This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW
American Idol has already run eight seasons. Since its debut in 2002, watching non-singers belting out of tune has become an amusing addiction. When Karaoke was introduced in the 80's from Japan, it revealed an inner fascination with the amateur, flaws and all. But since that time, something has been happening in professional recording studios that is a curious counterpart to our obsession with amateurism: that is perfection, specifically, pitch perfection.
It could be argued that imperfection is what makes an artist unique. Billie Holiday was famous for her dipping vocal style that often blended pitches like a horn player would. Part of that hurt you can hear in the voice of modern day artists like Alicia Keys, is because she sings with a slightly flat intonation. And Aretha Franklin's performance at Obama's inauguration was criticized by lay listeners as being a bit 'pitchy'. But a soul singer is supposed to bend tones?
It makes me wonder how accustomed we've become to our pitch-corrected pop stars.
Recording artists like Britney Spears and Li'l Wayne rarely approach a microphone these days without state-of-the-art pitch correction software in place. It has become an incredibly helpful tool for the studio, and can be a very reasonable alternative to multiple recording sessions. If you run a bad note through a program like auto-tune, you can save yourself a lot of time and a lot of money.
But where should it stop? If you can fix one note, it's tempting to fix them all. As a result, there are artists, mainly in the pop and hip-hop industry, who owe their career to pitch-correction software. They see it as a make-up for their vocal blemishes, and they wouldn't be caught dead without it.
What's fascinating about all this is that we, as consumers, don't seem to mind. In fact, we love it. The most obvious example of course is Cher's 1998 mega-hit "Believe," which was one of the first songs to popularize the effect as an embellishment. Originally it was an accident, but when Cher heard the sci-fi sounding glitches, she insisted on leaving them in. The song was a hit all over the world. Now, ten years later you can hardly turn on the radio without hearing the effect.
Pitch correction has traveled from a subtle correction tool, to an overt effect that artists now work into their music, as much as they would reverb or delay. It is this shift in usage has created a market for the effect. The two main competitors in the pitch correction software industry are Auto-Tune made by Antares and Melodyne made by Celemony. The two companies have made remarkable advances in sound processing and have created enormous opportunities for a rich and unique sound.
A good example of how music has changed is Imogen Heap's famous song "Hide n' Seek." It's a ballad produced from one vocal line and transformed into a robotic-sounding choir by the use of a device called a vocoder. The emotive force behind the song is anything but robotic, and results in a highly nuanced piece of music. It opens up a whole of new realm of possibilities. As a musician, the opportunities truly seem endless now. But as good as we get at manipulating sound, it will never surpass the importance of raw talent.
This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.