For the first time ever, I present an article written by someone other than myself. It's well written, researched and darn it anyway, important to me that EVERYONE knows that the music you're buying today is made by talentless airheads who have been sucked into the business by money hungry record labels. Reprinted with permission from "InReview" Newspaper published in Nashville. Feel free to follow their link to read more of their articles and visit their web site. Any BOLD print is MY emphasis, and any comments, should I have any, are in RED.
By Charles Earle
It's a story that's become all too familiar to music fans over the last decade. Eurotrash dance club svengali Frank Farian rounds up two good-looking kids who can't sing a lick and has them lip-sync a bunch of silly, high-energy pop tunes for music videos. He gives the duo a nonsensical name and leads a charge that gets the boys an almost unimaginable amount of airtime on MTV. Then, seemingly before any of the involved parties even knew what was happening, the duo had sold seven million albums in the U.S. and taken home the Grammy for Best New Artist.
But just as the duo's popularity was peaking, everything came crashing down when it was revealed that they hadn't sung a note on the album that featured their faces on the cover. They were stripped of their Grammy and their dignity, and their careers were over. Over the next eight years, the burden of shame became too great for one of the two young men. He would spiral into a nasty drug habit that would eventually take his life.
What in the hell, you may be asking yourself, is Charles Earle doing writing a eulogy for Milli Vanilli? That's a good question. It isn't something I would ever have expected to do. But over the last few weeks, I learned a few things about modern-day recording technology that have me feeling quite a bit of sympathy for those two poor schleps. You see, if Rob and Fab had been able to take advantage of a few of the late 1990s developments in audio software technology, they would just be a couple of happy has-beens on VH1's Where Are They Now. Instead, they are one of the great jokes in the history of the industry, and one of them is dead.
Follow along and I'll explain.
Over the last year or two, I've noticed how a handful of our country divas seem to be perfectly awful singers in live settings. They go on award shows and give dreadful vocal performances of songs that they seem to havenailed on their records. Of course, I've always known that you can do a few things to doctor up a voice in the studio. Hell, both of the guys from Miami Vice made records back in the 1980s. But the difference between what I was hearing live and on record recently was much more startling than in years past. Consequently, I found myself wanting to know how it was that Faith Hill could sound like Edith Piaf on her album and Edith Bunker on stage.
The answer came in conversations I had recently with people who work in recording studios (and as I get ready to disperse this information, please remember that I am not exactly a technical genius). According to a number of people I spoke with, a revolution in software has basically eliminated in recent years the need for vocal talent. This revolution comes in the form of software packages with names like Pro Tools, Sonic Solutions, Digital Performer and Logic Audio. The bottom line on these technological marvels is that they allow properly trained producers/engineers to use their keyboard and mouse to "fix" audio recordings. And by fix, I mean quite simply that they can make bad things sound good. So good, in fact, that the Milli Vanilli men could have sung the songs themselves.
Now, at this point in the column, I want to point out that people in the commercial country music industry know quite well about the digital manipulation that is possible with Pro Tools and the like. Most of them talk about the Pro Tools package by name since it has become synonymous with this form of audio trickery - the same way Kleenex has become synonymous with facial tissue. But it seems doubtful that any of them care, based on the fact that most engineers tell me that the use of this software is standard practice in Music Row studios. However, once I learned enough to know that the listening public is being duped with digital improvements to inferior singers, I felt that an examination of this technology was in order. So I spent the last week talking with vocalists, artist managers, live engineers and producers. Here is what I found out:
The Artists' Point of View
Mandy Barnett is the most gifted female vocalist in Nashville.(I must agree. Mandy's voice is incredible, and I've seen her live to know the truth!) I've said that a number of times in print. But this Pro Tools stuff, it makes you wonder. So I asked Mandy last week if she uses this technology in her recording sessions. "Never," Barnett said. "There's just no sense in using that stuff if you can go in there and just do it. I hate to put it that way, but it's just the damn truth."
Now, I actually expected to hear that Mandy did not use this stuff since she sounds so good live, but I asked her if she was aware of what Pro Tools and the other software packages can do. "It's absolutely amazing what can be done," Barnett said. "I've seen them take someone who sings completely out of tune and actually put them in tune."
The fact that this can be done violates a sense of purity in me, as ridiculous as that may sound when we're talking about the music industry. But it does nonetheless, and Barnett appears to feel the same way. "It seems like the singing profession has gotten to the point where you don't have to be skilled anymore," Barnett said. "If you call yourself a singer, then go in there and sing. I'm probably being too blunt, but using this stuff just seems in a way like trying to turn chicken shit into chicken salad." And Barnett isn't the only respected vocalist in town who avoids this sort of technological help.
"Trisha Yearwood does not use Pro Tools on her voice at all," Nancy Russell, Yearwood's manager, told me last week. "When Trisha wins Female Vocalist of the Year, it's because she truly is. I'm really glad that I work with artists who are great vocalists and don't need that crutch."
But while you can find folks who will go on record as saying that the good vocalists in town don't use Pro Tools, it's almost impossible to find folks to tell you on the record which singers are using it to correct poor vocals. One engineer in particular told me off the record about a number of artists who use Pro Tools, but he wouldn't say a word on the record for fear of losing work with other artists in the future. "I want to keep getting work in this town," he said.
