If you looked closely, you might have been able to see the little light blue ribbons our future Gonzaga guests Death Cab for Cutie wore on their lapels to the Grammys. Those ribbons did not symbolize any currently widespread cause, but rather drew attention to a musician-specific issue.
“We’re here to raise awareness about Auto-Tune abuse,” frontman Ben Gibbard said to MSN UK. “I think over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a lot of good musicians being affected by this newfound digital manipulation of the human voice, and we feel enough is enough.”
Blue to honor the “lost art” of “blue notes,” those ribbons disdained the recording industry’s crush/crutch in Auto-Tune. Though their gesture might be a dramatic lapse in tact, Death Cab could have a point. Has the recent proliferation of Auto-Tune use gone too far?
Pitch correction software is an oft-used mainstay in recording studios. As our A&E writer Seth Sommerfield points out, even Ben Folds admits “some producer with computers fixes all my shitty tracks.” However, recently the presence of such software has astronomically increased. Where once stray notes were corrected here or there, according to a recent article printed in the “New York Times,” Auto-Tune is now a blanketed industry application.
Auto-Tune is the brain child of Andy Hildebran who worked to sonically map potential drill sites for oil companies through sound algorithms. Apparently, Hildebran was challenged by a friend to invent a machine to allow anyone to sing in tune. In 1996 Auto- Tune was born. Since then, the Times tells us Auto-Tune has gracefully pulled and pushed the pitches of artists “from Britney Spears to Bollywood.”
Auto-Tune is meant to be virtually unnoticeable, covering up imperfections in the natural human voice to produce eerie impeccably in-tune vocals. But in 1998, Cher’s single “Believe” turned the Auto-Tune up to 11. It took another five years for someone to embrace that robotic nudge, but rapper T-Pain rediscovered the effect in 2003 and ran with it.
Thus was born a new class of pitch-playing, one debated by listeners and industry insiders alike. Auto-Tune blurs the edges of what we might call a performance. As listeners, we balk at the possibility that Ashlee Simpson or anyone else might pull a Milli Vanilli; this feels dishonest. But we might hesitate to deny music artist status classes of never-shoulda-been-vocalists like Akon, Lady Gaga, and most notably Kanye West’s “808s & Heartbreak” album. Honesty in musical production isn’t what it used to be, either. Maybe our view needs some tuning.
In a November 2008 interview with DJ Skee of KIIS FM, T-Pain said that in order to use Auto-Tune, one would have to “study the instrument of it.” That glassy-sounding electronic glissando undeniably colors his music; T-Pain uses the software to achieve a certain sound production. Thanks to his “SNL” performance malfunction, we know West cannot sing without Auto-Tune, but we also know his album is similarly deliberately colored by that cold, robotic seethe on tracks like “Heartless,” and without that technological tonal layer of separation between us and the human pain of an unaltered voice, the track would not convey the same emotional disaffection. Arguably, this is for artistic effect.
It is also hard to deny that we, as listeners, have become accustomed to hearing perfect voices. In fact, even at the small, collegiate a cappella level, fixing pitches is a priority. When the Big Bing Theory put together the “Five Minutes Late” CD, they turned to a pitch-correction software called Melodyne, which requires individual manual adjustment for uniformity of pitch (unlike the indiscriminate Auto-Tune altering pitch automatically). Member Joel Switzer thinks it was worth it.
“Obviously it’s better if you are on the right pitch by yourself, but if someone’s going to go out and pay $15 for a CD, the singing should be in tune. It’s OK to correct a few things to get it right,” he said.
When asked about Auto-Tune, vocal performance major Victoria Perri called it “abominable.”
“People should be able to sing. Singing pitches is what singing is,” she said.
Does it matter for today’s pop and R&B musicians to be good singers? Classical operatic singing sustains the correct pitch organically, without software. Pop singing is not so much about the physical exertion of singing as the steady beat for the physical exertion of dancing.
Switzer sees a correlation to tango music. “Tango music is written to be danced to. It’s the same with pop music. It’s meant to make you want to move. At least a lot of it is about sound as a whole, rather than artistry. To really get the thicker jazz of Thelonious Monk you have to listen to it. Compare that to earlier 20th century big band music. It’s similar to pop music today, that’s what people danced to.”
So maybe there are two methods of Auto-Tune: the Auto-Tune of West and T-Pain, as artistic style, and the Auto- Tune of pop records, a means to an end. Death Cab’s ribbons of awareness were probably directed at the latter, wanting artists to own their voices and the harbored imperfections therein. But in a market where perfection is a given, it might be impossible to move away from a constant expectation of flawlessness. Maybe we do need those ribbons to remind us that computerized singing still comes from a human.