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Readers' Letters: Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, and more...

A post by David Mellor
Sunday October 28, 2012
"An RP reader wonders whether famous artists perform for real, or whether their voices are largely the result of studio trickery."
Readers' Letters: Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, and more...

In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Mr G writes...

Sure it's cheating! But our job as engineers/producers is to get the very best result for our paying customers, who sometimes have a limited budget. It can often be cheaper for the customer for the engineer to 'fix' a few things when editing, rather than possibly demoralising the singer by go over sections endlessly!


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Rick In Wheaton, IL, USA writes...

Cheating the vocals is common in pop music and has been for a long time. Is it right? Well, that's moot isn't it? The problem is when it's used for young singers. Take Disney, for example. With the exception of Miley Cyrus, every Disney female singer sounds EXACTLY the same due to the overuse of pitch correction. It enable attractive actresses with little to no true musical talent to appear great. I just hope those actresses don't get caught up in the lie. . .that'll mess up their lives big time, as we've seen too often.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Robert Holsman writes...

I have just read your very interesting article on vocal enhancement and whether or not it is cheating to use Autotune, and I think that its a debate that may rage for a long time; however think its important to look at it in context. We are producing a piece of recorded material, and as such, surely we should be using whatever tools we have to hand to create the end product that is required. Autotune is simply one of those tools. Whether or not an artist can sing in tune or requires pitch enhancement is a matter for their own conscience and concerns at live performance time, but the ethics of it should not be a matter for studio concern. And bear in mind that using a product like Autotune doesn't necessarily mean that our vocalist is completely out of tune - they might have put their heart and soul into delivering that killer performance and just been slightly sharp on a couple of notes .. pitch correction enables us to keep the essence of the performance and just tweak the odd overshot note.

Should they admit to it? Why should they? Do we publish liner notes for every guitar drop in, because a guitarist can't make it through a solo without messing up? And do you think that every singer who's voice it "enhanced", knows that it has? Many a modern diva gets tweaked without her knowledge, I can tell you that much from first-hand experience; how much work goes on behind the scenes, comping and editing, to create that flawless performance that is what the artist the audience to hear and what the public wants to buy. As producers, it is our job to create this, and if much of our work goes by unnoticed, then we have done our job well.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Glenn Manterfield writes...

Hi

Just read the article on "cheating" with vocals. I don't use Auto-Tune but I have no problem with anyone who does. Pushed to the limit it can be a creative tool, as deliberately overdone by Cher's producers in recent times, but even simply to correct tuning issues I fail to see why there's a problem with its use. It's better than doing 30 takes and trying to comp them together.

As for declaring its use in track information, where does that end? Do you declare that MIDI has been used by the keyboard player, especially if the notes have been moved or quantised during editing? Do you declare that reverb, compression, EQ etc have been used to alter or shape the sound or are the music police only concerned with pitch?

Good quality singing is about general vocal character and performance as well as pitch. Many of the best in the business have had pitch and tuning issues but at the end of it all what matters is does the listener enjoy the end product? Most people just don't care about editing, mixing and mastering trickery - they just either like the song or they don't, and it is of no benefit to the consumer to have a public health warning splashed on the font of a CD case because Auto-Tune has been used, or God forbid a Vocoder.

"WARNING - Buyer beware, there is a hint of that telephone-voice Reverb thing used on Track 7. Purchase at your own risk!"

Absolute natural perfection is all well and good, but if it ain't there and the singer has other characterful qualities in his/her voice, what's the problem with correcting a few intonation issues? Going back to the article, if you adjudge that comping from 30 takes is "simply a careful choice from available material" then where do you draw the line? 100 takes of each line and they nail each one once and you think that's OK? Shouldn't that be declared in the track information? "This vocalist has perfect pitch - eventually".

It's all about degree. Comping from more than one take is deceiving the listener into believing the singer simply performed the song perfectly. The adjustment of pitch through Auto-Tune is no greater deception.

To end on my main point, I believe the use of any editing or mixing tool is perfectly acceptable in the context of the required end result. The average consumer is not buying levels of natural perfection, they are buying a total musical experience and in most cases that is an indefinable marriage of musical creativity, songwriting, performance and production that when blended in the right way creates that bit of magic to move someone in some fundamental way. In vocal terms that comes from the quality of the voice, not the technical ability to strike perfect pitch the whole time.

