Critique

How Many Artists Use Pitch Correction In The Studio? And Other Studio Magic You May Not Know About

It is known that when a single or album releases on a major label, it’s going to have pitch correction performed on the vocals. Pitch correction often comes in two forms. There is the effect-style autotune used in hip-hop that is not attempting to conceal the use of the tool (think T-Pain), and then there is the pitch correction that attempts to sound natural and is used to nudge some notes up or down a few cents. Pitch correction is a given in the mainstream music scene, and its ubiquity forces the question on the independent music scene. How many independent artists are using pitch correction, and what other studio magic is covering up less than perfect performances in the studio?

First, let’s talk pitch correction. Believe it or not, the first widely documented use of pitch correction as an effect was by Cher on her single “Believe.” The effect was achieved by using the “zero function” of the Antares Auto-Tune software plugin. The zero function essentially removed all natural pitch drift that occurs when a singer transitions from one note to the next, and gives the effect we’re all familiar with. The assumption made with this information is that the Antares software was being used to correct vocal tracks before the zero function was discovered, which places its birth well before the 1998 release of “Believe.”

In the more than 30 years since the birth of pitch correction, multiple companies have joined Antares in the pitch correction plugin market. Additionally, costs for these software plugins has plummeted and made them accessible to even the smallest home budget studios. This means that the majority of music, even from independent artists, has had pitch correction applied to vocal tracks (and even lead guitar tracks) to ensure they match up to the big-budget productions put out by major labels. There are plenty of artists who don’t use pitch correction (think MeWithoutYou-style vocal performances), but even on those albums, if there are harmonies being sung in the background, chances are producers or engineers have applied pitch correction to those tracks.

This is not to say that no artists should be trusted and that if pitch correction is applied to a vocal track, the singer must not have done a good job. I have worked with plenty of bands where the lead singer puts down amazing take after amazing take, but the producer still has the engineer run the vocals through a pitch correction plugin. It’s an insurance policy. Most bands, and especially producers, don’t want to take the risk of putting out a recording with even one sour note. In an industry that is bursting with inhuman perfection, releasing imperfect recordings is a quick way to get dismissed by most audiences.

At the end of the day, pitch correction is something that doesn’t seem to be going away and should be accepted as a part of the music industry. If you’re an artist and you refuse to use pitch correction, more power to you. I sincerely hope you succeed and there is absolutely a market for you, it is just significantly smaller than the general independent music market.

While we’re on the subject of studio magic, there is something else you should know about… drum quantization. That’s right, drum quantization. It is so important for drum tracks to be flawless in the modern recording process. If you’ve never been a part of the recording process, you may not know that almost every instrument and vocal track is recorded separately (musicians are not playing together at the same time), and drums are almost always the first instrument recorded.

If the drums are not perfect, those little mistakes in timing or rhythm inconsistencies are going to cause issues to pile up as the other instruments are recorded over the drums. This takes a slightly delayed hit and causes it to snowball into a major timing issue when the other instruments are recorded. Drum quantization is the process of splicing up drum tracks and snapping them to a grid to ensure that every single hit is perfectly on beat. And here’s the kicker, drum quantization is even more ubiquitous than vocal pitch correction.

You may think, “Wait, I listen to some funky, swinging music. There’s no way those drums can be snapped to a grid. They’ve got groove, and feel!” Believe it or not, groove and feel are quantitative measurements that can be plotted on a musical grid. It takes someone with in-depth knowledge of rhythm and the style of drums being played, but the engineers in charge of quantizing drums are experts in the instrument themselves. Just like with pitch correction, if a drummer’s tracks are quantized, it does not mean the drummer cannot hold a steady rhythm. But, no one is perfect, and for music to pass muster in the present day, drum tracks need to be perfect.

It’s the pursuit of perfection that drives all of these technological innovations in the music recording industry.  Some believe perfection should not be the goal with records, but rather, authenticity should be the holy grail. While this is a noble thought, and artists pursuing authenticity in their recordings should be applauded, audiences must be the ones to drive the desire for authenticity. Before fans of a certain age in music decry the use of pitch correction and drum quantization, the pursuit of perfection was born before the digital age. Even in the days of Frank Sinatra, he would lay down take after take until they had compiled a complete version of the song that they found to be perfect. That also could be considered inauthentic.

This essay is from cinephile and film critic, Andrew Border.

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