Debate: The Pro Tools’ Ghost In The Machine

A certain “lip-synced,” hiccupped-hoedown performance on SNL two years ago prompted harsh and heated debate about music technology and its role in creating unjustified celebrity. In the days and weeks that followed the live broadcast, musicians and critics alike cried “foul” (well, they cried “Milli Vanilli”) at the apparent and blatant abuse of a vocal track — in this case the wrong one — that augmented the troubled idol’s singing voice.
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Though millions of TV viewers were outraged by the seeming irrelevancy of the teenager to her own music, the ultimate irony was that the entire sordid episode merely underscored an industry open secret. It also raised key questions: How has technology changed the way music is made, recorded, and even heard and distributed? Does the current technology circumvent a more organic creative process?

The backlash against shocking technical innovations in music is nothing new, of course. It’s as old as Muddy’s turning Delta into electric Chicago blues or the first instance of “punching in.” Digital audio technology continues to do some extraordinary things — operations that were not conceivable in the past. But even purists can’t deny that the advent of tapeless recording and digital audio workstations (DAWs) revolutionized the recording and production processes.

While MOTU Digital Performer, Cakewalk Sonar, Steinberg Cubase, Magix Samplitude, Adobe Audition, and Apple Logic perform similar functions, no single digital audio program has attracted as much praise and ire as Digidesign’s Pro Tools. “Pro Tools can do anything you want to, to your sound,” says Digidesign’s general manager Dave Lebolt. “You can use it as a straight-up recording/playback system or get in there with surgical detail and greatly modify things. Or do something in between.”

It all goes back to 1987 when Digidesign unveiled Sound Tools, a two-channel audio editor for Macs, and a forerunner to many of the present-day DAWs. It soon became evident that Sound Tools was very limited and time consuming (there were no mixing functions and signal processing was file-based). By the early ’90s, the metamorphosis into Pro Tools had provided one of the least expensive and easiest-to-use systems in the digital audio editing universe.

Pro Tools is now, simply, the industry standard. Besides supporting plug-ins, from a beat detector to a pitch corrector, it’s a deep program with wide-ranging functionality. In the past, when bands had only eight tracks and analog tape machine at their disposal, they’d have to redo a performance or brandish a razor blade. “I am a pragmatist,” says drummer/composer (formerly of The Police) Stewart Copeland, an admitted MIDI junkie. “If I can take a bad drum track from over there and replace it with this one over here . . . that’s better, right? I’ll let others worry about the metaphysics of it. I’ll just make the edit.”

But with the ever-shrinking availability of tape and the increasing capabilities of plug-ins and host programs, the almost irresistible temptation to “doctor” a performance is being seen these days as “cheating.” “From the instrumental rock, pop-rock world, even the metal world — there’s a lot of editing, pitch correction, and fixing going on,” says producer/engineer Pete Matthews (North Mississippi All-Stars, Paul Simon).

Precisely because of Pro Tools’ ubiquity and power, the program has generated a gaggle of urban legends — all ending with a musician boasting, “Ah, that was the best solo I never played.” “Some musicians will come [into the studio] and they won’t work to get a particular part of a song right,” says producer/engineer/musician John Keane, author of The Musician’s Guide to Pro Tools. “They might turn to me and say, ‘Can’t you just Pro Tools it?’ I hate hearing that.”

“It is a doubled-edged sword in so many respects,” says singer/guitarist Devon Allman, son of jam-band icon Gregg Allman (Devon and his band Honeytribe “warmed up the recording signal” by using analog equipment into Pro Tools for their debut Torch. Devon wants to cut his next record to tape). “The downside, of course, is you create this contrived performance that is hacked up and pieced together — and may sound that way.”

Plug-in pioneer Antares Audio Technologies of Scotts Valley, California, disagrees with the perception of technology “manufacturing” an artist. “Auto-Tune doesn’t instantly make a bad singer sing good,” explains Marco Alpert of Antares. “The bad artists will still be bad, but they will be in tune. And let’s not forget: The idea of comping vocals from 20 different takes and cutting out individual notes goes back as far as tape editing. Even the old Eventide harmonizers corrected pitch.”

For some mixers and engineers, Pro Tools is simply invaluable. “We are very used to dealing with literally hundreds of tracks at a time,” says producer Al Clay who mixed Hans Zimmer’s score for the Da Vinci Code. “With Hans Zimmer, keeping track of hundreds of tracks is not uncommon. [Pro Tools] is the only way we could make it manageable. I can’t imagine another way of doing it.”

On the flipside, Thomas D’Arcy — the one-man band of the Canadian, keyboard-based Small Sins — had begun recording the Sins’ 2006 debut with Pro Tools, but soon realized the songs were playing him — not the other way ’round. “I needed to unlearn all the tricks that I picked up while wading through Pro Tools,” says D’Arcy. “In the end, I used the program for some minor editing and mainly as a tape machine.”

So where does all this leave us? Will there, and should there, be a return to the “good ole days” of analog tape recording? Producer/engineer Terry Date (Soundgarden, Deftones, Pantera) puts things in perspective. “Pro Tools is like any other tool in the control room — it can be overused,” he says. “The trick is to know when not to use it.”