Taking Pitch Correction To The Limit

Liane sings

hide captionOnscreen, Liane belts into the mic as Auto-Tune does its job.

Ned Wharton/NPR

Video: At Avatar Studios

Avatar board 300

hide captionDave O'Donnell works the faders on the 72-track Neve console at Avatar Studios.

Ned Wharton/NPR

Twenty-five years ago, All Things Considered host Noah Adams wanted to see what it was like to perform in a recording studio. So he worked up the courage to sing "Take It to the Limit" by The Eagles.

Then he played it for co-host Susan Stamberg on air — much to his chagrin.

Let's just say singing in a professional studio is harder than you think.

I tried to sing the song for myself a few weeks ago at Avatar Studios in Manhattan. More on that later. We wanted to know what could be done with a studio tool that wasn't around when Noah sang: It's called Auto-Tune.

The T-Pain Effect

The company Antares makes the software, but "auto-tune" has become a generic term that refers to nearly any type of pitch-correction electronics. It was invented by Andy Hildebrand, an engineer who spent 13 years in the oil industry. In a 2004 interview with NPR, he explained that the software uses a mathematical formula called auto-correlation.

"That computation allows oil companies to use seismic data to map subsurface strata to find oil," Hildebrand said.

It also helps recording engineers electronically find the correct pitch for singers and instruments. If you don't know about Auto-Tune, you're not alone — in a recent interview, even Aretha Franklin admitted she's never heard of it.

But you've no doubt heard it. In Cher's 1998 hit single "Believe," Auto-Tune was used to create a robotic effect. More recently, it's been a prominent feature of songs featuring Kanye West ("Love Lockdown," Young Jeezy's "Put On") and singer T-Pain ("Can't Believe It," "Buy U A Drank," Flo Rida's "Low"). One producer estimated that it's used by at least 60 percent of today's recording artists.

Improvisatory Edits

A few weeks ago, we met up with Jim Anderson at Avatar Studios in Manhattan. He's an award winning engineer and president of the Audio Engineering Society. Anderson showed us how pitch correction software worked on jazz pianist Kenny Barron's latest album, The Traveler.

"The singer's improvising, and she hits the seventh of the chord, and if she was all by herself that would be fine," Anderson said. "But what you will hear at the very end is the pianist comes up and hits the same note. And it's just ever so slightly out.

"I took the liberty of tweaking that note ever so slightly. Very subtle thing, just brought it down and tried to lock [the singer] in with the piano pitch. It's the only note in the entire record that was fixed. Period."

Anderson said that not only would most listeners not notice the pitch correction — the musicians didn't hear it either.

"In fact, it felt right," he says. "It felt on pitch. And the way I approach it is: If it takes my ear away from the music, then I should do something about it. But you know a lot of music, the inflection is like a bluesy inflection. You don't want to be fixing everything; you take some of the humanity out of the singer."

I was about to have some humanity taken out of me.

Unlimited

No turning back now. Jim Anderson led me down the hall to a small booth, where we were linked up to the control room via video. From the control room, it looked like I was in some kind of cruel interrogation cell.

In a way, I was.

Not to make excuses or anything, but it was a bit high for my range, and it was really hard to play it straight.

"That really was something," Anderson said, with some measure of astonishment. "What would you like to do?"

To which I replied: "Get a new voice."

Anderson found a place in the recording and played it back. "We can see a lot of wavering — can you see that? We're just going to flatten it out there. So we're just going to pull that down ... Hear how mechanical it's starting to sound? We've probably taken all the character out of the voice."

In other words, I think we took it to the limit.

In Search Of The Authentic

Down the hall at Avatar Studios, we found 22-year-old singer Sabrina Scott. She was laying down tracks for her debut recording.

In the control room, we met producer Diane Scanlon and asked her about using Auto-Tune. Scanlon says she doesn't pitch correct an artist if he or she sounds authentic, or heartfelt. But she openly admits to using tuning software, especially with the many young artists she works with.

"As the time and the budget starts running out, I have to pitch-correct," Scanlon said. "And for projects that have a time frame? So important for me to just be able for me to get in there and correct."

Mike Visceglia chimed in. He's a bass player we met at Avatar.

"The upside and downside of pitch correction is that it is a good tool," Visceglia says. "But the technology is so good that it creates singers out of people who really aren't singers."

Visceglia and Scanlon both say that a surprising amount of big-name performers use Auto-Tune in live performances as well.

For her part, Scott said she was trying to avoid using Auto-Tune. She hopes her authenticity will win over her producers.

"I think if you approach a recording session saying you want to sing well that day, it's not the right attitude," Scott said. "I mean, we write songs and we sing for a reason — because we believe we have something to say, I suppose. So I think if you go in and you express that, that's what the audience responds to."

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