Stop the press.

10 July, 2014
Rat Fink

“Words I Love” will have to wait for another day.

(Iwon’twriteaboutLeBronIwon’twriteaboutLeBronIwon’twriteaboutLeBronIwon’twr—)

Alas, no. I need to address the video that’s gone crazy around the world. You know, the one that features a studio track of Britney Spears, singing without any enhancers such as Auto-Tune (software that, among other effects, corrects out-of-tune singing). First, listen to the recording.

Yikes. A bit painful in spots, but A-T can fix it, right? No big deal, so please, leave Britney alone. According to William Orbit, a producer who works with the singer:

 

I’d like to affirm that ANY singer when first at the mic at the start of a long session can make a multitude of vocalizations in order to get warmed up. Warming up is essential if you’re a pro, as it is with a runner doing stretches, and it takes a while to do properly. I’ve heard all manner of sounds emitted during warm-ups. The point is that it is not supposed to be shared with millions of listeners. A generous singer will put something down the mic to help the engineer get their systems warmed up and at the right level, maybe whilst having a cup of herb tea and checking through lyrics before the session really kicks off. It’s not expected to be a ‘take.’

Whomever put this on the Internet must have done so in a spirit of unkindness, but it can in no way detract from the fact that Britney is and always will be beyond stellar! She is magnificent! And that’s that.

 

Central to this sycophantic treatise is the kill-an-ant-with-a-Howitzer effort to defend her by inserting meaningless frabba-jabba about engineers getting “their systems warmed up” (whaa?), and basically stating with a straight face that it’s pretty much standard for professional singers to sing dreadfully — and repeatedly — out of tune during warm-ups. Dude really wants to take a bullet for this girl, Lawd. Strikes me as somewhat desperate.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s my take. I’ve read lots of pro-Britney comments on several websites. I’ll paraphrase some here, followed by my response.

  1. It’s no different than Photoshop for photography. It’s designed to improve a performance; there’s nothing wrong with that. Well now, that’s a matter of how you define “wrong,” isn’t it? In my mind, there is plenty wrong with floating your image as a singer, and not being able to deliver the goods. To me, that’s lying to your fan base. It’s duplicitous and smug. Isn’t there an emerging movement to pressure magazines to take the Photoshop fakery and dishonesty out of photography? If you’re gung-ho about leaving one’s natural beauty to shine through, but all wiggle-neck and wave-finger about defending Britney’s artificial sweeteners, well…that makes you a hypocrite.
  2. She’s never claimed to be a great singer; she’s just a great performer. And that’s just a great huge subjective generalization. I guess it depends on what you want for your $170 concert ticket. Me? If I’m going to hear someone who has a song in the charts (and is therefore classified as a “singer”), my expectations are that the singing will be outstanding. I don’t want to hear the singing get short-shrifted because the singer is completely winded from all the ubiquitous dancing (as if concertgoers can no longer be entertained by a singer at a mic; they must have shiny, fast-moving, TV-like things to look at onstage and on mile-high projection screens, or else they’re bored). I don’t want to hear pitch doctors at work, tip-toeing through a minefield of possible clinkers, or worse — watch a lip-synced performance. Where’s the authenticity in that?  I watched Britney dummy along to her songs last night. It was clutch. Only in America, folks. Only in America.
  3. Everyone uses Auto-Tune nowadays. This statement is tragic in more ways than one.  A. I’ve read several comments from studio engineers who dismissively claim that A-T is “no big deal” — that it’s a long-established industry standard for correcting “small imperfections” in singers’ intonation. Long-established, eh? Auto-Tune was rolled out by Antares Audio Technologies way back in 1997. By my calculation, it’s been an “industry standard” for about 17 years, in an industry that began in 1889. What on earth were bad singers supposed to do before 1997? Fix the mistakesthat’s what, although some major misjudgments did slip through the cracks from time to time. As much as I loved The Association, they by-crackie screwed the pooch on Cherish and Never My Love. I can barely stand to listen to them, which is a shame because I like the songs a lot. The Mamas & Papas committed the same crime in Monday, Monday. While it’s not a singing gaffe, I can’t listen to Wings’s Band on the Run, because McCartney’s bass is so out of tune, it ruins the whole thing. And have you suffered through Club Nouveau’s 1986 Lean on Me bridge recently? Oh, you must. I’ll wait here. The point is, where were these hotshot producers then? Who let this stuff slide, and why? I’d love to know. B. Not “everyone” uses Auto-Tune. What bothers me most, I think, is that such a large portion of the music-listening public thinks it’s totally acceptable to lay down garbage on tape and let producers fix it. You know, in the “old days,” there was a method for fixing out-of-tune singing in the studio. It was called “punching in/out,” whereby the offending phrase was recorded over by the singer. The artist — the person with the ears and the voice — did the fixing. I’ve done it myself in my own recording sessions, many times. What happened to that practice, and why is it OK in today’s recording culture for singers to walk into a booth, take a musical crap, and leave it for others to clean up later? The reasons are multi-layered and outside the scope of music, so I’ll leave it there for today.

Of course, the cure is to not listen to artists who bother you, or who thwack your intonation sensibilities. Better still, do listen to three singers who never had the Auto-Tune option, yet rarely ever recorded a single note that didn’t ring true: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and John Lennon. In the studio or live onstage — it made no difference. They were as near perfect as anyone could be. And no one “cleaned up” after them.

As for Britney:  she’ll get through this without a scrape. Naughty bits of this girl have been exposed in the media before, and it’ll likely happen again. I think she’s not devoid of singing talent, by the way. I think she sings music in keys that are way too low for her, and as any singer will tell you, doing so is decidedly unhelpful in the intonation department. She is also Queen of the Vocal Fry, and I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t want to cold-cock her for it. STOP *sLAp* singing like an idiot! But to paraphrase Boston, there’s just something about her that continues to boost her record sales. We won’t go into that today, either. :-D

Hey, it’s almost Finkday! What does it MEAN?? I don’t know!! I’m on vacation!

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PKPudlin
10 July, 2014 11:05 am

Sure makes one appreciate Renee’ Fleming singing the SSB, doesn’t it? No auto-tune for that girl.

Of course Mr. Orbit is going to take a bullet for Ms. Brittany – she’s his bread-and-butter! Big buck-a-roos come his way every time she opens her mouth. She’s a so-so singer, but a popular entertainer for whatever reason. This means large dollars, but it is also an important distinction that needs to be pointed out every so often.

Call me a snob – I’ll listen to Renee’ instead.

PK

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Ross
10 July, 2014 11:46 am

Sensational response. Everything I hoped it would be.

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David
David
11 July, 2014 10:30 am

You see…when you beat around the bush that way I simply do not know where you stand on an issue. :)

I appreciate the insight, it was very interesting.

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RD
RD
11 July, 2014 11:48 am

I’m not a musician, but I love music both vocal and instrumental. As a laymen I found your post to be very interesting and informative. You know the business and I don’t, so I appreciated your input. As you wrote about corrective software, I wondered if there is software that will turn a mediocre sermon into one that grabs people’s hearts. If so, please let me know :)

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