Interesting article - we could argue until the cows come home. One thing it's done is encourage me to have a look at the V-Vocal pitch correction that came with Sonar :-)


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Adrian Delso writes...

It's OK to 'cheat' on a record, because, as the article demonstrates, all production is 'cheating'. If you're going to have to say you used Autotune, should you also list all the FX and sound processing, like ADT and pre-amps? I think not.

I don't condone it when performers use Autotune in a live show; that IS cheating!


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Boudewijn Bos writes...

I think what the guy means is: "what processing is used to give the vocal a more in your face sound". Cause sometimes you really hear vocals coming out of the speakers in a way you can not achieve only by recording through the right preamp and mic and some reverb. I think it has more to do with some tricks the pros use, like for instance a very short delay they mix behind the vocals. I am also very interested and hope some professionals can shed some light on this. I know they use delay effects like Eventide and the old AMS-DMX. But it would be interesting to hear what they exactly do to the vocals with these machines to achieve the "in your face" sound you hear these days. Thanks for a great article! Greetings, Boudewijn


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Paul Hartley writes...

If the recordings are for commercial sale then the recording process forms part of the "business" decision. Of course it's not cheating.The public buy the CD/download, whatever. It's the job of the producer/record co etc to maximise the potential. Do you really think the typical music buyer cares whether a voice has been fixed with Autotune, Pro-tools, Vocalist etc?

It's the sound that counts. If it sounds rubbish then it wont be bought. Die-hards would say, "It's not fair, good singers dont need the processing."

True. But are they good Performers, Dancers etc. Is their image strong? It might be called the 'Music' Biz but essentially its the whole package, not just the voice. And if you understand that technology can tweak a substandard or a poor vocal and that the correction completes the package, then you understand the "business". Dont confuse commerciality with talent or even fairness for that matter. It's all about the money. There are no rules.

Should processing be mentioned on a CD cover? You could do but what do you think it'll achieve? To let the buyer know that the singer is not as good as the buyer thinks he/she is? You're giving this too much thought. The sound is subjective.

If I like what I hear, then why should I concern myself about 'the journey' of how it got there? I dont need to know.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, NathanStar writes...

Check out Dave Grohl of FooFighters fame, have a listen to the " in your honour " CD then have a listen to his live stuff, try youtube. World of difference, even if his pitching is ok live, the presence and thickness of the recorded vocal is missing. Man I wish i knew how they achieved that great upfront rock vocal from a guy who doesnt naturally possess a big voice.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Dan writes...

using vocal effects to create an appealing sound is as much an art as singing itself. You can have access to every effect known to mankind but until you use the right ones at the right time in the right doses for your given project, you have a song that hasn't reached it's potential.


In response to How can I get a good recording in my church, without hum, buzz and noise?, Dongle writes...

You said, "The drawback is that if the speaker turns to the left or right, then the level will drop."

Maybe the level needs to drop from time to time! Every pastor I've ever heard speak has had the ability to go from a whisper to an horrendous bellow in a split second. They are experts at it, and most have poor mic techniques as well. I shudder to think of them having a head mic that they can't move their mouth away from. Perhaps a compressor/limiter is recommended here. Do you agree?

RP response: Opinions differ, but RP's stance is that the mic distance should be constant wherever possible. If the distance changes, this changes the sound quality and the sound quality should be, as far as possible, faithful to the source. Should the worship leader choose to bellow, then the pre-amp gain must be set accordingly. Variations in level can be controlled with compression, or with fader automation if you are a perfectionist.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Dongle writes...

I have no morals in this regard. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do! (or woman).


In response to The Mac Versus PC Debate in Audio Masterclass, Ovidio Barbour writes...

I am a record producer and a computer tech by profession. Macs are great for audio and video until they break down. As a computer tech I would much rather work on a PC and although PC's have a reputation of crashing you'll find a dual core Dell in my studio that has been tweeked for recording. I don't use it for anything else, just recording. I have a separate computer for printing, internet, etc. Go PC!


In response to How can I get a good recording in my church, without hum, buzz and noise?, Coxr writes...

Church sanctuaries, also tend to be loaded with rheostat lighting which induces transformer hum into household and commercial wiring, which will be amplified by audio equipment. To reduce this noise, turn the rheostats up completely or turn them off if possible. Purchase a power conditioner for the audio gear, that has good EMI filtering.


