Saturday, July 27, 2013

Does your bias use Autotune: or - does a bear shit in the woods?

There's a lot on the Internet written about Autotune* and its effects on pop music.  Pity almost none of it is factual or even makes any sense.  I thought it would be interesting as both a kpop fan and a qualified audio engineer to weigh in on the topic of Autotune for the benefit of you folks reading, because if there's any group of people out there who don't understand jack shit about Autotune, it's k-pop fans.  I'm sorry for all of you who come here for the pictures of boobs but this is going to be one of those boring educational posts where you probably don't need your screen cleaner and wet wipes for a change but you actually might learn some shit.

jiyeon-thats-interesting-do-tell-me-more


For both of you still reading, if nothing else, you probably know these two things about Autotune:

1. Autotune is that robot voice thing that works by moving a sung note to the nearest correct note

2. Cher's "Believe" was the first popular song with Autotune in it.

Of course, you'd be only partially correct with the first point, and completely wrong with the second (yes, the Wiki is wrong).

Let's tackle the first point first.  Autotune does indeed move your sung note to the nearest correct note.  However, what can be varied by the music engineer is the speed and precision of this movement.  The "robot sound" that we all associate with Autotune is what we hear when this process happens immediately and the sung note is instantly moved to exactly the correct pitch, this setting is called "zero retune speed" (retune speed being the delay that occurs between the singer hitting the shit note and the program dragging it out of the toilet and into the vicinity of where it should be).  However, you don't have to set that dial to zero, and if you were trying to cover up a shit vocal performance, why would you?  If you had an absolutely fucking crap singer on your hands like [insert your bias here], it would make more sense to be more subtle.  If you want to fool someone into thinking [insert your bias here] is a great singer, well, if they hear that "robot voice", they'll know the jig is up, right?  Better for them to think that they're hearing something "natural", and if you're trying to get it to sound "fixed but natural", too much perfection is a bad thing because it betrays the machine at work.  So with Autotune, you can direct the program along the lines of "with an attack time of 150ms move the incorrect note 90% closer to the original pitch with a simulated vibrato variance of 3% at the attack of the note and 5% once the input level drops below a -5dB threshold".  All of a sudden, [insert your bias here] can "actually sing, like, for realz, yo, omg, like, no Autotune or anything, they must be like, SOOOO TALENTED".  Don't believe that Autotune can work like this?  Check out the official page for Antares' Autotune which breaks down the key features in their latest version of the software.  (There's also plenty of YouTube Autotune tutorials that demonstrate various facets of this but I won't link any because that would be fucking boring.)  Bottom line - you don't spend precious software development time improving on features like a "humanize function" and "realtime natural vibrato adjustment" if nobody is using them.


So, why do we still hear the robot voice?  It's an aesthetic choice.  Someone thought it sounded "cool" to do that.  It's no different to a guitarist stepping on a phaser pedal because they think it "sounds cool".  You may or may not like the sound of a phaser pedal on a guitar just like you may or may not like the sound of Autotune's zero retune speed digital snap, but if you're hearing that noise, it's because the producer wanted you to hear it.  It's when you DON'T hear Autotune that you should be more worried about Autotune being used specifically to cover up shitty out-of-tune vocals.  This segues nicely into our second point, which is that Cher's recording engineers weren't the first people to use Autotune to fix up some bum notes, but they were the first to set the retune dial to zero (probably by accident while trying to fix some of Cher's notoriously limp singing) and go "hey, we actually LIKE the sound of that, let's put it in the final mix that way".  Then they lied about what effect they were using in the hope that their use of the pitch-corrector would remain a music industry trade secret.  Why would they lie?  Because they were likely using more subtle edits with Autotune to fix shitty vocalists' bum notes probably for a long time before they worked with Cher, and didn't want music fans to know that they could do that.  So what WAS the first recording to use Autotune?  We'll never know, and that's exactly my point.

Autotune is like Photoshop's image-editing facilities, but for the voice.  It's similar in three key ways:

1.  It "fixes" shit.

2.  It's in everything new and I mean EVERYTHING.

3.  Sometimes it's deliberately obvious, sometimes it's accidentally obvious, but when a really skilled practicioner is using Autotune or something like it to hide something, even an expert can't tell.

