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Anabolic Rock

In this age of technology, we can do more with less. But as technology capable of turning non-musicians into stars becomes a bigger part of the recording process, how

Anabolic Rock

In this age of technology, we can do more with less. But as technology capable of turning non-musicians into stars becomes a bigger part of the recording process, how will we know what is “real” or “fake”?

On the evening of August 7, 2007 Barry Bonds did what was considered a Herculean feat in sport, surpassing Hank Aaron for the most career home runs in major league baseball (at the time, 756). As the ball sailed all 435 feet out of AT&T Park, I paused to consider the conflicted feelings I had about an amazing sport and this recent milestone. It’s obvious to any fan of the game that Barry Bonds is an amazing baseball player, but his alleged steroid use unfortunately calls into question the legitamacy of his achievement. FOX’s Tim McCarver said of the event, “Only time will tell if baseball’s steroid era will result in a number of asterisks within the record book, but there are already mental asterisks in the minds of fans. It’s a shame that, after Bonds breaks the record, the conversation will go, ‘Barry is the all-time home run hitter, but…’ This record deserves more than that. With Henry Aaron, there were no buts.”

But I digress, this isn’t an article about baseball or steroids – although I think there are some serious parallels between the two.

As a working musician, much like any athlete, I am always looking for ways to improve my abilities, whether it is through more practice or by utilizing the latest technology available. When it comes to your passion, I can certainly sympathize with anyone who is trying to gain an edge in what they do.

And while I embrace the merging of technology with music, on the other hand (much like a vast majority of baseball fans), I am a traditionalist. I starting learning music at a time when computers were not heavily used, either in recording or instruction. I took piano lessons when I was very young, and I taught myself how to play guitar by watching others and looking at books. After high school, I attended Berklee College of Music where I really explored the history of music. I honed my craft. I learned what makes it what it is. And now I have been playing music professionally for over ten years now – I have been in a position to witness the explosive expansion of technology and how it has become a mainstay in today’s music business.

Anabolic Rock

The Tech Boom
No matter where you stand on tradition, it can’t be denied that many of the things that have come out of this technological boom have improved the quality of music and made musicians’ lives easier. A few of my favorites are the now ubiquitous iPod; Pro Tools and the wide variety of available plug-ins, making recording faster, easier and limitless; new keyboard technology and the ability to manipulate sounds with almost limitless variation and little sweat; virtual instruments, allowing you to have an orchestra at your fingertips; and non-destructive editing of sound files. All of these product innovations are amazing, inspiring and aid in our abilities to create and enjoy music.

Of course, as with any great innovation, there is the inevitable downside. All of these products are insanely powerful, capable of creating amazing musical miracles. Perhaps it was said best by Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in the comic Amazing Fantasy #15, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

The manufacturers of these technologies are constantly and simultaneously loading them with more features and making them easier to use. Now, a person who takes the time to learn and manipulate these products can create something that sounds unbelievable with little or no human input – in a historically unique moment, it is now possible to make a record or create music without the playing of any instrument! With the help of modern technology, you could take an average voice off the street and make it sound like Pavarotti. If you’re honest with yourself, do you really believe that Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan can sing?

That being said, there is no doubt that technology can be inspirational. Pete Townsend’s visionary approach to sound gave us seminal tracks like “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Quincy Jones blended cutting edge technology and live musicians to create Off the Wall and Thriller. There are many producers and musicians doing innovative work in today’s music, such as Dr. Dre and Timabland.

But the question inevitably becomes, where does the line between what is natural and what is fake get drawn? Is there a point where asterisks should be placed next to album tracks, next to artist names?

There is definitely a talent to working with Pro Tools and the myriad related products. Like graphics programs such as Adobe Photoshop, it takes real skill to coax the potential from these applications. The biggest qualm I have, along with many musical “traditionalists”, lies with a new generation of musicians – and certainly not all of them – who are using technology to compensate for a lack of talent and originality. Tuning programs like Antares Auto Tune and Melodyne can create a vocal performance that would never have been possible from the singer’s own voice (more about these later).

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.