In response to How big do PA speakers have to be?, James Stone writes...

I disagree with this. Have you ever used an Opus Audio Technologies system? it's pure audiophile at concert spl.

RP response: That is excellent news, if it's true. We welcome progress in this area. However, the general rule that a good hifi speaker will be more natural than a PA speaker is useful to keep in mind. Even if the Opus system really is that good, it will be a long, long time before all installations and hire stocks are upgraded. As the article says very clearly, if only a small degree of amplification is required, such as for a classical guitar, then a hifi speaker can achieve excellent results.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Mike In Harrisonburg, VA writes...

Why did Motown recordings sound so magical and full of life? Three things: great material, great arranging, and great performances by talented players and singers. Many were recorded in a room with a dirt floor and block walls with blankets on them. No multi-tracking, and plenty of mic bleed-thru.

Yes, the drums always sounded dull and distant and the other instruments had no in-the-ear immediacy. Vocal booths? I doubt it.

Talented performers recorded in a less-than-stellar environment trump pitch-corrected 'stars' chosen for looks and charisma, recorded in a state-of-the-art studio, any day of any week.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Gary York writes...

cheating with vocals is really a hollow complaint considering the difficulty of turning recorded music into something comparable to live sound through a PA. the best natural singer as you pointed out still must be captured into wav. files or magnetic particles on tape and that process must be compensated for, the more expensive the studio the better the compensation, hopefully. Then there is pure creation ala the Beatles were voices are played with for entertainment sake. I just always assume everyone does what I do and uses whatever it takes to get the sound I want.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Tony Henriques - Estudio Atlantico - Portugal writes...

It's OK to enhance. I believe it's wrong to cheat. A singer must sing in tune. Live shows expose some artists as non singers. Please watch the documentary titled "B4 music dies". It tells the whole story. Most real artists are hidden in small bars an pubs hoping to get a break. Industry cheats to make money. Talent is the loser and so are all of us...


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Neil writes...

1.Is it OK to cheat - Yes. Making a recording isn't about proving your a great singer. It's about producing a great piece of art.

2.Should artists who use Auto-Tune state this in the information accompanying their tracks - No. It's a trick of the trade, like compression, equalisation, delay, etc.

I think the answer to both questions lies in the picture you chose to illustrate the article. The great masters used all sorts of tricks, such as the camera obscura, to create their works of art. No one thinks any less of them for that now.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Prometheus writes...

I think if you enhance your guitar, drums, bass and other instruments with time domain effects, compression and eq, and then you slap a dry unenhanced vocal on top, it's going to sound ludicrous.

If enhancing vocals in the mix is cheating, then cheat, cheat, cheat! What's the point in having all the wonderful audio technology we have today and still releasing unrefined products?


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Prometheus writes...

If a vocalist is not be allowed to use autotune without putting a mandatory warning on the CD cover, should guitarists then have to do the same if they use an electronic tuner to tune their guitars?

It could all get a bit silly...


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, La Forest Gray writes...

On this one here I had to comment: No it's not O.K. to cheat & yes it should be listed if the artist is using tools such as "Auto-Tune". As a producer/engineer I've been asked by artist do I have such tools and could I use them for them. Here's my un-popular answer; "No, if you have talent, we can work with your natural tools and make a hit. Work on the song until it's right, no short-cuts, period".

That's my official & very, very unpopular answer. Hell, I had to take my 12 & 15 yr. olds on line to "You-Tube" about 2 months ago to show them that "T-Pain" can NOT sing, and that he's using a voc-recorder, like Roger Troutman did... difference is, Mr. Troutman used his as a tool & everyone knew it.

La Forest Gray

Producer/Engineer


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Another Greg writes...

If enhancing is cheating then cheating has ruled the recording industry for decades. Even Steve Lawrence doubled his vocal on 'Go Away Little Girl" back in the early sixties. And of course the Beatles doubled tracked early on and used echo (or reverb) extensively on their vocals. Read Geoff Emerick's book, Here There Every Where if you want a bead on enhancement.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Lindsay McDonald writes...