What the Pros Have to Say
Manipulating a recording in some form or fashion is not a new thing. It's been done for years, though in seemingly more innocent fashions. Many years ago, engineers learned that they could cut and splice tape and come up with a recording that was pieced together from several different performances by an artist. Imperfections could be removed in this fashion by taking the best parts from each performance. But as Grammy-winning engineer Richard Dodd told me last week, what's done these days is very different. "[Back then], they would simply chose a better performance over a lesser performance, not an inability over an ability," Dodd said.
Soon, Les Paul and many other artists began experimenting with "overdubs," a technological breakthrough where certain parts of a recording could be revised without changing the entire track. Other advances included the Vari-Speed recorder, which allowed changes in tape speed to produce changes in pitch, and a gizmo called a harmonizer, which allowed pitch change without a change in tape speed. But all of this pales in comparison to what can be done these days.
"Things have taken a dramatic turn," Dodd said. "It's not at all out of the question that you could put a monotone in and come out with a melody." Everybody I spoke with who has worked with Pro Tools told me some amazing things the technology can do. If a vocalist is short, it can lengthen notes almost endlessly without the average listener hearing where it was done.
If a vocalist is flat, it can fix that, too. You can even put in what are called "plug-ins," which will fix some problems automatically. It's enough to make your head spin, and I asked Dodd how it has changed the way he works with artists in the studio.
"I've spent many hours in the past working with people who have very little talent," Dodd said. "It's not a new thing to not have talent and to get to make a record. But now we can lie, whereas before I spent weeks with an artist trying to get a performance that's vaguely acceptable. Now you spend as little time with them as possible, and then you put it into something like Pro Tools so you can create what you want it to be. The only thing the artist might bring to the table from a sonic point of view is that they might be able to produce a sound that is commercial or unique. And the fact that they can't phrase it or they can't pitch it isn't relevant anymore."
You're all free to speculate as to why such an ability to prop up inferior talent is important, but the bottom line is marketability. Gone is the scenario in which the A&R guy from the label has to ask about the gorgeous girl, "Can she sing?" She doesn't have to anymore.
Stephen W. Smith, a veteran live engineer who has toured with Nanci Griffith, Don Williams, Sonia Dada and The Mavericks, may have said it best last week: "Why drag a quirky, eccentric, hard-to-deal-with person who has real talent into the studio anymore?" Smith asked. "You can find so many attractive, marginally talented people who are ready to do whatever they are told."
Dodd agrees with this line of reasoning."The industry wants the look of a 14- or 16-year-old with the performanceof a 36-year-old. So, you can either wait 20 years or you can cheat,"Dodd said.
This whole conversation had me wondering about the people who don't have to fake it. I asked Dodd if he is now more appreciative of the artists that he works with who don't require this sort of digital manipulation for a quality performance.
"I feel much better about the artists that I don't have to use this on. I'm impressed by them," Dodd said.As I was taking all of this in, I began to ponder where it will end. It's obvious you can't trust anything you hear on the radio anymore, but I also suspected that there are even worse things possible in the future. Dodd confirmed my fears.
"There will be a female, Latino-looking artist coming out later this year that doesn't exist. She'll have photo shoots, fans and all sorts of things going for her. They can shape her. She'll never answer back, and she won't age," Dodd said.
Dodd went on to say that while a human voice will be used as input for the digitally manipulated album, everything else about this artist will be computer generated. This all seemed genuinely frightening, and I asked Dodd if this was just speculation. "I know it's going to happen," Dodd replied flatly. He wasn't comfortable telling me which label would be responsible, but keep your ears and eyes peeled.
So now that I knew what could be done in the studio, I desperately wanted to hear that a live performance still has some integrity. I mean, lots of our country divas still sound like crap on stage, so there must be no fool-proof way to pull this stuff off in a live setting."At this point, there is nothing like a pitch-correcting device that isn't very evident in its action and works in real time for a live setting," Smith said. "That's the beauty of live music. You can't disassemble it into its component element."
Smith did say that bad vocalists are commonly drowned out with backup singers, or they sing along with pre-recorded tracks of themselves. By the time lots of echo and reverb effects are added to the live mix, few in the audience can tell.
Years ago, when Tipper Gore was an annoying do-gooder instead of the poster child for depression and a White House wannabe, there was much talk from her and her buddies about labeling records for their content. If Tipper and her fellow upstanding citizens were to have their way, saying the "f" word on your album would result in a big, fat sticker on the front cover. Folks in the industry groused about it being censorship, but they eventually caved in and now our records have warning labels. But wouldn't it be fun to see the industry's reaction if somebody proposed the following sticker:
WARNING: The content of this album has been digitally manipulated with computer software in such a way that the vocalist's performance may or may not be a correct reflection of her/his natural ability.
Cell phones and Palm Pilots would fly out of a label president's ass before he would allow such a sticker on one of his albums. But would anybody really care if it were on there?
"I don't think people really care if they're being fooled," Nancy Russell told me last week. And she's probably right, considering that Britney Spears' fake boobs aren't fooling anyone.
It is important to note, however, that Pro Tools and the other similar types of software are not evil by any stretch of the imagination. There are plenty of good ways to use these packages. They are tools, plain and simple. What Photoshop is to photographs on the computer, Pro Tools is to music.
But as is the case with any technology, some will use it the wrong way. And just as you can find pictures on the Internet of Neve Campbell's head attached to another woman's naked body thanks to Photoshop, you will often find the wrong voice attached to the right vocalist thanks to Pro Tools. This is simply a fact of life now for all music fans. And yes, I am somewhat outraged by that thought. But there are plenty of people at record labels who are paid to not give a shit what I think.