Taking Pitch Correction To The Limit For a good singer, automatic tuning software tidies up off-key and wrong notes. It can even make you sound like a robot — or at least like R&B singer T-Pain. But what could it do for Weekend Edition host Liane Hansen?
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Taking Pitch Correction To The Limit

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Taking Pitch Correction To The Limit

Taking Pitch Correction To The Limit

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of music)

For today's segment in our Music and Technology series, we're going to step briefly into the NPR way-back machine. 25 years ago, All Things Considered host Noah Adam wanted to find out what it was like to perform in a recording studio. He worked up the courage to sing the Eagle song "Take It to the Limit" and then played it on the air for a colleague, Susan Stamberg.

(Soundbite of All Things Considered)

NOAH ADAMS: I know it's funny.

SUSAN STAMBERG: No, it's adorable. Sh sh, I want to listen.

(Soundbite of song "Take It to the Limit")

ADAMS: (Singing) Keep on turning out and burning out and turning out the same.

HANSEN: You hear that high note in the background? That's me. You know, singing in a professional studio is harder than you think.

(Singing) And show me a sign and take it to the limit one more time.

I tried to sing the song solo a few weeks ago at Avatar Studios in Manhattan. We wanted to know what could be done with a studio tool that wasn't around when Noah sang. It's called Auto-Tune. In a few minutes, you'll hear the results.

But first, a little background. The company Antares makes the software, but Auto-Tune has become a generic term that refers to just about any kind 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 autocorrelation.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. ANDY HILDEBRAND (Engineer, Inventor of Auto-Tune): That computation allows oil companies to use seismic data to map subsurface strata to find oil.

HANSEN: It also helps recording engineers electronically to 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 singer Aretha Franklin admitted she'd never heard of it. But no doubt, you've heard it. One producer estimated that it's used by at least 60 percent of today's recording artists. And when that software is cranked to the extreme, it sounds like this.

(Soundbite of song "Believe")

Ms. CHER: (Singing) Do you believe in life after love?

HANSEN: That was Cher's hit from 1998, where Auto-Tune was used to create a robotic effect. And more recently, it's been a prominent feature of songs by Kanye West.

(Soundbite of song "Love Lockdown")

Mr. KANYE WEST: (Singing) When I'm on my own somewhere far from home in the danger zone. How many times did I take fo' it finally got through you lose?

HANSEN: And T-Pain.

(Soundbite of song "Can't You Believe It?")

Mr. T-PAIN: (Singing) Lets get drunk and forget what we did. I'm going to buy you a drink.

HANSEN: 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 works.

Mr. JIM ANDERSON (President, Audio Engineering Society): I've got an example here of a session that we did, and it's on a Kenny Barron album. The singer's name on this track is Gretchen Parlato. The singer's improvising, and she hits the 7th of the chord. And if she was all by herself, that would be fine. 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 just tweaking that note just ever so slightly. Very subtle thing, just brought it down and just kind of tried to lock her in with the piano pitch. It's the only note in the entire record that was fixed. Period. And you know, the average listener is not going to know that I've straightened out that note a little bit.

HANSEN: When you played it for the musicians that recorded the CD, did they notice?

Mr. ANDERSON: No. They didn't notice at all. In fact, it felt right. 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 because then you take some of the humanity out of the singer.

HANSEN: So, balance.

Mr. ANDERSON: So let's get you in there, and let's take the humanity out of you.

HANSEN: Let's take the humanity out of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: OK, down the hall and to the (unintelligible).

Mr. ANDERSON: This way, actually.

HANSEN: No turning back now. 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.

(Soundbite of song "Take It to the Limit")

HANSEN: (Singing) You know I've always been a dreamer, spent my life running around. And it's so hard to change...

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

Mr. ANDERSON: You know, I did detect a trace of Mrs. Miller in your voice.

HANSEN: Yes, it was Mrs. Miller. I was channeling Joanne (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: That was different.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDERSON: That really was something. What would you like to do?

HANSEN: Get a new voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: All right. What do we got? Do I have to listen to this?

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, I'll show you this one phrase. I'll show you how we can slide in this one spot, OK?

HANSEN: (Singing) I was thinking about a woman who might have loved me and I never knew.

Mr. ANDERSON: So, well...

