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Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?

An RP reader wonders whether famous artists perform for real, or whether their voices are largely the result of studio trickery.

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Question from a Audio Masterclass visitor...

"I've been listening to artists like *** ****** and ****** ******* lately, and want to find out if they use computer engineering to 'enhance' their voices. Listening closely to their voices over my headphones, I find it hard to believe that they would sound like that if I were in a room with them singing acoustically. So I guess my basic question is: how can I find out which artists use which tools to give their voices more texture, presence, etc. The booklets to their albums don't seem to contain any information on this." - Greg

The names Greg referred to have been blanked in order to protect the guilty. Well, they're probably guilty, but we don't know for absolute sure.

The key issue here is would a singer sound the same performing right in front of you as they do on their recordings?

For most popular music recordings, the answer is a clear and resounding NO!

If you wanted to capture the natural sound of the voice, firstly you would use a singer who didn't need studio tricks. There are some around, you know.

Next, good acoustics. Generally a large room that has had acoustic treatment to control the reverberation would be a good place to start. It's very difficult to get a good sound in the average living room, so I don't count using good natural acoustics as cheating.

Next, an accurate microphone. Now this is a bit of a problem because many mics are sold on the 'character' of their sound. And if a mic's sound has character, then it isn't accurate.

Having said that, a small-diaphragm capacitor from a manufacturer such as Sennheiser, Schoeps or DPA would be accurate enough not to be considered cheating. Don't go any closer than about a meter or so, or the accuracy will be degraded. (The room has to be quite large to allow placement at this distance without too much reverberation.)

So go ahead and record - you will capture a sound that is as close to the original as you are likely to get. No enhancements, just reality.

But as we know, 'enhancements' are popular in many of life's activities. And so it is in recording.

So let's go for a mild one - use a large-diaphragm capacitor mic, and put it close to the mouth.

Suddenly the sound is much bigger, and more 'present'. It might be different from real life, but we often prefer it.

Still, I wouldn't say this is cheating. It's enhancement. If it sounds better, then it is simply better. Why not?

You can go further and use a vacuum tube microphone, and perhaps a tube preamp. The sound will get thicker and stronger. More pleasing to the ear. Still not cheating, really.

What about a bit of artificial reverberation? Not the type that's realistic, the type that just sounds good - like the old analog echo plates and Lexicon digital reverbs.

Rich and lush. Much better than the natural sound. Still not exactly cheating. Enhancement to the max, I would say.

But what if the tuning of the singer is a bit doubtful at times?

Well, do as many retakes as necessary so he or she can hit the right notes. If they could do it once, then it's not cheating. Just a careful selection from the available material.

Or, you could automate the tuning correction process with software such as Auto-Tune.

Oops... we just seem to have crossed a line there.

Perhaps the artist can't sing in tune. But with Auto-Tune, they can.

That's definitely cheating!

Or maybe they could have sung in tune, given enough takes, and this just makes the process faster. If you think about it enough, you can probably justify it to yourself.

There are further steps that can be taken towards vocal 'improvements', but I think that's enough for now.

We would love to hear your responses. Two questions...

1. Is it OK to cheat? What do you think?

2. Should artists who use Auto-Tune state this in the information accompanying their tracks?

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By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006
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