For the uninitiated, Auto-Tune is a music tool plug-in that corrects pitch imperfections. It can make a dreadful singer sound like Whitney Houston. The settings can be manipulated, however, to create an alien, unnatural quality. The first prominent use in this fashion occurred in Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe.” During the 2000s, Auto-Tune’d voices began showing up everywhere in songs. Now they dominate certain styles of music encompassing dance, hiphop, and urban pop.
Most of the time, extreme, pervasive Auto-Tune makes a song unlistenable for me. When it’s used with restraint—say, on a background vocal line—it can be effective. But more often you’ll hear it throughout an entire song, with its constant parade of ridiculous hiccups. Why a steady diet of this sound should appeal to anyone is beyond my comprehension.
My second bugaboo involves extreme compression. When you listen to music recorded decades ago that sounds quieter than more recent music, you can be sure it hasn’t been subjected to contemporary compression techniques. Compression boosts the audio signal while keeping a lid on the peaks. (If you just raised the audio signal without compression, you’d end up with distortion.) The overall sound level becomes louder, but without as wide a dynamic range between loud and soft.
Like an arms race, recording engineers and producers have pushed the boundaries of compression over the years. Louder gets our attention, and fuels an adrenaline rush. It’s why concerts today are so much louder than concerts four decades ago. But at its extreme, compression creates a rapid alternation between loud and soft that is hard on the ears because you can’t attenuate the sound level. It becomes especially noticeable in dance music where every beat is boosted. The resulting LOUD-soft-LOUD-soft-LOUD-soft-LOUD-soft actually makes me physically ill. Consequently, I’ve found songs I would be inclined to like but can’t listen to because they are over-compressed.
Most people like a booty-shaking bass line. A song’s bottom end makes us want to groove. And if a little bit of something is good, a ton of it is even better, right? WRONG. As woofers have become more sophisticated in delivering bass and sub-bass frequencies, once again engineers and producers have pushed the envelope. Now they boost the bass so much that the vibrations shake your body. Maybe some people like that feeling. Personally, I don’t like the sensation of sound waves pounding on my chest. Makes me feel like I can’t breathe. Not to mention what it does to your ear drums. The other problem with over-boosting the bass: it drowns out the mid-range and treble registers, so ALL you get is bass. Put this together with extreme compression and Auto-Tune, and you’ve created a monster.
So I say it’s time to quash these extreme techniques. I want to be able to enjoy a song as an expression of artistry. The technology should help deliver the song as cleanly as possible, not get in the way.
Image: Peter Francken in his studio, from Wikipedia, Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0.