HANSEN: Well, professor?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDERSON: It is a bit all over the place.

HANSEN: Yes, it is.

Mr. ANDERSON: We can see a lot of wavering. Can you see that?


Mr. ANDERSON: We're just going to flatten it out there. We want it there, so we're going to just pull that down, OK?

HANSEN: (Singing) I was about a woman who might have love me.

Mr. ANDERSON: Hear how mechanical it's starting to sound? We've probably taken all the character out of the voice.

HANSEN: (Singing) I was thinking about a woman who might have loved me, and I never knew.

Mr. ANDERSON: How far do you want to take this?

HANSEN: Oh, I think we've taken it about as far as we can go.

Mr. ANDERSON: We've taken it to the limit.

HANSEN: We've taken it to the limit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: (Singing) One more time.

I never want to hear that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Down the hall at Avatar Studios, we found some real work going on. 22-year-old singer Sabrina Scott was laying down tracks for her debut recording.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SABRINA SCOTT (Singer): (Singing) The glass is hazy. I haven't wiped to clean this. I've been lazy, never saying what I need. And there's a shape in the place of my heart and there's a...

HANSEN: In the control room, we met producer Diane Scanlon and asked her about using Auto-Tune.

Ms. DIANE SCANLON (Music Producer): It is something I've had to use on records in the past. A lot of my work is with young, just-starting-out artists. And so, I'm vocal coaching them, and as the time and the budget starts running out, I have to pitch-correct. And for projects that have a time frame, so important for me to just be able to get in there and correct.

HANSEN: How do you reach a balance between what's being represented artistically and what's being manipulated electronically?

Ms. SCANLON: I would say that depends on the project. I'll tell you, if it's over the top, and the vocal is authentic, and she meant or he meant it, I don't care if it's out of tune.

Mr. MIKE VISCEGLIA (Bass Player): The upside and downside of pitch correction, like anything else, is that it is a good tool.

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

Mr. VISCEGLIA: But the technology is so good that it creates singers out of people who really aren't singers. And it creates performances out of people that really are not performers.

HANSEN: What about concerts, however? Do audiences then have an expectation that this singer is going to be absolutely perfect, and then does that lead to a manipulation on the concert stage as well?

Ms. SCANLON: They use Auto-Tune live as well.

Mr. VISCEGLIA: It's used live and in more cases than you would expect. A lot of really prime - primary artists are using that.

HANSEN: Here's your artist.

Ms. SCANLON: That's Sabrina Scott, yeah.

Ms. SCOTT: Hi.

HANSEN: Are you Sabrina?

Ms. SCOTT: I am.

HANSEN: I'm Liane Hansen from National Public Radio.

Ms. SCOTT: Nice to meet you.

HANSEN: Nice to meet you. We're doing a story on technology and music. And we're asking people about Auto-Tune. Now, you're the artist. You're the artist whose voice might get...

Ms. SCOTT: Auto-Tuned, yeah.

HANSEN: Have you? Have you done it?

Ms. SCOTT: No. A little. Have I?

Ms. SCANLON: Slightly in the past, yeah.


Ms. SCOTT: Slightly, but...

Ms. SCANLON: This is her baby, so...

Ms. SCOTT: I'd like it to have a very organic sound, so one hopes that Auto-Tune would be a last resort.

HANSEN: So you're going into this project in the hopes that you won't need to do it.

Ms. SCOTT: Yes, absolutely.

HANSEN: And your producer says that it may be a little off pitch, but as long as it's got heart, she's more likely to go the heart than pitch.

Ms. SCOTT: I'm glad she said that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCOTT: No, no. (unintelligible).

Ms. SCANLON: Think about the great singers out there. I mean, if you listen for intonation, you'd be horrified, but you believe them.

Ms. SCOTT: I think, if you approach a recording session saying that you want to sing well that day, it's not the right attitude. If you go on saying, I want to tell the story well. I want to say what I have - I mean, we write songs, and we sing for a reason because, you know, 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SCOTT: (Singing) On my window, I see a deep defining light where I could go (where I could go). If I ever saw the signs of something greater, all that I hold to will be right out of the new view. Something whole and something better, a new view. So I would be if I kicked off and lifted. My thoughts have drifted to a new view.

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