20 Years of Perfect Pitch in Popular Music - How Elastic Audio Technology forced a Change in Aesthetics, Perception and Listener Expectation
An Empirical Analysis Based on Quantitative Research
carried out and written by
Bringing data-based objectivity to a controversial debate.
The study not only was made for examining, if pitch perfection empirically really is an integral part of the listener expected vocal sound in the 21st century. It moreover went into sound details by offering survey participants different pitch correction timbres: The melodyned versions delivered a more natural sounding pitch correction, whereas the additively autotuned versions went for a deliberately digital sounding approach with heavier smoothened out vibratos and quicker note bending to the target pitch. It has to be expressed, that both correction intensities and sound timbres can be equally manufactured with both used applications. Melodyne was just used for the softer correction timbre and Autotune for the generally stronger one, because these were their designers' initial workflow patterns: Autotune for automatic realtime correction and Melodyne for selective manual editing.
The following aspects were elaborated out of the numbers derived from questionnaires:
New vocal aesthetics seem finally established.
The way producers process a vocal with an endless wealth of digital possibilities more than ever is a highly artistic decision. In their dynamic and innovative environment such core artistic choices are strongly influenced by the latest available technologies. Art innovators like Mark Taylor, producer of Cher’s 1998 landmark hit Believe, often turn out as early adopters of technological progress. His creative overuse of the then groundbreakingly innovative Autotune software on Cher's voice makes technology’s influence really obvious and artistic (Ragnhild Brovid-Hansen and Anne Danielsen, Digital Signatures: The Impact of Digitization on Popular Music, p .119f). And if such misuse actually contributes to worldwide smash success like it did, a trend is set. Simon Reynolds (music journalist, author on music and pop culture) describes the 1998 born heavy Autotune overuse sound as
“... a blend of post-human perfection and angelic transcendence...” (Simon Reynolds, How Auto-Tune Revolutionized the Sound of Popular Music)
Something so sensational certainly had to be welcomed to add to the larger than life pop star images the music industry sells in billions of streams, clicks and plays. Thus lots of producer peers followed Taylor and Cher’s archetype Autotune sound and manifested digital sounding pitch quantization as a new and very modern artistic expression.
But what silently happened in the shade of the since then ever repeating trendy massive overuse of Autotune and its later siblings now appears even more game changing: A softer more natural sounding use of elastic audio technology widely established itself. Melodyne was the first application, that opened the possibility to manipulate vocal pitch manually in a dedicated editor - syllable by syllable. This innovative new tool finally may have changed perception on both sides of the mixing desk forever. By constantly using the new manual pitch editor a producer’s sloppy-pitch tolerance gradually gets smaller and smaller. Correction is easy to do, once the software is integrated into production workflow. And as the survey shows: It extremely pleases the trained ear. The process starts becoming a self-reinforcing one. The more a producer dives into perfect pitch on a vocal, the less the untreated sections satisfy his already changed perception. This has been vividly self-experienced, while treating the sacrosanct vocals of “the king of pop” for this study. As a consequence producers are strongly tempted to use it more and more, word by word. A not mentioned by name Grammy-winning recording engineer is cited in Time Magazine:
"It usually ends up just like plastic surgery. You haul out Autotune 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. …And every singer now presumes that you'll just run their voice through the box."” (Josh Tyrangiel for Time Magazine)
Brain researchers Sean Hutchins and Isabell Peretz confirm and explain that it is scientifically logical that singers themselves very much like to be complemented by Autotune:
… the most salient examples of vocal audio engineering involve pitch correction, especially auto-tuning…Thus one of the easiest ways to enhance people’s musical performance and to get people interested in performing, as well as consuming music, is to help them improve their pitch intonation. (Sean Hutchins and Isabell Peretz, Perception and Action in Singing)
TV Production insider Dr. Donna Soto-Morettini (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, casting director for BBC & ITV’s The Voice) has some critical remarks on artists following the industry’s perfection command:
The indisputable truth is that what we hear in the popular sphere absolutely influences what we value. (Lessley) Anderson (author) rightly wonders whether a generation of singers raised on autotuned pitch will have not only some unrealistic expectations of vocal performance, but might often sail just the wrong side of pitch perfection. (Dr. Donna Soto-Morettini, Popular Singing and Style)
And if that perfect pitch, manufactured by joint ventures of producers, artists and industry, alone seems not modern enough, highly sought after specialized pop mixers might use a touch or more of the success-promising celestial timbre of Antares Autotune on top of it. This has been widely rewarded with massive sales of countless superstar hit records by the biggest names in pop music from Katy Perry to Rihanna.