Watch the following video, and then listen to some of your favourite k-pop songs again.



Someone who only associates Autotune with the robotic-sounding "zero retune speed" setting could be forgiven for thinking that Autotune has somewhat fallen out of vogue in k-pop in recent years, because there are less new releases that feature its signature mechanical tone-snapping oscillations.  This would be incorrect: only "zero retune speed Autotune robot sass" has fallen out of vogue - Autotune as a subtle pitch-corrector that fixes fuckups and makes your bias sound like they know what they're doing when they really don't is now more prevalent than ever before.  Professional photographers working with models will routinely run ALL their images through Photoshop and make adjustments, it's become a standard tool of the trade, and the same applies to Autotune and the music business now.  Every vocal track by every artist with any kind of budget behind them is run through the magic fix-it box.  Only independent artists, artists with a bee up their ass about Autotune (plus the power to make the engineers listen) or artists working in styles where precise vocal pitching isn't required (rap, punk, death metal) wouldn't use it (although even in these fields some of them do anyway).  Combine this with k-pop's obsession with making as "perfect" a product as possible and it's pretty safe to say that there isn't a single k-pop album in your collection that doesn't have Autotune smothered all over it like k-netizen's cum over a computer monitor showing Dal Shabet's "Be Ambitious" MV.  Artists in the pop field generally won't say no to a bit of subtle non-detectable Autotune on their voice for the same reason that models won't object to a Photoshopper making them look just that little bit skinnier and more toned.

Oh, and because the effects can be made to work in real time audio engineers can trigger them in live performances too.  Without you even fucking knowing.  So you can bash all those "idol vocals" threads on Allkpop and Onehallyu forums straight up your ass, because none of that shit really matters a goddamn.

aileeqei copy

Another thing to remember is that before Autotune there was a thing called the Vocoder which has been around since the 1970s, also pitch-corrects vocals and sounds exactly the same as Autotune's "robot voice" if used in the same way.  A Vocoder works slightly differently however, rather than adjusting your pitch in real-time to a pitch assigned by the software itself, it adjusts your pitch in real-time to a pitch assigned by another musical instrument (usually a keyboard).  This allows a singer to be able to sing ANY note on a keyboard, even notes outside of their vocal range, and even chords.  And it sounds just as robotic-as-fuck as Autotune does, so it's easy for the untrained ear to confuse the two.  Vocoder is what Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, and J-poppers Perfume use in all their shit, but if you want a k-pop example, here you go:


Programming all those vocal slides and chords would be a pain in the ass with Autotune (but not impossible) however very easy with Vocoder - you just get a keyboardist to plug in and play that stuff and sync the vocals to it - it would take as long to do as the song takes to listen to.

Points to take away from this post:

*  4Minute's "What's Your Name?" isn't a shit song because it has Autotune.  It's a shit song because Brave Brothers thought that getting Hyuna's "Ice Cream" and stripping away all the melody and everything else that made that song decent and replacing it all with computer fart noises was a good idea.  That's a separate issue to Autotune because you can actually get all those exact same noises with a Vocoder if you wanted.

*  If your bias is on the commercial end of k-pop in 2013, your bias uses Autotune, or something like it.  Period.  No ifs, ands, or buts.

*  People in the industry laugh at what fans and singers alike think they know about vocal production/staging.

But Autotune isn't quite perfect yet.  It still can't fix up Bom.


Maybe in 20 years or so technology will have advanced and we'll get computer software that can make Bom's voice good enough to the point where she doesn't have to blow out an entire GD&TOP studio session.  We'll probably have a fix for global warming, overpopulation and the bees-mysteriously-dying-out thing by then, too.

 *  When I say "Autotune" you can assume that by this I mean "Autotune plus other pitch-correcting software that also acts like Autotune".  I know that if I don't put this disclaimer here some smartass cunt will go "but what about [pitch corrector x nobody has heard of]" or some shit.  Ignore what the guy says in the WavesTune video above about their program being "special", It's really all the same shit and it all does the same job.

