Academic work: Bachelor Thesis – The Human Factor in Music (Pt.7)

rttrrI will be posting segments of my bachelor thesis “Out of Touch – The Framework That Is Supposedly Killing Music”. The whole essay can be found at: Link to essay

The main discussion points in the thesis are authenticity, Auto-tune and the obsession with perfection in today’s music.

The human factor

When talking about the human factor (which should not be confused with the human touch) it usually implies the errors that can be caused by humans in certain situations. The human factor plays an important role in the music production process even though almost everything is done in a digital environment. Pitch correction and polishing is not something that is automatically added, but rather subconsciously added by producers and studios these days.

The human factor is all the human, non-digital interaction with music. It is that certain grit in the voice, the slight variation on a verse or just simply the rough and authentic sound of a song. In certain situations the producer and studio technician are highly influential of the production, especially in pop music. In short the human factor is what sets us, the humans, apart from the digital world and it is something that philosophically cannot be altered digitally.

The human factor exists everywhere and can therefore be applied to any field where humans are involved (which as of 2016 is every field). Author Kim Vicente (2006) discusses several historical situations where the human factor has turned out to be both catastrophic and amazing. One of the most astonishing errors caused by the human factor was the Chernobyl disaster in 1987. The disaster was caused because of human recklessness and experimentation in an already unstable environment, this particular example being in a nuclear power plant. Nuclear reactors being highly complex and unstable if not handled according to instructions shows just how much of a catastrophe the human factor can cause. In this case, a meltdown was caused due to the fact that the workers deliberately disabled the safety system and pushed the already unstable system into a complete unbalanced state (Vicente 2006, p. 10).

The Chernobyl incident is of course an extreme example in comparison but the contents of it can be applied in a music production environment. An example being the forced use of Auto-tune in pop music. Many pop-stars do not write their own music and have little to no control over the effects and mix while recording their songs (Talt 2013). Instead these tasks are given either to the producers or the technicians. Nobody is forced to use Auto-tune or pitch correction, it is not an automated effect, but one that is added. There is always a choice when it comes to adding effects like these and the use is a clear statement in many cases. Using tools like Auto-tune and excessive compression directly puts the track/song in question into a certain compartment. This compartment being the one that always gets criticized for taking shortcuts and not being authentic. The repercussions for these kinds of choices are that the singer or artist in almost all cases gets all the blame, when in fact it most likely was a producer’s decision to add these kinds of manipulation effects.

The main thing in most pop music today is the cleanness and perfect sound. Everything is done in a professional studio environment, mixed by the top people in the industry and mastered to perfection. Everyone is basically using the same gear and software to achieve this type of sound (Clarkson 2015). Compression is a big part of it, you simply compress away the highs and lows to make it louder and to make it more tight. If we look at the history of compression usage in music production its main focus has been acoustic guitar and snare drums. In today’s music everything is compressed, even the main mix and master channel.

Vicente continues with the question, “Why is technology so Out of Control?” (Vicente 2006, p. 29). The human factor can really only affect as much as the technology allows us to. Before pitch correction software was created, the process was almost undoable. This resulted in the fact that pitch correction was barely used. Today when every digital workstation on every computer is equipped with all the software, technology is partly the problem. The accessibility of the tools are a huge part of the “problem”, not only in music production, but with technology in general. Actions that today take only seconds would, only 30 years ago, take hours or days. This gave everyone involved in the process the time to really reconsider certain actions, when today it is easy to just stack effects and edits on top of each other in matter of minutes. The concept of “less is more” is almost thrown out the window the second a DAW is opened due to the accessibility of all the tools.

Pitch is an important part of music, and one that has since the creation of pitch correction software, been laid in the hands of both the studio technician and the singer. The more in pitch the music is, the more unnatural and digital it may sound. This is easily heard and seen when you compare a song from before the Auto-tune and pitch correct era with a song today. Pitch is also the thing most commonly manipulated by studio engineers and technicians. Instead of leaving a section with a pitch that would by some be considered “bad” it is adjusted using software such as Auto-tune.

Sources:

Futurism 2013. “Auto-Tune and the Science That Ruined Music”. Futurism, 2013.

Vicente, Kim J. (2004). The human factor: revolutionizing the way people live with technology. 1. ed. New York: Taylor and Francis Books

Talt, Adam 2013. “The Big stars who didn’t write their own songs”. Gigwise, 2013.

