I am currently on winter break from my teaching job at Houghton College, and had a little time to post a new blog. If you notice, most of my blog posts take place during summer. The reason is that I have summers off which gives me time to write. If you haven't checked it out yet, I have added some tutorial videos from Shure, Presonus and Full Sail under the tutorial section on this site - there is some great information under that section.
Onto the subject at hand...Autotune or Melodyne aka tuning a vocal. Recently, I saw a Melodyne photo of the Marvin Gaye song "Sexual Healing". I will post the photo on here, but when you see the picture it will show a vocal that is completely out of tune - both flat and sharp at times. The question was raised, "Would Melodyne make it better?". Melodyne is the less known relative of Autotune in the music world - it is a "note correcting" software. The answer hands down (by everyone) simply was stated..."No it wouldn't." As a matter of fact, many opinions (including my own) have stated that it would make it sound worse and robotic.
It is true, note correcting software would (and does) make notes sound unnatural. What would happen if we took Marvin's classic song and turned it into a robotic, computer perfect version? It is a simple answer...it would take away from the original feel of the song. The original is so great (and listed as a classic) because the studio captured the "magic" of the performance with all of its imperfections. It was a day in the industry where talent was signed because singers and artists actually had.....talent. I don't want to go on and make this all technical by explaining how many recorded instruments are imperfect in their pitch and harmonics - but it happens. What if we get to the place where we are correcting everything? If that happens (and we are heading there rapidly) then music will become more stale (and lifeless) than it is already.
The great thing about music is that it is imperfect, and played by imperfect people. It is human at its core and to take the human element out of music, we take out the very soul that makes it live, breathe and that which makes it great. If you are a musician or engineer (recording and mix) reading this blog....please return music to its human element. There may be times when we want to use Autotune or Meldyne for creative effect, but that should be the exception - and not the rule. Let's get back to great art and developing real talent.
I was reading an article recently that mentioned Bruce Springsteen not using any kind of track in his live performance. I then kept reading and found out that Bruce and the E Street Band plays 3 hours of material any given night. It was mind rattling, to say the least. I remember the 90's (yes, I lived through some great rock n' roll eras), and the start of the lip syncing phase. Does anybody out there remember Milli Vanilli? If so, do you remember how big of a news story it was when they were "busted" for lip syncing? It was scandalous "back then". So much for scandal when 99.9% of the artists now use tracks in their live shows. Oh we talk about it how tracks are not legit, and complain about it (to some extent) - but then shrug it off as "entertainment".
I want to just put it out there....the best shows are live shows where musicians are sweating over every note. Where musicians and singers are striving to hit every beat and every note the right way. Where the singers come off the stage exhausted, and the crowd leaves amazed. What we have been (and are) producing are lazy musicians under the guise of "entertainment". Who drives this mentality? Let me point one finger (though there are a few to point at various entities)....the big record companies. There was a time (I know when anyone starts with that it sounds "old skool" but who cares "old skool" was "good skool")....so, there was a time when record companies signed - get ready for it - talented musicians AND singers...GASP! Yes, you heard me right. Here is a question, and answer this truthfully, would Bruce Springsteen or a talented person like him get signed in 2012? I will answer that for you - no.
See, we have gone from an industry that use to sign talent to an industry that manufactures it based on looks, latest hair trends and clothing designs. Let me be clear, not ALL bands or singers are talentless. I will mention a name here - and do not string me up for saying it - Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga attended Julliard...and if you think that is an easy school to attend, then I would challenge anyone to attempt to get into it. Julliard students are high quality students who are serious about their craft. All of this to say, while we see some talent in the industry, sadly we see a lot of manufactured artists. Does the word Autotune mean anything? "What is Autotune?", you may ask. Basically in a nutshell, it is an engineer's tool that makes singers who can not sing, sound like they can. Nifty huh? For some artists they use it as an "effect" to make them sound "cool". For a lot of other artists they use it as a crutch because they can not sing.
I remember getting into quite a spirited discussion with a producer friend about the relevancy of Autotune, and its use as a professional tool. I am a musical purist. Yes, I have used Autotune on singers - but I loathe and dislike it tremendously. As a matter of fact, about 80% of the software tools out on the market I can not stand because they are being used to manipulate. My friend, on the other hand, was on the other end of the spectrum in regards to Autotune. He made a comment that it must a good thing since somebody made it. To me that logic is like saying cyanide must be OK to mix into your coffee since somebody made it. Just because we have a lame tool to make somebody, who shouldn't be singing, sound like they can, doesn't mean we should be using it...at all (hear me T-Pain. Go sell insurance). The record companies scratch their heads wondering why sales are going down, and then blame it on illegal digital downloading. That may be playing a small part in the decline, but I want to propose a new theory....your "talent" is talentless so start signing real talent again.
My cry here is bring back the real. Bring back the Springsteen's, Aerosmith's and the like. Please start signing more artists like Adele and bands that refuse to use tracks. Create a rule that if a band you signed starts using tracks then each of you get slapped up or your vacation gets taken away - or your dog has to be put into a shelter. For artists, learn how to play, learn how to sing and stop using lame backing tracks. Oh, and hire a new sound engineer. If the one you have can't make you sound great without using tracks, then find one that can (yes, I know this is all based on the fact the artist(s) can play and sing to begin with). It is time to reclaim our industry. So, let's start searching out great artists, and let us start a new kid of musical revolution. In the meantime, I am heading down to a coffee shop to enjoy a latte, bagel and real live musicians.
Kevin "Danger" Jackson is a New York-based producer, engineer, composer, performer, educator and Berklee College of Music alumnus. He writes, produces and engineers music for a wide range of artists in the pop, hip-hop, rock, R&B, classical and electronic genres. His work can be heard daily on a multitude of albums, radio and television stations worldwide.