66 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this one. "no meaningful difference" Funny shit. Comparisons were right on the dot if not the letter.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. i know the first one in the picture is ailee but who dafuq is that second lady.

      i swear all idols have started looking the same to me these days

      Delete
    2. T-ara's Qri, from the "Treasure Box" Japanese album.

      Delete
    3. @Xiss

      It seems like that shit is done on purpose, so they can be swapped in any case (especially if they *need* autotune like Qri) >_>

      Delete
  2. ahhh i've always seen a slight difference between recordings/music show perfs and performances in places with shit mics but i've never found an intelligent way to phrase that sentiment.

    thank u kpopalypse oppar u teach us things

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cheers. There are other fuck-up-fixit tricks of the trade as well that I didn't go into, but it would have made the blog a bit long and I get tl;dr'ed up the ass as it is. I'll save it for another post.

      Delete
    2. So it's just as easy to make even a tone-deaf sound pitch perfect in live performance? all you need is to splash some money on Autotune and hire a sound engineer?

      Delete
    3. BTW, I really like the Cyclop gif you've posted. She's got the sort of impeccable bitch face so much so that I wanna stick it up her ass, literally..........

      Delete
    4. To get a completely tone-deaf person sounding completely in tune, it can be done but the result would be obviously machine-generated. Pitch-correctors work a lot better when the person can already more or less sing in key but just fucks up a little here and there.

      Delete
    5. Same :D It's why I don't give a flying nuggerfunk about if people can sing in K-Pop or not. These peeps know how to make some average trick on the street sound like she's Beyonce >_>

      Delete
    6. Here's someone trying to make a fairly tone-deaf reporter sound like a singer... they got her singing the right notes but it's certainly artificial sounding. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_XpHoJcNNs I don't think a single person in k-pop is completely tone-deaf, those would get weeded out in the selection process. Some of them just have poor pitching esp when doing dance routines simultaneously, but that probably gets overlooked if they have "other qualities" which would make them work as an idol...

      Delete
    7. Well, most of them tbh. Idols aren't vocal specialists, they're all-rounders. A little of everything, which by default generally means not too good at any one thing. If one of them is a vocal superstar that's nice, but it's far from essential. A Hyuna with a purely functional voice but who looks good getting the job done is preferable to someone with a great voice but not much else.

      Delete
    8. "I don't think a single person in k-pop is completely tone-deaf"


      a lot of idols seem to be just total rubbish at singing when they debut, but being in the industry and having to sing regularly makes them bearable
      (thunder, taemin and heechul come to mind immediately but i'm sure there are more)

      Delete
    9. Live venues sound different generally due to laziness... It's just a lot of performances have lazy sound engineers and the venues have bad vocals which is why you think they sound worse live, or they just suck singing to the MR. With a good live audio engineer, and live autotune, or vocoder, it sounds good.

      Also, KPopalypse, I'd be really interested in another post...

      Delete
    10. With any live setup, as an engineer you've generally got a lot less time to get your sound right. It's not like in the studio where you can spend all the time in the world tinkering as long as the client has got the money to pay for that time and is prepared to wait. At a big event you might get a few hours to play with sound but that's a luxury. With TV shows and lots of rotating performers in a short timeframe you basically get nothing and just gotta hope that the setting you chose for group A also works for groups B and C. One of the reason why labels like doing pre-records (more time to get it right) and singing to MRs (an element of foolproofness - if the vocal drops out completely it's not a total disaster).

      Don't worry I'll keep posting, but I usually space these technical-related posts like this out a bit with other shit. If every post was like this it would get boring.

      Delete
    11. Thanks for the posts ^_~

      And yeah, TV shows generally have it poor, although Jimmy Fallon has it not bad... Then again, he can set up before since he has one act a night.

      And is there any way to set a setting for goup A and another setting for group B?

