point.

Well, thanks to Antares''s press intentions and The New Yorker (among many others), we are about to be forced to publicly acknowledge vocal manipulation in a much more all-encompassing way than before. It seems that one of the more relevant things to point out is that we are all used to it. We have all become so accustomed to hearing perfect music that it''s hard to listen to old stuff sometimes. Don''t get me wrong: I love to listen to old records. But now when I turn on an old record after listening to new stuff for a while, it can sound so out of tune. After three or four listens, I am back in the zone where I can listen without being drawn to the tuning issue anymore, but that first playback can really make me aware of how “perfect” music has become.

I was just talking with a friend of mine who is a working engineer, and his experiences were so interesting and revealing that I just had to QUOTE him:

“I think artists like the sound of being tuned. They try to sing the way a tuned vocal sounds. It''s not possible, as we all know. One band I recently worked with didn''t want to hear their vocals until after they were tuned. Before I would play it back, the singer asked if I did ‘it'' yet. After I played the song, he would say, ‘I love the way I sound Melodyned!''

“Akon recently said he wants credit when someone uses Auto-Tune the way he does. First, he wasn''t the first to do it. Second, he is proud of it. Those of us who use Auto-Tune for a living know you get the effect he is talking about by recording a very out-of-tune vocal and then using Auto-Tune set ‘wrong.'' People want to sound fake! You asked about Milli Vanilli; at least someone actually sang their songs! [Well-known singer A] and [well-known singer B] do basically the same thing as Milli Vanilli, but they get away with it by also having a highly timed and tuned part of theirs, not possible for them to sing, mixed in low and blended to make it sound like them. People don''t know that they only hear tuned vocals. They still think that the bands they listen to can sing the songs the way they are on the album. I myself am guilty of being too accustomed to listening to tuned vocals. That''s why I rarely go see bands play live anymore. Most can''t even come close to doing it live. Well, at least not without prerecorded tracks.”

There is another dynamic. Some singers not only know about Auto-Tune and Melodyne, but they also insist that the software be used on their vocals before hearing them. They consider their instrument incomplete without tuning and processing. I don''t think that''s a bad thing—it''s the natural evolution of a generation of people who grew up with the combination of listening to tuning all the time and not being afraid of embracing technology.

Here is an interesting question: before we give a Grammy Award for a vocal performance, shouldn''t the nominee need to be able to prove that they actually sang the performance that was nominated? Should we give the Pro Tools engineer a vocal Grammy, too? It sure would be telling who opposes that idea.

Anyone who has seen a deal that labels are signing these days has noticed that they are 360 deals (that is, they take a part of the entire earning potential of the artist—album sales, publishing, performance fees, all of it). Being able to perform live (without a net) might soon be as important as it was in the ''70s and ''80s, because all of your live revenue will be up for grabs, be it ticket or merchandise income. It could soon be that if a singer cannot perform adequately without being tuned, they might not look as attractive to a label anymore.

So what''s it going to be? The perfect stuff we are used to, or the organic stuff human beings can actually make? Because we are going to have to make a choice now that we are being forced to acknowledge tuning as the facet of popular culture it has become. Until now, we have all been blissfully ignorant of the fact that those two choices are mutually exclusive.

Perhaps we will soon think of older projects with untuned vocals and imperfect tracks just like we think of albums made before we could punch in on a multitrack. Cool in a nostalgic kind of way, but not anything we would ever want to do again. Would that be the loss of an art form, or would that be progress? Or both? Because it seems the current reality is that those two choices are not mutually exclusive. 


Nathaniel Kunkel (studiowithoutwalls.com) is a Grammy and Emmy Award-winning producer, engineer, and mixer who has worked with Sting, James Taylor, B.B. King, Insane Clown Posse, Lyle Lovett, I-Nine, and comedian Robin Williams.

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