Anderton, Craig 2006. ”In Search of the Perfect Pitch”. Emusician, 2006.

Clarkson, Natalie 2015. “Science proves all pop music sounds the same”. Virgin, 2015.

 

Academic work: Bachelor Thesis – The psychology behind music manipulation (Pt.6)

I will be posting segmOut ofents of my bachelor thesis “Out of Touch – The Framework That Is Supposedly Killing Music”. The whole essay can be found at: Link to essay

The main discussion points in the thesis are authenticity, Auto-tune and the obsession with perfection in today’s music.

The psychological factor

Using the manipulation methods mentioned above and later in the next chapter are by some people highly frowned upon, especially the use of Auto-tune. This is most likely due to the previously mentioned authentication discourses. An unnatural voice tends to sound less authentic in comparison to a clean, unprocessed one. Some even claim that the Auto-tune phenomenon ruined music (Futurism 2013).

In 2006 Craig Anderton wrote an article called “In Search of the Perfect Pitch”. One of his main points were that pitch correction is in many cases used before you try anything else. And according to him it should be regarded as a last resort and not as an easy fix. Josh Tyrangiel mentions that “You haul out Auto-Tune to make one thing better, but then it is very hard to resist the temptation to spruce up the whole vocal, give everything a little nip-tuck.” (Tyrangiel 2009). There are many factors that come in to play, and if the goal is to achieve a natural and more authentic sound pitch correction should be the last resort. But in the same way, it should not be excluded simply based on the amount of criticism it has received over the years (Anderton 2006)

To understand the criticism towards Auto-tune and pitch correction one needs to see all sides of the spectrum. First of all, the negative criticism is almost exclusively directed towards the use of Auto-tune and pitch correction in pop music, not other genres. When an artist is criticizing the use, it is generally an artist that is known to be a good singer, such as Michael Bolton or Michael Bublé (Wheeler 2013). Producer and pop-icon Simon Cowell made a statement when he officially banned the use of Auto-tune from the pop-music centered program “The X Factor”. He did this after he learned that pitch correction had been used on several of the contestants, which according to him, gave both the judges and the viewers a twisted and wrongfully view of the show (Sam-Daliri 2010).

T-pain, the man who reintroduced the “Cher Way” of using excessive amount of Auto-tune received a surprising amount of negative feedback from the musical elitists (Futurism 2013). But when it surfaced that he could actually sing, the detestation was significantly toned down (Rhodan 2014). Is the hate only towards people who are put on the spot as being “unable to sing”? Looking at the majority of articles and blogs the evidence points toward just that.

If Auto-tune is used in these situations, where the person who “sings” is in fact unable to sing some say that performance is fake and that the artist is deceitful. Choir leader Gareth Malone reacts harshly to the use of Auto-tune and calls modern pop music “plastic”, and if corrected from off-key to perfectly tuned it is definitely cheating. According to Malone songs from decades ago were often out of tune when performed, but the authenticity of the performance still remained and that resulted in a better performance overall (Silverman 2013).

Sources:

Futurism 2013. “Auto-Tune and the Science That Ruined Music”. Futurism, 2013.

Sam-Daliri, Nadia 2010. ”Angry Simon Bans auto-tune.” The Sun, 2010.

Silverman, Rosa 2013. “Gareth Malone: pop stars who use auto-tune are cheating”. Telegraph, 2013.

Wheeler, Brad 2013. “Michael Bublé and how Auto-Tune became the Botox of pop music”. The Globe and Mail, 2013.

Anderton, Craig 2006. ”In Search of the Perfect Pitch”. Emusician, 2006.

Tyrangiel, Josh 2009. ”Why Pop Music Sounds Perfect”. Time, 2009.

 

Academic work: Bachelor Thesis – The obsession with perfection (Pt.5)

I will be posting segmOut ofents of my bachelor thesis “Out of Touch – The Framework That Is Supposedly Killing Music”. The whole essay can be found at: Link to essay

The main discussion points in the thesis are authenticity, Auto-tune and the obsession with perfection in today’s music.