      Delete
    12. Yes. Most studio and more advanced live desks these days are automated and can store and retrieve settings. (Ever see a music video where the band goes in the studio and gawks cheesily at the camera while the studio control faders on the big desk move up and down on their own? That's not stop-motion trickery - the studio desk can actually do that in real time.) The trick is to know what to set it at in the first place. Something as simple as a change in the acoustics of the room (like some big staging or different floor covering), or one of the singers having a cold, or using a different microphone to usual, might necessitate some tweaking. Sometimes with TV schedules you don't have time to adjust for all the parameters so you just throw up a mix that you hope kinda works and then adjust it from there on the fly. The result usually sounds a bit crappy but sometimes it's all you can do.

      Delete
    13. Oh and to answer earlier "a lot of idols seem to be just total rubbish at singing when they debut" - yes that would be true. The whole point of the training system is that you can build them up. From a label's perspective it's often better to get a know-nothing who you can then mold into the preferred image and sound, rather than someone already wildly talented but uncooperative and difficult to work with because she has her own fancy ideas about how things should be done. There's a whole nother blog in this, easily.

      Delete
    14. (Alexander: in the old days before automated desks they would just write down settings. Which took ages and was a pain. But you would go into a studio and see strips of masking tape next to control knobs with settings written on them.)

      Delete
  3. This is exactly why I never talk about technical aspects of songs in my reviews and just review the song as an everyday, average Kpop fan. I don't know the first thing about music (it was always the class I hated the most during school, probably because my elementary music teacher was such a thunder cunt), so I never bothered learning a thing about music. That's why I enjoy having your articles here and Infamist's comments here.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I try to cover technical topics in layman's terms as much as I can so reading it doesn't alienate people who don't have technical musical knowledge. If you're getting it and liking it that's good, it means what I'm trying to do is working.

      Shitty teachers can fuck up any subject for a student no matter how keen the student is. I had an art teacher who sucked balls, and I was really good at art but it didn't help, I still failed. When I brought home an F on my report card after having this cockbreath running the class my normally iron-fisted Dad who would usually give me hell for anything less than an A was straight up "this shit is the teacher's fault, I'm gonna rip him a new one", and he did too. Art teacher quit after the parent-teacher meeting hahahaha.

      Delete
    2. ^ a kindergarten teacher of mine once called me (and my sister for kicks) into her office and told us i would amount to nothing and my mom got her fired. i think it was when i switched out of that school that i started finding that there were even things i was interested in and good at

      Delete
    3. OMG I had the same thing happen to me from an art teacher. I hated art from then on. This was in the 70's, so guess the assholes have been reproducing.

      Delete
    4. I told you it was a good idea to hire him. l0l

      Delete
  4. Vocoders are very easy to spot as they aren't as much voice or pitch regulatory as they are the sort of voice synthesizer or filter. Format quality input (voice etc.) -->--Tonal quality---> Speaker. Examples of use: Daft Punk "Around the World" or Pendulum's "Terminal".

    Also the tons of vocal enhancer software available to adjust wave ranges and real-time compression to enhance high-pitch unfortunate low output sections to make people, like say Jungsica, appear to be more vocally empowered. Examples of use: Any pop song ever.

    Voice doubling or gated dual-resonating vocals usually does exactly what you think it does, and makes vocals seem more expansive by duplicating the frequency, and with a dual resonator you can adjust the resonance the individually doubled vocals to mimic harmony. More restrictive than other options, but also more subtle. It helps, but it still requires you to actually fucking sing. Examples of use: Santana "Into the Night", Silversun Pickups "Royal We".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah there's a lot I deliberately didn't cover, but it's mostly under the rarer for fans anyway. I could easily do another blog this length on compression alone for instance but seeing as how most k-pop fans don't even know what it IS, they're not making stupid misinformed posts about it that would motivate me to write a blog about it to correct the misunderstandings.

      Delete
  5. I'm so spamming this on every Youtube video and K-Pop article where the merits and abilities of idols is being discussed (read - when antis and stans are arguing who is and who is not talented). Autotune is *everything* these days and I honestly could care less who is using it and who isn't anymore (because even Beyonce uses that shit). And maybe I'm being a little pretentious here, but it's kind of obvious who is using it more than others (for example - the sound engineers at SM when harmonies of any kind are involved; listen to the demo version of Wolf, and you'll see who in EXO is actually talented XD). I also learned a few things, namely, the technical term for the Cher effect and how easy it is to tweak someone's vibrato in Autotune (I thought autotuned vibrato sounded like shit). Thanks for the article, I look forward to the next :3

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One last thing...

