I Want A “Big Knob”

September 19th, 2010 at 11:46 pm (Home Recording)

A Mackie “Big Knob” studio controller, that is.  I currently have to re-patch everything whenever  I want to switch between my two pairs of monitors (or mess with the Apogee software) and especially when I want to use my record player.  This controller promises to really streamline one’s workflow in the area of monitoring with multiple monitors and sources, complete with a phono input.  It offers quick switching between sources and between monitors, both for easy routing and for fast comparisons while mixing, and a nice big volume knob for accurate volume control (which is more necessary during mixing than it might sound)  I’m not usually one for luxury equipment (such as one of those large, beautiful Apple computer monitors, which can run you upwards of two killabucks) but this is starting to feel like a necessity, and I am an advocate for efficient workflow (the easier it is to A/B monitors, the more you’ll do it, and that’s a good thing).  And I don’t fire up the turntable as much as I’d like because of the prerequisite wiring.  Have I sold myself yet?  Oh, you’re still wondering about the name.  So funny that zZounds includes this in the “features” section of its sales page:

“Humorous product name ensures years of off-color studio humor.”

Me wants one.

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Molls On The AutoTune Fad

August 1st, 2010 at 9:47 pm (Home Recording, Music Commentary)

Molls writes an interesting post on her “Molls She Wrote” blog about the recent — and surely soon-to-die — fad in pop music where autotune is used in a deliberately obvious way.  If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, here’s some background.  Autotune is a specific brand of pitch correction software that was added to the arsenal of studio tools sometime in the last 15 years with the genesis of Pro Tools and computer audio editing and processing.  Used primarily on vocals, though it can be used — and I have — on any monophonic instrument, autotune determines the pitch of the selected signal (i.e., what note the vocalist is singing), and how close that pitch is to the nearest note on the keyboard (or the nearest note in a scale) and then time-stretchs the audio signal so that the pitch more closely matches the note (you know how you can speed up or slow down a cassette player to mess with the pitch? Well this is the same idea, but with way more precision).  The idea being: the vocalist may have intended to hit A-440 (A-440 being the correct note in the melody), but actually hits something like A-450, which would sound sharp of the correct pitch.  Autotune then adjusts the audio signal until the vocalist’s pitch sounds like A-440, thus correcting the out-of-tune note.  Autotune can be remarkably transparent, and while it’s used pretty extensively to correct bad singers (i.e., Katy Perry), it can be useful even on good singers, in that it might allow you to use a take that was fantastic emotionally (which is the element that’s really hard to capture in the studio), but may have come out unacceptably sharp or flat in places.

Which brings me to the abuse of autotune in certain recent pop releases.  Autotune contains, among other parameters, an attack parameter, which sets how quickly the software applies correction once it deciphers a deviation from the “correct” pitch.  How you set the attack parameter depends on the material, how far out of tune the singer is, just how much slight-of-pitch singing the song can withstand, and generally what you can get away with before it begins to sound “processed.”  I’m feeling generous tonight, so here’s an audio example:

A short clip from “Cathedral Bells.”  First, the vocal take with no pitch correction.  Tayler hit the big note that leads into the chorus a bit flat.  Tayler’s a great singer, and surely there was another take with spot-on pitch.  But there was something about this take (the tone, the emotionality) that made me want to use it.  Here’s with no correction:

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Here’s the same clip with the pitch correction I actually used on the album, set with a relatively aggressive attack time time of 78.3 milliseconds.  A keen listener will notice the vibrato sounds a little funny, but the correction is otherwise transparent:

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And now with the attack time pushed to zero milliseconds — i.e., the correction happens immedietely:

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This last clip makes the vocal sound fake and computerized.  But this is exactly the effect that’s become a small fashion in certain recent productions.  Kanye West used it quite famously, and fairly artfully in my opinion, on his 808’s And Heartbreak album, notably the single “Love Lockdown.”  With the hyped autotune, Kanye, it seems to me, admits that he isn’t a great singer, and asks us to just accept that fact in exchange for the deeply personal, emotional character of his singing on these tracks (they were written from a place of genuine personal heartbreak — a painful breakup with his fiance and the loss of his mother).  It’s the only instance I’ve heard of abused-autotune that I haven’t found completely irritating.  I’ll be forever baffled as to why Mariah Carey — the best-selling female pop artist of all time, with the biggest range and some of the best pipes in the genre — used the same hyped autotune on the single “Obsessed.”

A number of bad-singer pop stars have surely been grateful for the fad, though.  Molls comments shrewdly on one example, the aggravating — but unfortunately catchy — single “Blame It On The Alcohol“.  I’ll edit a few *choice* words to keep this a family blog:

OK, so this morning I was walking back from Coffee Bean and “Blame It On The Alcohol” came on my iPod. I was thinking about it and I decided that that song is probably a forever jam. It has that vibe about it. It’s kinda funny, it’s dancey. It’s got what it needs to be played at weddings for all of eternity.

So I was thinking about that and then I was like, “If I ever have kids and they discover this song and start listening to it ironically, that’s going to be really annoying.” ‘Cause like, after 2009, I don’t need to hear that song more than once a month, at the very very most, for the rest of my life.

I thought about how what my future kids would probably find hilarious about the song is the autotuned chorus, specifically the “a-a-a-a-a-alcohol” part. Because that’s so ridiculous. It’s such a ridiculous thing to have in a song. And it’s so unique to that time in music, I feel like. When we’re wondering what will stand out about our generation the way we think of our parents in bell bottoms, it’s probably going to be s*** like that (which you know makes me want to kill myself, but we can talk about that more later.)

Then I tried to decide how you’d explain autotune to a child living in the future. And I had a memory: My BFF Bethany and I sitting in her parents’ Fun Room (I think it was called the Fun Room) listening to “Baba O’Reilly” by the Who. We went through this whole Who stage sophomore and junior year of high school. Yes, I’m bragging about how cool and popular I was in high school. Again.

Bethany’s dad, Steve (I love you, Steve Folger), came in the room and he stood over us and he was like, “You like The Who, huh? You know that song is the first song that ever used a synthesizer.”

BAM! Right?! S***! It’s kind of like that. Except with autotune. Because you wanna know why? Because we’ve failed.

Have a great day, guys.

Molls She Wrote

I’m going to hope that we haven’t failed, but only momentarily fallen for a passing fad.

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Home Studio Success

July 4th, 2010 at 12:58 am (Home Recording)

A ray of light for home recording producers — I just learned that Alanis Morissette’s 1995 debut Jagged Little Pill, which generated 3 hit singles and sold 15 million copies, was 75% created in producer Glen Ballard’s home studio on 16-bit ADAT’s.  You’ll probably recognize the jaded, emotional lead-single “You Oughta Know” and Morissette’s unmistakable raw vocals and writing.  (I remember listening to that track on a cassette tape release of ’95 radio hits).  I’m a little scared to learn that she was only 19 when she made the album (listen to “You Oughta Know” again with that in mind).  Ballard, talking about making the project in his home studio: “The entire genesis of every track was done there, so everything was created in that environment, just with the two of us.”  Looking forward to reading more when Howard Massey’s Behind the Glass arrives from Amazon next week.

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