We all have at home a record on our shelf of favorites by an artist who doesn’t sing well. Maybe it’s even vinyl. Nothing happens: his voice transmits us even if his technique is not canonical. Neil Young’s vocal performance on smooth my mind it is imperfect. His voice does not reach the registers that the composition walks through, which does not prevent it from being an outrageous song. Precisely those inaccuracies add emotion to the piece. It is a voice with character.
These days there has been talk of auto tuning, an audio processor that makes the voice sound robotic and that has resulted in the demon that fractures society generationally. Put aside the defenders of the gadget and the detractors: it’s all there, the generation gap visualized in faces, gestures, tattoos, clothing. The sides are still latent, that the human species is very tenacious, although the concept seemed outdated. But not. The prohibition to use automatic tuning in Eurovision forced one of the contestants, the Cuban-Barcelona Luna Ki, to withdraw from the Benidorm Fest, where the Spanish representative for the festival is selected. They see him? Generation gap: Luna Ki is 22 years old; those who put that rule, who knows…
But let’s talk about the concept. It is located in the recurring phrase before the news of Luna Ki: “Of course, it is that those who use automatic tuning they do it because they don’t know how to sing”. It’s not exactly like that: kids turn to this program because they feel like it, because they consider it a resource for their music and because that technology represents them. Some sing better than others, like those on the sacred records in our collection. Rosalía, for example, knows how to sing and sometimes uses automatic tuning Both she and other young artists do it conscientiously, without cheating. Most of the singers of all times (the untouchables too) resort to recording and live technology so that their voice sounds undistorted, brilliant, better than it really is.
But let’s go to the source of the error: only those who sing badly use it. There is a highly recommended documentary series released in 2021 on Netflix called This is pop. It analyzes different milestones in pop culture: the irruption of boy bands, the phenomenon of british pop in the nineties, the impact of festivals… and the automatic tuning. Do not worry the deniers: the series exudes dynamism, a sense of humor and complicity. You can see it, you won’t regret it. T-Pain appears on the screen, an American rapper who popularized the automatic tuning and had a great success in the United States and in several European countries in the 2000s. T-Pain sadly recounts an incident with his friend the singer Usher on a plane trip in 2013 that was taking them to an awards show: “I was sleeping and Usher came up to me to wake me up. ‘Uncle, I want to tell you something.’ And I: ‘Sure, friend, tell me’. ‘You’ve ruined the music. Man, you’ve screwed up real singers’ lives.” T-Pain claims that he did not understand anything. Later, he understood and fell into a depression that lasted four years.
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The automatic tuning It was created in 1996 by the Californian electrical engineer Andy Hildebrand, today rotten with money. He was at a meal with a friend and his partner. She was a singer and asked him for a device to tune well. Hildebrand went to work on the equations and the accounts. In four months I had it. “Before the artist spent a week in the studio, the automatic tuning reduced it to half a day. Most need pitch corrections. The producers took it out of my hands”, affirms the lucky inventor in This is pop. David Bowie is cited in the documentary as one of the few who did not need the gadget. Others…
Producers who required for their recordings the cars they were silent as it was almost undetectable to the ear. What changed everything was a selector that was added to change the pitch of the voice: you can go from a fast song to a ballad, or speed up the song and the pitch. And here it was noticeable and it created the robotic sound that invades music today. Hildebrand says that he never believed that anyone would use his tuner in such a way. The first was Cher with Believe, in 1998. The alien sound was born. In the 2000s, the aforementioned T-Pain burst in with songs like i’m swollen. The public loved it since he danced to the rapper’s songs, but most of the musicians and the media discredited him for using that technique. Hildebrand, the inventor, recounts that one day a very famous producer stopped him on the street and said: “Andy, you have changed my life. My job was to find people who sang well. Now it’s enough for me to find attractive people.”
Until Kanye West arrived in 2008 and released the album 808s Distress, with inflation of automatic tuning It should be remembered that Kanye was considered a beacon at the time to detect the most modern music of the moment. So if God says it will be that the automatic tuning it’s good. Thousands of singers began to use it not as a bad voice corrector, but as a tool that adapts to the song. Until it has become the most important musical instrument of the 21st century. It is estimated that 60% of the most listened to songs today use the famous robotic sound. Looking for antecedents automatic tuning There are techniques such as vocoder or the conversation box. Both emerged in the late seventies and used by bands passionate about technology like Kraftwerk or The Alan Parson Project, but also by rockers like Neil Young (on his album Trans, from 1982), Peter Frampton or Bon Jovi, the latter two using the conversation box for his greatest hits: Show me the way Y living on a prayer, respectively.
That technology can transmit feelings is something that few discuss. The important thing is that it is used for good compositions and relevant texts. Do the musicians who lead the automatic tuning? Not necessarily. T-Pain did a performance on NPR’s famous Tiny Desk and it was without the knick-knack. It turned out that he was in perfect tune. Do all musicians who do not use music sing well? automatic tuning? Of course not. Critics argue that this technology unifies the voice, that one cannot be distinguished from another, that personality is lost. Maybe it was. Or maybe it’s that they’re used to the other and can’t appreciate the differences, the rhythms. The fans of automatic tuning point out that it’s a matter of prejudice and what they really don’t like is not so much the sound (that too), but the message of some songs that don’t fit their way of thinking and that relate it to styles they despise, such as reggaeton or the trap.
When a new technology emerges, the natural reaction is rejection. The generation gap: the elderly denying the cultural references of the young. With the cards on the table, it seems more honest to use the automatic tuning to the brave, as one more instrument, than using it to correct tuning problems, as hundreds of stars have done that we have on a pedestal.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.