      PARK BOM, NO!! YOU DO *NOT* NEED TO BE REACHING FOR NOTES LIKE THAT!!! Your voice is shit these days because it's been pushed harder than it needs to be (and you exercise zero vocal control). Minzy's vocals, which aren't nearly as colorful or unique as yours, runs circles around yours these days, because you don't treat your voice right -_-

      Delete
    2. I like Bom's voice, it's got character, I just like the way it sounds. I don't really care that she trashes it, that's her problem. She'll get a vocal coach if she has to.

      Delete
    3. exo singing = baekhyun, chen. occasionally kyungsoo
      the worst part is that sm has given up even auto tuning some of the members - they just make chen/baek sing the note and pretend it was someone else.
      oh no wait the worst part is that people defend the other members by saying shit like "lu han's voice changes when he sings in korean"

      Delete
    4. 1) EXO really is the new Super Junior, which isn't something that EXOtics should be proud of (I know I'm sure as hell not)

      2) Uh... AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Dem EXOtics really think we're dumb enough to believe that b/s excuse?

      3) #Random - What's up with SM this year and leaks? First Wolf, then the practice video, and now the Growl practice video. They need to patch up that hole XD I mean, not that I'm complaining; Growl is a complete 180 from Wolf, one that is very welcomed. Me likee sexy EXO :3

      Delete
    5. 1. I'm pro-Autotune. I don't really want to hear how these people REALLY sing.

      2. Get someone inside your comapny to leak something, or even just release something a few days earlier than you said, and call it a "leak" - it makes fans approxiamtely 3.74% more excited. Just good marketing. SM are the maters at media play because they string fans along all the time and nobody suspects shit (unlike YG, CCM, JYP etc etc).

      Delete
    6. What the hell do you mean "occasionally kyungsoo."? that kid can sing, come on now

      Delete
    7. **okay, maybe i was wrong about baek. him and kyungsoo have pretty much the same share of parts, i just personally think that baek is the sturdier live performer.

      i actually find his tone very pleasing, and yes, kyungsoo is very good at what we have seen him do, but that's the thing; it's what we don't see that makes me wonder. to my judgment, exo is currently sm's most fabricated/controlled group, and i don't think they're about to take a chance with vocal superstar babysoo and let him do anything he has a chance of fucking up. while i don't have a doubt that baeksoo are good singers, they do get more credit than they deserve bc for example i've never seen baek do that high note from wolf anywhere but a music show because cough cough

      someone like chen though can be heard on 99% of exo's songs, including only k unit ones, and he sounds exactly the same as he does on sm's edits as he does with shitty collar mics on variety shows (i know this article is all about how they are probably faking chen's talent, but he does seem to carry a much larger proportion of the musical burden than the other members)

      Delete
  6. Another thing; does everybody in J-Pop use vocoders? Because that sound seems to be everywhere (one of the stupid reasons I quit listening a few years ago).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know enough about j-pop to be able to answer that, and I refuse to listen to more of it to find out the answer. The J-pop I've heard, which isn't much, uses autotune, vocoders and vocaloids (synthesis).

      Delete
    2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjVT-jsiPnw (I want to buy this album :3 )

      Delete
    3. More listenable than "What's Your Name?".

      Delete
    4. I should start thinking of 4minute as an hardcore noise punk band, then.

      Delete
    5. That would be okay, if they were a good one.

      Delete
  7. Replies
    1. It's Kraftwerk, you idiot!

      Delete
    2. @ZizuZai; I think he meant "Krautwerk".

      Delete
  8. But... but what if your bias is in KRY D:
    Autotune may rid the pop music scene of actual vocal talent, but as long as it continues to produce gems like Autotune the News idc.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're missing the point. While KRY is indeed better than the rest of Suju, they are still autotuned and are not actually as good as they seem.

