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.
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.
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.