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On Performance And Perfection

My personal take on vocal perfection requires a wind back to my days in a pre-DAW commercial studio.

PAR contributor Rob Tavaglione contributes a compelling “Studio Sense” column in this month’s issue, where he ponders the implications of modern recording techniques on the quality of music productions. Not to steal Rob’s thunder, but one section of the piece in particular, where he discusses the practice of vocal pitch correction, prompted further contemplation of my own.

In part, Rob acknowledges that the practice of vocal tuning “may help amateurs who struggle with pitch control,” but then he asks, “does it de-humanize and de-legitimatize vocalists who can sing well? Does pitch perfection remove the interesting and emotive soul from a performance? Does autotuning send subtle cues to the brain saying, ‘This is not an important vocal performance: You do not need to listen intently?'”

My personal take on vocal perfection requires a wind back to my days in a pre- DAW commercial studio where I frequently spent my early mornings locking up digital tape machines to make safety clones of the previous day’s tracking. While monitoring the real-time playback for any problems, I was “treated” to the raw vocal efforts of the artists. Two types of vocal tracks stood out in this process. The truly horrendous (I’m not naming names in print, but I identified a number of vocalists who I would never want to hear sing live, their vocals being about as much an aural treat as if I’d sung the song myself) and tracks with soul and spirit and emotion, be it a perfectionist singer or an edgy vocalist who was anything but the epitome of pitch and timing.

Setting aside a horrendous track, which we notice much as we would rubberneck a traffic accident before we distance ourselves from the horror, what gets the attention of my mind’s ear is a vocal (or most any other track for that matter) that is a true Performance with a capital P. Whether technically perfect or not, a track that conveys emotion (other than horror) draws me into the music, whether live or recorded. A vocal that is not a Performance can be tuned and timed and dynamically controlled to reduce the horror, but even if made technically flawless, perfection is not enough to captivate; a tuned, perfect vocal becomes part of an innocuous wallpaper of sound in the absence of Performance.

My own answer to part of Rob’s question is that, while any track can be processed to aural blandness, at least some of the magic of a Performance will survive all but the most brutal technological assault. Didn’t music once thrive on AM radio? And while current listening practices have an arguable effect on art and industry, the MP3 generation is not backing off of its quest for musical experience. Here’s hoping your productions are blessed with musical Performance.