      You can only really tell who is better in a group (usually by who is doing the most work vocally) but it's a lot harder to say how good they actually are because there is always so much faking going on, even on stage.

      Delete
  9. When I saw the T-ara gif, I instantly knew it was Kpopalypse posting...
    ... and that it's going to be a long-ass post. lol

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Here, you can relive the days when an AKF article was a picture and two sentences.

      http://antikpopfangirl.blogspot.com/2011/04/hong-su-ah-is-awesome.html

      Delete
    2. I like to throw in T-ara because it's like fangirl kryptonite. It makes me feel like Lex Luthor. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkSaAhbceBk

      And yeah my posts are long. You can always read it a sentence a day or something if it's too much stress to take it all in at once.

      Delete
    3. What about T-ara fans? O,o

      Delete
    4. Well apart from them of course. You can't have everything I guess.

      Delete
  10. I'm glad I'm not the only one who knows that just because there is no robot burps in the vocal that doesn't mean autotune wasn't used. I'm also glad that you brought up the point about vocoders and live performance type of corrections.

    Kpopalypse, do you have any degrees in music by any chance? If it's linked anywhere else I may have missed it. I'm just curious.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I have a Bachelor of Music (honours). I also have an audio engineering degree and a business degree. Mind you none of that stuff prepared me for the music business quite like actually working in it, even with all those bits of paper one is still fairly "green" until they get their hands dirty. There's nothing more annoying than people with all the right bits of paper but no industry experience who think they know how shit works.

      Delete
  11. Can this only happen to pre-recorded songs? Can we still use live perfs and radio shows to see who is actually talented?


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 1. You can use it live, and this is pretty common. (Covered in the blog actually)

      2. You can use it on radio too but that would actually be more unusual - not saying it never happens but it wouldn't be normal because it would require messing with the radio studio setup a bit, which DJs don't like to do for time reasons.

      3. Who cares who is talented - this is pop music, a genre which hasn't required skilled vocal practicioners in the traditional sense since the 1950s. It baffles me why people who care so much about vocal quality listen to pop music at all. Talk about panning for gold in a sewer. If you want to hear really talented vocalists who are definitely live, go and listen to opera... OH WAIT THEY CHEAT TOO NEVER MIND http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/apr/07/classicalmusicandopera.italy

      Delete
  12. Now I'm thinking that the whole world population can't sing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Even X Factor got busted for using it. You'd think of all things, at the very least, a SINGING COMPETITION wouldn't use it, but if even THEY do it you can bet it's just about everywhere else too.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdIZbOPe5wo

      If you want to know if someone can sing, get them to sing for you in your lounge room. Until then, the jury's out. So stop worrying about who can sing and who can't and just worry about whether you like the music.

      Delete
  13. and that's why I stopped at a diploma and not a degree in music...the LECTURER SUCKED.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Where's Sulli_Fag, my left nut? I miss him...

    ReplyDelete
  15. Great article yet again Kpopalypse, keep up the good work.

    I wonder if people as a whole will ever get over this shit. I'm tired of people whining about autotune, photoshop, plastic surgery, makeup, editing, etc. etc. etc.

    If I wanted to listen to ugly noise and look at fat, gross, boring people in potato sacks I'd just go to any public place ever. I'm pretty sure that's how everyone else TRULY feels too otherwise they wouldn't be fans of popular media in the first place.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The whole "keeping it real" obsession that music fans have doesn't really belong in k-pop where everything is a fantasy anyway. K-pop is like porn, it's great to look at and to have a wank over, but if you start telling yourself that it's an accurate reflection of reality you're invairably going to end up disappointed.

      Delete
  16. there is more to vocals than pitch though. even in studio versions of songs it's not too difficult to distinguish good vocalists like ailee or kyuhyun from the mediocre and bad vocalists. vocal flaws like nasality, poor breath support and strain can often be heard even with the editing. in lives, this of course becomes way more obvious.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I see you have "Allkpop vocals thread" disease. In a music scene where the biggest sleeper hit of the year is by Crayon Pop, technical aspects of vocal performance like that are beyond irrelevant.

      Delete