Is auto-tune cheating is the question? My opinion is that you are investing a lot of time and money to sound the best you can. And make the song sound the best it can. In the longrun it benefits the song if the auto-tune is not perceived, if it is, perceived and you get a feeling that doesn't sound natural then it has failed.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Danny Stone Engineer writes...

I do not like using auto tune for several reason's. But since today's recording budgets are so much lower than they use to be, and the fact more vocalist have became lazy do to auto tunning, it is almost necasary to use auto tune. I think that if an artist can sing the notes they should, after all a little extra work won't harm them. No singer really likes to admit they need auto tuneing, but if they are going to use it list it in the liner notes stating it.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Keith Kurtiss McIntosh writes...

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

No it is not OK. If you can't sing on pitch, stay away from microphones.

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

Yes. Have some balls, Admit your lack of talent.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Montgomery Fox writes...

1) Cheating implies you can't get the results you desire using conventional methods. So if you use autotune it's because a) your vocalist is not very good or b) because your recording/production is sub standard. Or c) because everyone else in R'nB, Skate Punk, [insert genre here] is using it and you're a sheep on the bandwagon.

2) No, artists shouldn't declare what they use unless they feel particularly compelled to.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Ties Spakman writes...

Why is it such a big issue to sing absolutely in tune?

Depending on the music style singing a bit out of tune (deliberately) can really make a song more exiting.

The thing here is the word deliberately meaning the vocalist wishes to do so for some artistic reason.

Furthermore it is sometimes even required in order to blend in with the rest of the notes that sound while you are singing to pitch that note a bit lower in one instance and a bit higher in another situation.

Correcting these nuances with a auto-tuner would kill these subtleties.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Dav Byrne. Melbourne. writes...

Anyone who has actually USED antares autotune to correct vocals before will know that you're only able to correct very slight wavers in pitch, and even then only if they are within a hair of the note of the key in question. Unless you want the Cher effect, that is, the autotune SOUND. Which is coming into fashion as an EFFECT. But you can't just fix a crap singer with it. Anyone who NEEDS it isn't really a singer at all. A crap singer is a crap singer. As I say, "You can only polish a turd for so long until it falls apart in your hands". Cheers.


In response to How can I get a good recording in my church, without hum, buzz and noise?, Phil McIver writes...

Check all cables, when I have hum or buzz it is usually because the ground on the cable is loose, or there is nothing connected and the gain is really high.

Another thing I would reccomend if you are using a PC especially, is a DI box, this is used when there are two pieces of equipment that are grounded (mains connection), and it creates a ground loop, so this device cuts off the ground loop. And DI boxes are only about £20 - £30 for a single channel one, even some of the top makes.

Well woth a look!

Thats my Twopence

Phil


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Kesheaf writes...

I think that it's okay to do it.. only if it's intentional and that's sound that you want... but if you are trying to use it to sound like you can "sing" then, no.... Ex.some people want the sound of a synthesizer over live sounds... that's intentional.. but if you using it to disguise something, i don't know.... some would say that if it sounds goo, it shouldn't matter... well I'm the kind of person that whetever I do in the studio, I should be able to do it live, as well... But, everyone doesn't feel that way..


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Anthony writes...

have you heard craig david's latest? do you think he recorded his vocals whilst sitting on the bog?


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Emcha_audio writes...

the reason to make an album is to promote the music and lyrics and feeling the people that worked that abum want to share. If in this process you make some embellishment that the artist himself like and feel is going with the direction he sought for his songs, then I personally feel that it is ok.

We as producers that we are here to give a service that pleases those that records and those that listens. And for that we have to take every steps possible in keeping this in mind.


In response to Why aren't the record labels actively looking for YOU? Take 2..., Big A writes...

"market yourself on the internet".

I agree with this advice 100%. As a rap artist i have learned its not the record label individual who stands at the front door to throw your demo in the garbage that's the decidng factor. Its the PUBLIC. If you put it on the internet the PUBLIC will let you know if you are HOT or NOT!


In response to How can you improve a weak bass guitar?, Edwin-Kenya writes...

Hi,

Thought the article is quite true. Sometimes I find myself confronted with the creativity scenario and I'm also left wondering what to do. Making sense of everything I have to learn is quite a challenging task contrary to what people say about bassists.


In response to A line array for guitarists? Or, could you handle a 4 x 4 x 12 stack?, Dave Faulkner writes...

