Developing A Voice: The Curse of AutoTune

Macy Gray: more attitude than the sum total of Lower Manhattan.

“My baby works down at the boulevard cafe
Just a fine young man with big dreams
Trying to make his own way
The owner is this mean old bitch
Who degrades him everyday
Then she fires him for no reason
Don’t wanna give him his last pay”

I’ve Committed Murder – Macy Gray

Macy Gray has the strangest voice in the music business. She sounds like a Disney villain being crushed under a boulder. The last chorus of I Try even trumps Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky for downright scatty weirdness.

But it’s bloomin’ compelling. You listen to I’ve Committed Murder, and though it’s not the best song in the world, you utterly believe the nastiness and cruelty that comes spilling out of her mouth. It’s riveting.

Frankly, I’m amazed that a talent like Macy was able to prosper in the 90’s female R&B market, which was full of real technical wizards (Whitney, Mariah, Jill Scott etc). Macy’s full of soul, but she’s can’t work the top notes like those girls can.

If she’d have struggled then, she’d be underwater now. AutoTune is used more and more in professional recording studios, especially for female performers. What with the rise of X Factor (American Idol for you Yanks) and the sudden demand for Whitneys it’s brought with it, AutoTune was legitimized simply by necessity: the Top 40 has turned into a vocal arms race.

It starts innocent enough: Can’t quite hit that top note like Mariah? Well, give it your best shot and we’ll bulk it out with a bit of gear. That was a great take, but you just got a bit flat on that middle section. We’ll just lift the whole song to reinforce your vocal. Then you get what happened on Ricky Martin’s Livin’ The Vida Loca, where the producer Desmond Child digitally moved Ricky’s syllables around in the mix for the best effect.

Now we’ve got an environment where TV talent shows, which dictate the public’s view of a good singer, are using AutoTune to bump up the quality of their entrants. If Macy were to walk on to the X Factor stage she’d either come out of post-production sounding like Aretha Franklin – or she’d be laughed off. I shudder to think of what Cowell would have made of a fresh-faced 1960’s Bob Dylan shambling onto the stage.

What with all this public movement towards the AutoTune factory, it’s really quite tempting for us songwriters to go that way. Why don’t I start producing urban hits with just my voice and a bit of kit? I’d probably make a bit of money if the songs were alright.

Because if you’re serious about this singer/songwriter lark, you’ll notice that those with the most devoted fanbases are those who are authentic. Mark Oliver Everett: gritty as gravel but undeniably him. Sufjan Stevens: airy-fairy but full of human weakness. Soul trumps software any day of the week.

Macy, just in case an intern at your lawyer’s office misinterprets the first paragraph of this blog, I’d take you over Whitney any day.

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1 Comment

Filed under Performance

One response to “Developing A Voice: The Curse of AutoTune

  1. I entirely agree, especially for live performances; I’m a rock musician so as far as I am concerned if the vocal is a bit shakey, it’s all part of the rich tapestry 🙂

    On the subject of X-Factor, since the scandal with using autotune live, I’m guessing they’ve stopped using it as everyone on there sounds much shakier than usual…

    Let’s get back to the day before autotune and take a leaf out of Robert Plant’s book – can’t get that top note? Take a chug on this canister of helium.

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