Authentically fake

>> Friday, February 13, 2009

The other week there was a little note up on Slashdot about Auto-Tune, with a poster there rhetorically raising the question:

As these [computer audio processing] techniques improve and become more popular, it makes me wonder what music produced twenty or fifty years from now will sound like, and how much authenticity will be left.

It's hard to read that familiar plaint with the right level of patience and tolerance; I understand what the writer means, after all. The problem, though, is that his concern is based on the basically false premise that an audio recording is "authentic" to start with, or that even much of what goes into a contemporary live performance is that authentic.

If you're going to see an entirely acoustic show in an extraordinarily small venue--well, say friends or family members playing guitar or piano in your living room, then yes, you have what might be described as an "authentic" experience if what you mean by "authentic" is that the performance is completely unprocessed, exactly what you hear directly emanating from the performer. But you go to anything larger than a coffee shop, say, and you're not getting authentic; you're getting the sounds as they've been processed (however sparingly) through electronic gear. Even an acoustic guitar played into a microphone so that the sound of the acoustic guitar can be electronically amplified and passed through loudspeakers so that people in the back of the room can hear it acquires distinctive characteristics from the microphone, the amplifier, and the speaker set-up; the people in the back aren't hearing an "authentic" guitar sound if one means "unadulterated," even if the signal isn't being passed through other equipment (e.g. chorus, compression, reverb) to improve the sound (indeed, making an acoustic guitar sound "right"--making it sound the way people expect an acoustic guitar to sound--often means tweaking and adding to the "pure" signal on its way to the amplifier).

If there weren't differences in how various gear affects the signal chain, there wouldn't be any differences in gear. That sounds like a tautology. What I mean, is that the reason if you go out to buy a microphone you might have nearly a thousand options, and then you have your selection of amplifiers and speaker cabs and whatnot, is that all of this gear sounds a little different and discerning ears will have preferences between (sticking to mics) condensers and dynamics, and so on. And some of these choices may be a matter of artistry as opposed to simply picking what your ears tell you is "natural" sounding--one might well pick a specific microphone because he likes the way it distorts or flattens his voice or for what it does to the sound coming out of an acoustic instrument.

And we've been talking about acoustic instruments the whole time--what about all the other instruments? Ever heard an unplugged electric guitar? I believe humorist Dave Barry once accurately compared the sound to playing a ping-pong table. And what's the "authentic" sound of an electronic organ (e.g. the legendary Hammond B3) or a synthesizer?

Take all of this into the studio, and you truly have an ersatz experience. Aside from what the recording gear does to the sound, recording one-take-live hasn't been routine for half-a-century. Les Paul invented multitracking in the 1940s and it didn't take long for others to get the idea and see the possibilities. It's now fairly common for musicians in a band to not even record their parts together, and the part that gets used in a song might well be not merely the best take but the best parts of the best takes stitched together; this used to be done by cautiously slicing pieces of recording tape apart with razor blades and cautiously taping them together, these days it's happily made easier by computers. The result is that even a fairly conventional performance of a single tune by a four-piece band might be composed from the pieces of a dozen or more separate studio performances even if there are no overdubs in the piece. That "authentic" guitar solo might consist of the first part of the fifth take and the second part of the third take and the third part of the fifth take again; that "authentic" vocal might consecutively consist of the singer's fourth, ninth, first, third, and fourth (again) stabs at singing the song.

Add in overdubs--which are a routine part of modern recording--and you have one singer singing three-part-harmony with himself and the guitar player playing two electric guitars and an acoustic "at the same time" and there's the keyboard player playing a piano and an organ and the drummer managing to play with eight arms (or, if we're talking about Def Leppard, two; what... too soon? c'mon, that joke is twenty-five years old).

And all of this is before we start getting into the really fake stuff--the cash registers on Pink Floyd's "Time" or the barnyard animals on The Beatles' "Good Morning," for instance. Or you don't even have to go that far-out into the sound effects and tape tricks: there's nothing "natural" in the sounds Brian Wilson or Phil Spector coaxed out of the studio before psychedelic musicians began to raid the BBC-Radio tape vaults for animal noises or taking portable recording gear out to collect audio odds and ends.

When you start looking at it that way, I think you have to look at Auto-Tune and the rest of the burgeoning software solutions as the same old thing in brand new drag, to borrow a line from David Bowie. You could pitch correct in analog--e.g. the vocals for the Pink Floyd song "Welcome To The Machine" (on 1975's Wish You Were Here) had a note David Gilmour just couldn't hit, so the band slowed the tape--it just took a little more work (and therefore was more expensive--studio time isn't free). You slowed or sped up the tape, and you might have to actually perform the take slower or faster if you wanted to keep the tempo consistent (especially if you weren't going to re-record other tracks already laid down before the problem vocal). And if you wanted to do that warbling effect that's made Auto-Tune infamous (c.f. that terrible Cher song, "Believe" from 1998, which was one of the first really conspicuous uses of digital pitch correction to create a deliberately artificial effect), well you could do that, too (flanging is actually a hoary old example of this kind of thing).

So, I'm afraid to say that there's a short answer to the oft-asked question about how much "authenticity" will be left in recorded music as it becomes easier to cheat: none, just like yesterday, or twenty years ago, or forty. Listening to recorded music is fundamentally an artificial experience, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. (I mean, do you really want to pay fifteen bucks for a CD to discover that it's seventy-two minutes of flubbed takes of the same song? A recording of an authentic series of occurrences, no doubt, but one that's only likely to interest the die-hard zealots who collect demos, outtakes and bootlegs by their favorite artist.)