RE: Line arrays / guitar stacks:

Hi, The popularity of line arrays for PA is understandable given the flattening of the "beam" of sound this produces (due to interference). As I'm old enough to remember the days when groups relied on column speakers for PA - which exhibited the same characteristics - I am in a position to say there's nothing new here.

As a guitarist though I've often been amazed at the popularity of form over function when it comes to amplification. Many combo amplifier designs utilise the 2x12 speaker format which are almost universally arranged side by side. This fails to capitalise on the potential projection improvement which would result from vertical alignment. Furthermore the vertical arrangement would decrease the footprint where stage space is cramped (typical small pub gigs) and raise at least the top speaker to a more appropriate height. Why no "vertical" 2x12 combos are made is a mystery to me. So far as stacking 4x12 speakers more than two high - I think the guitarist out of The Hamsters might reach the controls - I'm not sure about anyone else!


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Ed McKenna- In The Hole Productions writes...

1. It's OK to cheat a little. I think ewe go for perfection in recording, or why bother? I don't use Auto Tune in my studio on my tracks.

2. I think artists who lean on this technology should be ashamed of themselves. Same goes for the producers for not coaxing the "a" game of the talent, and the record company for signing someone who can't sing in the first place. ETC...


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Vyero writes...

I am a singer myself and I always push myself and every singer I produce in order to get the most of each take.

The thing is to use the "cheaters tools" as what they are: TOOLS!! not "the thing that must be to make decent vocals"... Autotune, Throat and many other plugins enable the perfect vocals, but you must not miss the point... we are human beings, not machines... I can tell right away when these plugins are used or abused...

I recall a duet from last year... Christina Aguilera and Andrea Bocelli singing a bolero for Andrea's album... Their pitch was destroyed because of the abuse of these tools. Do you really think Christina or Andrea (who are both amazing singers) needed that?... not at all.

As I said: these are tools... When there's a bad note in the best take you have (all the rest of the take was perfect)... well then correct it!... If you want to use it as an effect for a song... then do it!! but please... DON'T ABUSE!!!...

Imperfections define our character and our way of facing reality... This is why labels are looking for better singers and performers. People who are capable of delivering a good vocal performance no matter what... If you are a bad singer you have 2 ways of getting to the level of the masters:

1.- vocal lessons

2.- work on your stage presence and keep performing.

The final result of all this abuse of the "tools" will be that people will get tired of being fooled... I am tired already... aren't you?


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Hannah writes...

After reading this article I thought I had better leave a comment. There are many amazing singers and performers in the world. Is is ok to cheat? Yes to a certain degree- I ask the question what about the singers we love to listen to who have a great tonal quality in their voice? I am a singer myself {but have also recorded other singers} and have been recorded. After a certain amount of takes of the same song your voices tends to get 'tired' on some notes. 2) I honestly don't think its really its really necessary to put the auto tune on the CD, if you do that you might as well start writing down the microphone used, the effects used {EQ, compression etc}and the exact postion of singer. Thats just a bit over the top I know, but when do draw the line.


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Kennyb writes...

Yes, yes, yes, I am so tired of hearing fans say that the artist is the most perfect, in tune, in groove ever!

I feel there should be a law that the artist/producer must state when a manipulation is used to enhance the performance!( auto.tune and so on)

ex: Vocal trax have been artificially manipulated to enhance the performance!

or instruments or drum trax or?????

Perfection is in the ears of the beholder, but,munipulation is in the ears of the perfectionist!


In response to Do famous artists use studio tricks to enhance their voices?, Danny Quest writes...

Sometimes it's our job to make them sound 'nice' so in the end we don't really have a choice if they don't sound good.

But given the choice i would probably sweeten vocals but keep the autotune to the minimum. if i can get away with it i'd rather NOT use the auto tune unless it's the FX i'm going for...

But frankly... i think the autotune FX is a little outdated.

To answer:

1. Yeah, it's okay to cheat in this context.

2. No, they shouldn't. It wouldn't make then look good...

but that's just me... what do you guys think?

A post by David Mellor
Sunday October 28, 2012 ARCHIVE
David Mellor has been creating music and recording in professional and home studios for more than 30 years. This website is all about learning how to improve and have more fun with music and recording. If you enjoy creating music and recording it, then you're definitely in the right place :-)
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