Friday, December 10, 2010

Through the Auto Tune Looking Glass

Lately, I have been hearing a lot about auto tune. Rachelle Norman (a board certified music therapist) recently sent me an article in "Slate" by Jonah Weiner on Ke$ha's use of autotune:

And I also listened to a discussion of autotune's and Melodyne's pros and cons in this recent interview on Sonic State of Tara Busch, Maf Lewis and others. Sideline: some great new music from Tara as well (analogue/Moog goodness):

I believe that Ke$ha's use of autotune is, like so many other dreadfull applications of it, a gimmick. No doubt her hard edge and dance beat are also just formulas for effective marketing but not necessarily good music. I find it often difficult to distinguish between what is commercial and what is jingle. Weiner talks about "ear worms" in his article. I suppose in many ways that writing jingles or songs that attempt to use the same technique as jingles or commercials is a kind of art form but it is not what I would call creative.

So let me get to the looking glass. Many forms of music make effective use of pitch bending as an often very effective form of musical expression. Consider for example Celtic music that often bends up to create a distinctive style along with the scales that are used. I have used this technique in my music by simply bending the pitch wheel down before playing the note and bending up.

On the side of American musical art forms, blues not only uses pitch bending but also has a note specifically called the "blues note" that is especially appropriate to bend. Delta blues also makes use of the cordican bottle or slide and many old school country music band use the steel slide guitar. This same slid guitar is also effectively used in Rock (with a bit of distortion added) by David Gilmour in some Pink Floyd songs and by Led Zepplin and of course, the Alman Borther band to name just a few. There are many many others. Also consider the use of vibrato for violin in classical music and also for guitar in many genres of music.

Pitch bend also is used almost subliminally by vocal artists from R&B to rock but also more subtly by artists like Bob Dylan who developed an enormously popular style partially because of his use of pitch bend in his voice.

The changing pitch of birdsong had been used to wonder effect by composers like Olivier Messiaen spent an incredible amount of time carefully and artistically transposing birdsong.

Pitch is also instrumental in human language which is neurologically related to music in th brain. Many eastern languages such as Mandarin use pitch as part of changing the meaning of a word but in just about any language used changes in pitch to convey meaning.

My point is that the desire to quantize pitch seems to contrary to what so many spend their lives perfecting in music be it voice or an instrument. We put pitch bend wheels on synthesizers and violins and some basses have no frets so avoid quantization. With the invention of drum machines it also seems that everyone wants to quantize time. Sure there is groove quantize but isn't that just another form of quantization?

I understand the purpose of Melodyne to make minor corrections to pitch to put the finishing touches on a mix but the idea that a quantized voice is desirable when it seems to be so much of the art of music thrives on playing outside the grid lines. Why so many want to autotune leaves me without a clue unless it really is just a gimmick.

So, as I have said on Twitter, I hope autotune dies a quick death. For those who like it, don't worry, someone will fnd a new gimmick to sell. In the meantime others will play there notes off the grid lines and through the looking glass.

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