The 2013 Grammy Awards have safely come and gone (is anyone else amazed that no one was electrocuted during the onstage rain shower?) and all anyone is talking about after the show is how Auto-Tune is destroying the music biz. Put performers on a live stage without technologic backup, and many of them will fall apart, in ear-shattering glory. Fun. had some issues with pitch that were hard to ignore, and Frank Ocean’s performance was a little shaky without the benefit of pitch-correcting software. People are up in arms that without Auto-Tune, many current artists would be crooning on a cruise ship in the Baltic Sea. But have things really changed?
Auto-Tune technology is relatively new, but for years, clever engineers and producers have been employing plenty of tricks to get a perfect performance on record. As soon as multitrack technology became available in the 50’s, artists have had the opportunity to sing take after take to create perfection. When I first started working in the record industry, 24-track multitrack recorders were the standard, with digital machines starting to become popular. Today’s Auto-Tune might be getting all the attention, but we had plenty of tricks up our sleeves back then to create perfection.
It was standard operating procedure to work on a single chorus of a song for days, if not weeks, and then simply use that perfect chorus throughout the song – “flying in” the first performance later in the song if other parts of the instrumentation changed. This meant we would record the vocal track on a different tape recorder. Then, with an amazing amount of trial and error, we would play that tape recorder back and record it into the next chorus, hoping the timing was right. This was in a music studio that didn’t have the benefit of synchronizing time code at that point. If nothing changed in the background tracks, we could wait until the final mix was created, and just record it a few times and with a razor blade and splicing tape, cut those choruses into the rest of the song in the appropriate place.
On one album, the singer would come in each day and sing about 8 takes of the song. The producer and I would have a copy of the lyrics and after the singer left, our fun began. We would have 8 different-colored highlight pens – one for each track. We would go through the song, meticulously listening to each track. If a phrase or even a word was good on a take, we would highlight it in the color that corresponded to that take/track. On to the next track and color. At the end of the day, I would bounce all the good phrases down to one master track. Some days we would have a complete song, most days not. This went on for months, until we had a complete album with every note in perfect pitch.
Back then, friends and family would be shocked that artists didn’t come in and in one or two takes have a perfect recording. It didn’t happen back then, and it’s not happening now. To me, the true test of an artist’s true talent comes out when they’re singing live, without lip-syncing (let’s talk about that sometime soon too!) and without Auto-Tune. Artists like Kelly Clarkston and Alicia Keyes can sing anytime, anywhere and they’ll be just fine. The times have changed, talent is talent, but technology is here, as it has always been.
Leslie Shapiro has been an audio engineer for 25 years, with experience in television, film, and the music industry. She is also a member of NARAS, which gives her the coveted privilege of voting for the Grammy Awards.
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