Anabolic Rock

From a rhythmic perspective, if you were to “grid” a classic Rolling Stones song in Pro Tools or Logic, you would discover the time is shifting all over the place. The click track might go out the window, but the song would still groove.

There are also several programs designed to place music in the exact right time by using a grid. Quantizing programs like Beat Detective allow the musician (or non-musician) to play “out of time” and magically have it sound in time. Eric Robinson, a producer, engineer and artist in Los Angeles summed it up, saying, “Technology enables processing that used to be impossible or incredibly time-consuming to be done at light speed and easily repeated. This is where many people lose sight of what they are working on and rely on technology to fix what they either can’t do or don’t want to spend the time to make right.”

Correcting the Pitch
Over the last ten years, audio engineers have been perfecting a technique called “pitch correction or tuning,” in which they take someone’s recorded lead vocal and “put it in tune” with the use of various computer programs that allow the note to be altered into perfect tune. As with anything else, there are good and bad sides to this. The obvious upside is that if the singer sings flat or sharp, it can be fixed after the fact. It is a relatively quick procedure and can save valuable studio time if a singer has difficulty hitting the right notes – an engineer can do this in a home studio at little or no cost if they have the right programs. And let’s face it; it also sounds good. No matter how much of a traditionalist you might be, no one wants to hear someone singing out of tune.

As the technology has become more widespread, especially in the past few years, our ears have become accustomed to the sound of “pitch correction.” The downside of this is that when you hear an artist singing live, who was “pitched” severely on their record, you will hear a significant difference. Lead and background vocals are almost always pitched, creating a homogenized syrupy sound. In addition, pitching a great singer can take away a lot of the character of the performance. The slightly flat notes, awkward vibrato and odd phrasing are some of the things we love most about our favorite pre-Pro Tools records.

If Led Zeppelin were set to record a new album in 2007, it would most likely sound nothing like the original recordings that we love so much. The undeniable vibe of the four guys playing together would likely be tainted with the modern attitude of fixing everything and making it “perfect.” From a rhythmic perspective, if you were to “grid” (put the song on a quantized grid that places the audio into blocks, so you can determine whether something is in time or not) a classic Rolling Stones song in Pro Tools or Logic, you would discover the time is shifting all over the place. The click track might go out the window, but the song would still groove. The mojo is still there. Mick Jagger’s voice is raw and untainted.

Recording to tape preserved the artists’ original take for perpetuity. Of course, they would do multiple takes and plucky engineers had some editing tricks (splicing, doubling, etc.), but there were no digital enhancements that helped Mick Jagger sing in key, even if he couldn’t. Back then, you had to perform to make the big money. Real performers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett grabbed the mic (sometimes doing it without one) and just sang. They were entertainers, and they were able to develop their abilities, but it all started with talent. There were no computers involved.

I spoke with my friend and record producer, Marshall Altman from his recording studio in Burbank, California and asked him if he could weigh in on this topic. Here’s what he had to say:

“As users and creators of technology, we just might be contributing to the death of rock n’ roll, yes. But as Bruce Springsteen said, ‘Everything dies, baby. That’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back. Put your make up on, fix your hair up pretty, meet me tonight in Atlantic City.’ Do you think he’d have written that on an MBox, had the technology been available? I’d like to think he would have.

“So yes, technology is contributing to the death of music in general, not just rock n’ roll, and I say let it die. Let it all die, so it can grow back in to something scarred and beautiful, tragic and noisy, brave, bold, stupid, smart, happy, sad, life-changing and everlasting.

“Let the major labels die a slow, painful death, and let bold new record companies rise like roses growing in the cracked sidewalks of popular culture. Let every band with enough money buy the gear they want, make a record with too much compression and not enough heart. Let every singer-songwriter who suffers from having read too much and not having lived enough make a record, too.

“Let them all come – put them all up on MySpace. The end is near! And I can’t wait for the end, so we can all start listening again. It’s not pretty out there; there’s too much good music and not enough great music. With the advent of the affordable DAW, every kid with a dream and a little money can make a good-sounding record, with some good songs, and some really good artwork. Good is within everyone’s reach, and technology has afforded us the easy opportunity to be good, but good is not great.

“If something is great, the technology used in creating it doesn’t matter. If there is blame to be cast, it shouldn’t fall on the technology that has given us the opportunity to be creative. The blame falls on our shoulders. We listen, we buy, we rip, we steal. We settle. And out of the destruction of it all will come something wonderful. I can’t wait to hear what it is.”

Though I started writing this article months ago, I recently caught MTV’s latest perverse act: the performance by Britney Spears at the Video Music Awards. Ignoring her lethargic, robotic performance and the media’s unhealthy obsession with her weight, the debate centered on her poor lip-syncing skills. As I realized people weren’t upset by the fact that she was not singing, but instead by the fact that her lip-syncing wasn’t up to snuff, I realized that the debate of tradition versus tech isn’t going away anytime soon. It basically seemed that we as popular music consumers are saying, “We are willing to buy something totally fake, we just don’t want you to tell us that it’s fake.”

At this point in our musical and cultural evolution, we have weapons of mass deception and it would seem that no one cares. If Barry Bonds juiced, is it still a record? If you can’t sing on pitch, are you a singer? If our kids cheat in school, will we start putting asterisks next to the As? If video truly killed the radio star, then Pro Tools has put real musicians in a coma.

Jim McGorman is a professional musician who has worked with a diverse group of artists (Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, Cher, Poison, Paul Stanley, New Radicals, etc.). He is a singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist (piano, guitar/bass). In addition to music, Jim currently contributes to a number of magazines and on line publications.