If you ask me, the thing, really, is to appreciate the inauthenticity of what you're listening to for what it hopefully is: masterful use of the most technologically-advanced instruments in gear in the whole of musical history. And to be able to tell when inauthenticity really is a "cheat"--not because it's more fake than usual, but because the fakery is a cover for incompetence or inability. And if you want to get really clever: to be able to appreciate both at the same time when appropriate; that is, to be able to listen to a song and say, "Wow, you can tell blank really isn't much of a (singer/musician/band), but producer's name did a really good job of putting this track together and making the most of blank's limitations--that's a really good recording of a really mediocre performer/performance."

But you won't be finding authenticity anywhere outside your living room, with you and some friends and family jamming. Which also isn't a bad thing--I'm all for everybody in the family gathering 'round the piano or doing a sing-along in the car. But obviously if you're peeling the cellophane off a CD case you were looking for something else--something inauthentic. Appreciate it for what it is. Revel in it.


MWT Friday, February 13, 2009 at 1:12:00 AM EST  

Heh, I'm all for getting the best parts of multiple takes of the same song stuck together to make it sound like only one song occurred. It's why I prefer studio recordings to recordings of live events - which is where we find out that the singer can't actually sing, etc., and sometimes the crowd singalong drowns out the band.

Konstantin B. Friday, February 13, 2009 at 9:56:00 AM EST  

I think if you go to a live show it's authentic enough, barring those who lip-sync. Yes, there are amplifiers and electronics involved but the performance itself is the original, and the only, take on the song.

Janiece Murphy Friday, February 13, 2009 at 10:11:00 AM EST  

the fakery is a cover for incompetence or inability.

That's the part that sticks in my craw - not the use of technology.

Cause we loves us some technology, precious.

Speaking of musical ability, we're going to go see Government Mule tonight at a local small venue.

Kathy Friday, February 13, 2009 at 11:15:00 AM EST  

I think there's a big difference between Auto-Tune and the amplifiers and whatnot that have been around for decades. I can't carry a tune in the proverbial bucket, and a microphone would only amplify my lack of talent, whereas Auto-Tune, apparently, can make me sing on key (that would definitely not be authentic). I think the scary part is how do you know when the fakery is covering incompetence anymore (at least with recorded music)? I want to know when to be impressed and when to feel cheated.

Random Michelle K Friday, February 13, 2009 at 11:39:00 AM EST  

I've actually heard live bands truly live, in venues that were small enough that even if there was amplification, you could still hear the voices and instruments un-miked.

There's nothing like that kind of live music.

I think that's why my favorite bands tend to me the ones that started out playing in bars and touring. They know what their ranges are, and what can be maintained night after night.

Eric Friday, February 13, 2009 at 1:37:00 PM EST  

Kathy, I think the answer to your question is mostly that it's something you just have to listen for and get a feel for, and sometimes it takes more than one song.

I say "mostly" because I did feel a little cheated to find out that the inaugural quartet (Yo-Yo Ma et al.) had been forced to pre-record their performance and mime because the cold weather would have been hell on their tone; I understand the reasons why, but I hadn't picked up on it while I was watching and had been impressed (yet again) with Ma's control on the cello.

I'm not a fan of Spears and Aguilera, but I think it's not hard to tell which one is using studio magic to hide a three-note range and which one is using studio magic on top of some legitimate vocal chops. It's a matter of picking out what's going on and what the performer must be doing to get to what you're hearing; it's a little hard to explain, and it's not like anybody is perfect and can't be fooled.

One way to look at it, though, is that sometimes what's impressive isn't what you'd think. Spears, for instance, may be a pretty worthless singer, but you have to hand it to most of the folks who have produced her material that they've made some pretty impressive recordings, even if you don't like the music itself. In other words, part of figuring out when to be impressed can be a matter of realizing that the raw material was unimpressive but virtuoso technicians turned it into something more.

It's nice when you have both, when what went in had to sound as good as what came out; that's why I'm a huge fan of Garbage--Manson, Vig and the rest of the gang are pretty impressive musicians in their own right, but the way Vig and the rest make everything so damn shiny is tremendous. Shirley Manson doesn't really need studio magic to belt one out, but Shirley Manson + studio magic...? Shivery.

Kathy Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 3:16:00 PM EST  

Eric, I meant my questions mostly rhetorically, but I get what you're saying. And I don't think anybody is fooled by Britney, but I guess what bothers me is that imperfection can really be evocative sometimes, and Auto-Tune removes that. I've been listening to The Who's recording of Tommy Live at Leeds a lot lately, and it's so perfectly imperfect, that I don't even want to go back to listen to a studio recording of it. You know what I mean? It's wonderful when something isn't perfect, but it's still wonderful! Its imperfectness MAKES it wonderful. If you fundamentally suck like I'm sure Britney does, then okay, use Auto-Tune, although it still pisses me off. Maybe a good example is Trent Reznor, who might be a production technology genius, but I don't think he uses Auto-Tune to make his middling voice sound perfect. But because of who he is and what his songs are about, imperfect vocals only make it make more sense. Who wants perfection anyway? It's pretty boring.

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