An introduction to perfection in music

Perfection does not have to do with just perfect pitch, but as of lately they tend to go hand in hand. Along with the pitch-perfect comes the spotless, compressed and flawless mixes we hear today. Drums are played using MIDI, guitars are being time stretched and copy-pasted and vocals are getting pitch perfected. This obsession with perfection in music is an interesting thing when put in perspective. In the 1960-s and 1970-s experimentation was a huge part of the music, it did not have to be perfect and it did not have to be in tune. Bands like the Grateful Dead simply went up to the stage and played together, seemingly without worrying about anything. So, where is this obsession coming from? Why are we so obsessed with removing what is essentially the “human touch”? This is not something that is exclusive to pop music, the new metal scene is “riddled” with all kinds of polishing effects and production shortcuts. Bands that do not use extreme amounts of compression or polishing tools are usually quick to tell you about their “raw sound”. Other artists simply follow along the stream of perfection because that has become the norm in most successful studios (Milner 2009, p. 185).

This strive for “perfection” is of course a result of the amazing technological evolution that has taken grip of the music production world. Most digital workstations contain the tools that are required to change certain parts instead of re-recording whole sections over and over.

The digital revolution

A simple explanation could be that it is just the way music has developed. Everything else is getting more high tech, so why should not music? Electronic music would be a perfect example of this explanation. When the transition from analog to digital recording started in the 1950’s everything pretty much changed (Banks 2013). Today most music is done on computers and the way we behave in the studio in the “digital era” is a completely different process. In the analog times everything was recorded onto physical components such as tape and vinyl. You recorded your part with the active effects like compressors, reverb and while it was in the mix you could change it, after that it was final and changing anything was an extremely tedious process. The control we have today, where we can zoom in on the actual sound waves and erase tiny artifacts and errors is just absurd in comparison. But that control also yields the perfect and flawless sound of today. And when the tools are so easily at our disposal, why should they not be used? If you know you have a slightly off beat drum, would it not be a stupid thing to record it all over again when you can simply move the track or beat slightly to correct it? (d’Escriván 2012, p. 9).

compress
A compressed sound wave (top) and an uncompressed sound wave (bottom)

Pop music receives a great deal of negative criticism for using these methods of production, especially Auto-tune and pitch correction. But what about metal music? Most modern metal music is in many ways similar to modern pop music. Everything is perfected and compressed tightly before release (McElhearn 2014). In many cases the drums are not even played, but are instead composed using MIDI-software to achieve a tighter and cleaner sound.

Compression is something that is used in every studio recording and as good as every home recording as well. Put in simple terms, a compressor compresses the sound. They reduce the dynamic range, giving the user the ability to increase the volume and gain in the process (Ferreira 2013, p. 73). The top and bottom are basically cut off to make more room for the core of the sound. In the 21 century compressors became available as software, unlike before when they were only in physical form. This really escalated the “loudness war” that started in the 90’s and suddenly compressors were used in every situation (Dynamicrangeday 2011).

The compression obsession constitutes of the “plastic” and “perfected” sound of pop music and in music in general. If too much compression is used, the dynamics of the song are so twisted that you end up with a flat, sterile mix (McElhearn 2014). In a way some of the music is actually lost because of the compression threshold giving the listener a less dynamic and “organic” experience.

Sources:

McElearn, Kirk 2014. “It’s Not Just Pop Music That’s Over-Compressed”. Kirkville, 2014.

Escrivan Rincón, Julio d’ (2012). Music technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Ferreira, Carlos Lellis (2013). Music production: recording: a guide for producers, recordists and musicians. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

Milner, Greg (2009). Perfecting sound forever: an aural history of recorded music. 1st ed. New York: Faber and Faber

Dynamicrangeday 2014 “What is the loudness war?”

 

Ibanez JPM P2, 1998.

JPM nice
It’s hard to not over-saturate and color correct when editing photos of this guitar. You just want that beautiful finish to pop right out!

Perhaps the most unique guitar I have, and will ever own. An Ibanez JPM P2 in perfect condition, signed by all the members of Dream Theater (Portnoy too).

I just recently started playing it again and boy is it great. It has an insane amount of personality and the pickups are insanely colorful and unique. No matter which amp you play it through it always have that distinctive attack that draws you back to the old Dream Theater records.

I spent an entire summer, around 2 months, working my ass off to afford this guitar. But boy was it worth it in the end. The memories of meeting the band and talking to JP was just priceless and that is why this guitar means a lot to me.

Enjoy!

Academic work: Bachelor Thesis – Authenticity vs humanity and technology (Pt.4)


Out of
I will be posting segments of my bachelor thesis “Out of Touch – The Framework That Is Supposedly Killing Music”. The whole essay can be found at: Link to essay

The main discussion points in the thesis are authenticity, Auto-tune and the obsession with perfection in today’s music.