On the consumer side of the mixing board such deeply established perfectly pitched and often extra digitized vocal aesthetics obviously have lead to widely finding this kind of voice presentation normal and natural, as observed by above citated music researchers Provenzano and Strachan. The survey results now for the first time seem to objectively confirm their audacious thesis. Pitch correction seems much more than tolerated, it seems expected and probably has become common sense. Simon Reynolds puts forward an often used comparison and states that these days everybody uses photo editing to spice up his public performance in social media:
…when we habitually use editing and processing to tint and tidy up the image we present of ourselves to the world, it’s easy to see why we’ve gotten used to pop stars using artificial processes to disguise their imperfect selves, from their videos to what was once thought of as the singer’s most intimately innermost possession and deepest personal truth: the voice. It makes absolute sense that Autotuned singing—bodily breath transubstantiated into beyond-human data—is how desire, heartbreak, and the rest of the emotions sound today. Digital soul, for digital beings, leading digital lives. (Simon Reynolds, How Auto-Tune Revolutionized the Sound of Popular Music)
From the above analysis it is likely that pitch manipulation applications have been essential in irrevocably establishing new vocal aesthetics. The question for pop music producers is probably no longer whether to use them or not, the question merely seems to boil down to which extent to use them and how artificially to make them sound. In the meantime a broad palette of more or less digital sounding pitch tools is at professionals' disposal and they use them like EQ, compression, echo and reverb - on a daily basis.
(Multi-Platinum-) Producer Bob Rock (Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, Metallica), a long-time Bublé collaborator, sees pitch correction as a fashion, comparing it to the use of digital-delay devices three decades ago. "If you listen to some of the records I produced in the 1980s, I'm guilty of putting more reverb on those snare drums than humanly possible," he says. Of course, that was the sound of the era, and most everybody making records for major labels was doing exactly the same thing. "That's what you do," reasons Rock, "when you make pop records.” (Bryan Taylor in The Globe and Mail)
The triumph of elastic audio technology - a trick of fate.
As a closing remark the study brings quite an amusing footnote in latest music production history to the surface: The irony about the likely change in aesthetics, perception and listener expectation is that the only tested group that to some extent explicitly regrets the described development, are the ones who massively established it in the first place: Technology-embracing producers themselves. Famous last words are reserved for super-producer and notorious record-making innovator Trevor Horn, who has worked with some of the undisputedly greatest pop singers of all time (Tina Turner, Seal, Paul McCartney, Rod Steward, and many others):
"There used to be a lot more people who sang out of tune, and there was something quite interesting about that," he says. “ The generic sound of this generation is thin little voices perfectly in tune.” (Helienne Lindvall, Behind the music: How to make a singer sound great)
In alphabetical order:
Bovid_Hansen, Ragnhild and Anne Danielsen (2016). Digital Signatures - The Impact of Digitization on Popular Music. Cambridge MA, USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.
Hutchins, Sean and Isabelle Peretz (2011). Progress in Brain Research - Enhancing Performance and Perception, Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier
Lindvall, Helienne (2012). Behind the music: how to make a singer sound great (The Guardian).
Milner, Greg (2009). Perfecting Sound Forever. The Story of Recorded Music. London, England: Granta Books
Prior, Nick (2018). Popular Music Digital Technology and Society. London, England: Sage Publications
Provenzano, Catherine (2018). The Relentless Pursuit of Tone: Timbre in Popular Music. New York, USA: Oxford University Press
Reynold, Simon (2018): How Auto-Tune Revolutionized the Sound of Popular Music. An in-depth history of the most important pop innovation of the last 20 years, from Cher’s “Believe” to Kanye West to Migos (Pitchfork).
Soto-Morettini, Dr. Donna (2014). Popular Singing and Style. London, England: Bloomsbury
Strachan, Robert (2017). Sonic Technologies - Popular Music, Digital Culture and the Creative Process. London, England: Bloomsbury Academic.
Taylor, Brian (2013): Michael Bublé and how Auto-Tune became the Botox of pop music (The Globe and Mail).
Tyrangiel, Josh (2009): Auto-Tune: Why Pop Music Sounds Perfect (Time Magazine).
Valentine, Eric (2019): Making Records with Eric Valentine - Keith Urban “Horses” (Youtube).