Shiny Happy Robots

I realize I’m swimming against the tide with this, and I know someone’s going to throw something at me, but here goes…

[swallows nervously]

I hate Auto-Tune.

[ducks flying objects]

OK. Now let me elaborate. I don’t really hate Auto-Tune (or Melodyne, or whatever you use). Next to the invention of the pitchpipe and Pro Tools, it has probably helped advance the sound of contemporary a cappella more than anything else. It makes the impossible possible, the unbearable, bearable. It levels the playing field, allowing less-trained singers to put out albums that people will actually enjoy listening to. And although I’m an oldskool “just learn how to sing it right” kind of guy, I’m glad that it helps people make better recordings. Auto-Tune-ing allows the audience to hear beyond tuning and actually listen to the arrangements and the artistry behind the album. It democratizes music.

So no, I don’t really hate Auto-Tune. I just hate hearing it. I’m not talking about the Cher/T-Pain robot effect — although I do hate that as well. What I’m talking about are vocal tracks that are purely-tuned, inflectionless, flat-sounding and flawless.

Shiny, Happy Robots.

I don’t know if this is a genuine aesthetic, or just a product of lazy engineers, but these cybervocals set my teeth on edge. As a singer, I know damned well that even the best of us don’t hit 100% of the notes (including those little throwaway runs) 100% in tune, 100% of the time. But most importantly, the human voice allows for a primal, visceral expression of emotion that even the most soulful instrumentalist can’t fully emulate. We bend notes, we place notes “bright” or “dark” to consciously (or unconsciously) transmit urgency or melancholy. There’s an infinite range of expression, not twelve equal-tempered semitones, in a human scale. When you take that away, the voice becomes a mere instrument. The soul is gone, and with it, the reason why most people are attracted to the sound of the human voice.

I liken editing to using cosmetics, or airbrushing a photo. A good makeup job highlights the natural beauty of someone’s face: good airbrushing smoothes out a few potential flaws. A bad makeup job can make you look like a ghoul. Plastic surgery may be attractive to some, but an overdose of silicone and botox can make someone look like a caricature. A bad hairpiece can make a guy look like he’s wearing a rodent on his head. Like any cosmetic work, editing/tuning works best when it is invisible, simply augmenting and correcting what’s there. And I’ve seen/heard more “musical silicone” than a hot day on Miami Beach. Give me something natural… or at least something I can believe is natural!

But I don’t believe in whining about something unless you have something constructive to bring to the table. So, as a producer, singer and musical-cosmetician, here are some thoughts.

Remember, perfect does not equal beautiful. I suppose it’s logical to think that if we like hearing things in tune, than 100% flawless= more beautiful. If you believe this, try to imagine the most moving song you’ve heard performed live. Did you notice the intonation? Did you care? Were you even paying attention? Probably not… you were probably moved by the performance itself, not the quantitative accuracy of it. Or, go back to an older/retro song you love… anything up to the late 1990s. These were the days of Music B.A. (Before Auto-Tune), and some of the performances wouldn’t have passed today’s stringent tuning standards. But they’re gorgeous. So what does that tell you?

Go for “plausible perfection”. This is my mantra. I love it when a vocal part sounds like a perfect performance, but some something that actually could have been performed, rather than 100% pure/sterile. This means a few things.

1. Most of the time, skip the automatic mode. Or, at the very least, use very broad settings that only catch the worst notes. You can always go back and fine-tune if a chord still doesn’t sit just right.

2. Use your ears, not your eyes. This seems obvious, but I often find myself doing this too. Tune by listening, not by watching the lines/blobs/whatever graphic representation tells you what’s what. Put it this way… if you’re listening to a soloed voice under the microscope and a you let a few notes slip by that are within, say, 20 cents of “perfect”, what are the chances that your listeners are going to notice? Instead, these little imperfections will allow the track to still sound “hand-made” rather than factory-made.

3. Different Tuning Tolerances for different parts. A good rule of thumb: the more chordal and instrumental the part, the tighter it should be tuned.

– For basses, I usually use an automatic mode with fairly tight settings and tweak as needed.

– For guitar-y parts, sometimes automatic but with looser settings.

– For lyrical/stringy parts, I tune manually, and especially allow them more “drift”: it’s the synth-like drone of an absolutely-unwavering long note that causes a lot of the “over-tuned” sound.

– For lead vocals I try to use the least tuning of all: if you’ve taken enough lead takes and you make a good comp, 90% of the tuning will be taken care of, and you can manually tune the rest.

4. Different Tuning Tolerances within parts. For the Wibi album “In the Pocket”, we had an average of 2-3 singers per part. I chose the strongest singer and spent some time making them sound next-to-perfect. The next singer was the “blender”: I let the part stay natural and tuned only the bad rubs. Ditto the 3rd singer. If someone was overall weak, I tuned them hard to avoid dissonance and mixed them in low. If you do this, your ensemble parts will stay in tune but still have that nice warm ensemble sound.

Ironically, artfully tuning an ensemble to “near-perfect” isn’t the easy way out: it’s actually harder, and takes a lot more time. But, the end product is more believable and organic. No more Shiny, Happy Robots: now we have happy humans who sound not 100% perfect, but 100% beautiful.

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