Authenticity in correlation with the human touch

When researching authenticity in music it is usually the same names that keep discussing the same conclusions with the same perspectives, one of them being Allan Moore (2002) and the other being Simon Frith (1986). Together they have been a huge part of creating the framework that explains authenticity in music in the modern pop-music.

Following the methods of Moore, authenticity is not easily established by asking what, as in what music, but rather who. Beethoven played his music, wrote it and published it, and thousands of orchestras around the world have played his works over the years. Can those performances be regarded as authentic, or was it only authentic when Beethoven did it?  According to Moore the cultural and historical factors weighs a lot heavier when defining authenticity in a piece of music. That brings the question, does pitch and software manipulation matter when following Moore’s point of view? Or is Auto-tune regarded as a thing which would lift the authenticity in a song? These questions are looked more closely at under the technical section.

Even music that is clearly predictable can be thought of as being from the heart if it is in the right genre. I have sat in blues bars where the musicians looked and sounded like a cliché of blues. Yet from the facial expressions, movements and responses of the punters it was clear that they were witnessing music from the heart and certainly nothing contrived (Machin 2010, p. 16).

Bob Dylan is generally regarded as an authentic artist, although there are different kinds of authenticity, especially in his case. Looking closely at Dylan and his career reveals a sort of paradox in the field of authenticity. In an interview the band Mumford & Sons claims that Dylan is in fact not authentic at all. He changed his name, he plays blues even though he is a white man from Minnesota. In that sense, he is not honoring the blues tradition in any way (Kravitz 2012). But according to Machin and Moore, being authentic can also be to play from the heart, or to simply give a sense of an authentic performance.

Looking more closely at Dylan’s music, he is mainly using his voice, his guitar and his harmonica. The information found about his general recording and mixing processes indicates that there is very little editing and mixing after the actual recording process. Chris Shaw, who was an audio engineer for Dylan, explains this further and clarifies how the process was done and how demo versions and very rough takes often ended up as final mixes (Love 2008).

Instead of doing loads of post-work on the songs most of the EQ and volumes are established by proper microphone placements and experimentation (Love 2008). An entire idea or concept could change in a matter of minutes, and that is what made his music so final and unique.

If that process were to change, would it affect the authenticity of his performance? Dylan’s main source of authenticity was that he played from the heart and that he does so with a passion. If that factor was removed using post process effects and mastering methods, could it actually be possible to remove the authenticity from his performance? During the sections regarding perfection and software manipulation Dylan is one of the examples. If we add a lot of post-work, re-master the songs and add digital reverb to change the overall tone, in other words, remove everything that makes Dylan unique. If we also add Auto-tune to Dylan’s vocals, changing his pitch and removing his natural vibrato, completely altering the feel and sound. Is the authenticity of his work still there? The human touch, the thing that we associate with Dylan is polished away completely in this modification process. The result is theoretically a digitalized shell that is just following the construct that we chose to call “correct” music and “the way it is supposed to sound” today. It makes you wonder how Dylan would have sounded if we was recorded and released today. Though he would not admit to being part of the pop-music scene, in retrospect and due to his popularity, he still was.

Authenticity and modern technology

As music has evolved, surely the framework surrounding authenticity in music followed along in some way? Musician and producer Brian Eno believes that technology has made us into perfectionists. In the past when mistakes were made during recordings, you either decided if you wanted to do the whole song over again, or live with the mistake. Today you simply retune that note. Eno continues and asks the question, “Have we lost something of the tension of the performance, of the feeling of humanity and vulnerability and organic truth or whatever, by making these corrections?” (May 2015).

According to Eno artists should be aware of this phenomenon and think before using certain technology if they are striving for a certain sound. This has in itself started a trend to bring back the old, meaning in this case analog equipment. Famous musician Jack White for example, has no digital equipment and other musicians are going back to tape and track recorders just because they prioritize a sound that was once regarded as the authentic way (May 2015).

Sources:

Machin, David (2010). Analysing popular music: image, sound, text. London: SAGE

Moore, Allan 2002. “Authenticity as authentication”. Popular Music, 21, pp 209-223

May, Chris 2015. “THE DANGERS OF DIGITAL: BRIAN ENO ON TECHNOLOGY AND MODERN MUSIC”. The Vinyl Factory, 2015.

Kravitz, Jeff 2012 “Mumford & Sons: Bob Dylan ‘Didn’t Give a Sh*t About Authenticity”. Rolling Stone, 2012.