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Auto-tune a sound reason some songs are perfect

Anna Caruso sings songs that will later be “auto tuned” to make her voice sound better.
Anna Caruso sings songs that will later be “auto tuned” to make her voice sound better.

American Idol” had a Beatles week, a Mariah Carey week, even a Dolly Parton week.

But if the show really wants to be “current,” as judge Simon Cowell is fond of saying, it should have an Auto-Tune week.

What’s Auto-Tune? It’s pitch-shifting computer software that can make even mediocre singers sound like they know what they’re doing. So why keep telling contestants their performances are “pitchy”? Just run their voices through Auto-Tune, then see who sounds best.

Heresy, you say?

Hardly. It’s how it’s done in the real world.

The use of Auto-Tune, which was invented more than a decade ago, has exploded since Cher’s “Believe” brought an electronic warbling effect into the mainstream in the late ’90s. While Auto-Tune is used today by artists such as T-Pain, Lil Wayne and Kanye West to create a similar effect, it is far more widely employed as a sort of singer’s safety net that’s meant to be invisible. But it’s capable of far more. In the February issue of Time magazine, assistant managing editor and music critic Josh Tyrangiel called Auto-Tune “Photoshop for the human voice.”

He wrote, in part:

“In a medium in which mediocre singing has never been a bar to entry, a lot of pop vocals suddenly sound great. Better than great: note- and pitch-perfect, as if there’s been an unspoken tightening of standards at record labels, or an evolutionary leap in the development of vocal cords.”

But some artists are chafing at the high-tech trickery. They say using Auto-Tune to stamp out even the smallest vestiges of imperfection is giving today’s top-40 music all the uniqueness of a Pringle’s potato chip. At the Grammy Awards earlier this year, Seattle-based indie rockers Death Cab for Cutie wore light-blue ribbons on their jackets to protest the use of Auto-Tune.

“Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen a lot of good musicians affected by this newfound digital manipulation of the human voice,” said the group’s front man, Benjamin Gibbard. “And we feel enough is enough.”

Ditto for Neko Case, an alt-country singer who in 2006 said in an interview that Auto-Tune was, “for people like Shania Twain who can’t sing.”

She’s a bit miffed at Madonna, too.

“Just hit the note!” Case said. “You can do it, I have faith in you. But don’t leave the studio before you hit that (expletive) note!”

Case doesn’t claim to sing any better.

“I’m not a perfect note-hitter either, but I’m not going to cover it up with Auto-Tune,” she said.

Almost everyone else does.

“I once asked a studio guy in Toronto, ‘How many people don’t use Auto-Tune?’ and he said, ‘You and Nelly Furtado are the only two people who’ve never used it in here,’ ” Case said.

“When I hear Auto-Tune on somebody’s voice, I don’t take them seriously. Or you hear somebody like Alicia Keys, who I know is pretty good, and you’ll hear a little bit of Auto-Tune and you’re like, ‘You’re too good for that. Why would you let them do that to you?’ ”

Time’s Tyrangiel said the tool is simply too good not to use. He quotes a Grammy-winning engineer:

“You haul out Auto-Tune to make one thing better, but then it’s very hard to resist the temptation to spruce up the whole vocal, give everything a little nip-tuck,” he wrote. “Let’s just say I’ve had Auto-Tune save vocals on everything from Britney Spears to Bollywood cast albums. And every singer now presumes that you’ll just run their voice through the box.”

What do stars sound like without their audio backstop? That was the subject of a YouTube posting. In the video — blogs.nashvillescene.com/nashvillecream/ 2009/03/post_2.php — Britney Spears is heard singing weakly into a headset mic while a perfect pre-recorded Auto-Tuned track (what the audience actually hears) booms through the arena.

Then there’s Ashlee Simpson, who was roundly booed during her tuneless performance at the 2005 Orange Bowl. Later, Simpson got caught lip-syncing on “Saturday Night Live.”

Country crossover star Taylor Swift

did sing live

on “SNL.” But she got savaged both by critics and on the blogosphere for being out of tune.

Chuck Chapman, owner of Chapman Recording and Mastering in Lenexa, said you can’t always believe your ears.

“We are kind of being sold a bill of goods,” he said. “But we as consumers have to realize that that is what the marketplace is today. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, I’m just saying that’s reality. The responsibility lies with the artist or the producer. If they choose to fix a very bad vocal and pass it off as reality, then yeah, I feel slighted.”

In the days before Auto-Tune, Chapman said, it was much harder for engineers to patch up pitchy singers. Oh, they still did it — by re-recording sections of a song, then patching in well-sung notes over clunkers. But it was harder.

Live performances, he said, remain the only true way to judge if a singer really is as good as advertised.

But there are legitimate uses of Auto-Tune, he said, including creating sound effects and saving an otherwise great performance that’s off by only a note or two.

But if you’re concerned about Auto-Tune, hold onto your microphone, because there’s a new piece of software hitting the studios called Direct Access.

“It’s the most amazing piece of software I’ve ever seen in my life,” Chapman said. “You can actually take a pre-recorded sound — any chord from any instrument — and this will break it down into individual notes so you can fix it. … Beyond fixing things, you can actually change the performance. It’s staggering! This is going to be for the instrumental side what Auto-Tune is for singers. Over the next five years, I can’t imagine this not changing everything that we do in the studio.”

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