Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Her "talents" are huge - why "MR removed" videos are all bullshit

For a while now, a horrible cancer has been infecting the world of k-pop - the obsession with "talent".  I put "talent" in inverted commas because when people talk about "talent" in k-pop in either a positive or negative sense, they usually only ever talk about one thing, which is singing ability.  They tend to ignore other talents that actually matter a lot more for career advancement and industry success in the world of ultra-commercial idol pop, such as:
  • Looking good on stage
  • Dancing (sometimes also factored in when people discuss "talent" - but rarely)
  • Looking good on TV
  • Stage presence
  • Looking good in front of still cameras (i.e modelling)
  • Talking to the media (if you don't think this one matters, just ask anyone in KARA)
  • Looking good in a versatile way for different outfits to use in different concepts
  • Emotional labour (what air hostesses do - keeping the happy facade up, smiling constantly when you've had a shit day etc, ask f(x) about this one)
  • Looking good even in airports
  • Fellatio technique (just ask [insert your bias here])
  • Looking good even in a car accident (or else)
  • Behind-the-scenes talent that supports your talent (songwriters, producers, stylists, choreographers)
  • Looking good at all times
It also helps if you are attractive.  More fun facts about vocal performances after the jump.


The obsession about vocal performance always seems odd to me when we're talking about the idol pop genre, a genre of music where the #1 most successful female idol group of all time was The Spice Girls and the most successful solo singers of all time in their respective genders were Elvis Presley and Madonna.  I thought it would have been fairly obvious to anybody with their eyes even half-open that outstanding vocal performance was kind of an optional requirement at most.  In this context it's easy to see why k-pop companies don't bother to train their artists too hard in vocal performance, they've sensibly worked out through market research that it's not something that's really needed.

Nevertheless, this doesn't stop a bunch of armchair douchebags obsessing about vocal quality anyway, and one of the favourite tools that they use to pick apart vocal performance is the "MR removed" mix.  This mix is created by ripping out all the backing track with audio editing software, so you can just hear (and snidely judge as if your opinion is in any way relevant) the vocals on their own.  OMG THE TRUTH IS REVEALED, AMIRITE?

Well, not exactly.  The problem with this is that the results are typically not indicative of the true vocal performance, or anything else for that matter, except how much time some bored Starcraft player has to fuck around with sound waveforms and make them sound like you're listening to your neighbour's TV set from inside a toilet bowl.

(Wow, the cheek of the video uploader labeling this "official MR removed" - tsk tsk.  Who wants to notify LOEN and shut his/her YouTube account down?  Actually, don't, because then it'll break this blog post and I'll have to get MR removed videos from somewhere else, too much hassle, heh.)

So what's the problem?

To understand why MR removed videos are essentially completely fucking useless as a tool to evaluate singers, we firstly need to understand how the software that removes backing tracks works.  The rest of this blog post is going to get a bit fucking technical, but there's really no way this can be avoided.  I'll do my best to explain this all in language that any 11-year old EXO fan can understand.

There are two techniques that are used to create an "MR removed" mix, and we'll discuss them (and the associated problems) separately.

1.  PHASE CANCELLATION

All sound is the vibration of molecules.  When a sound is generated from a singer, the vibration of the singer's vocal cords from side to side vibrates nearby air molecules which also start going from side to side.  These molecules bumpity-bumpity onto other air molecules until they eventually get to your ear, where they bumpity onto the hairs in your ear that then also start going from side to side.  Because your brain is ultra-clevery-smart and stuff, it then converts those hair movements into brainwaves and that's how you hear "ULF NEGA ULF AWOOOOOOOO".

We can chart molecular motion of sound onto a graph, like this:

wf1


The horizontal axis is time (in fractions of a second), and the vertical axis is amplitude.   From the center 0.0, the molecule moves up, and then down, up and down...

wf2


The result is a waveform of sound that you can hear.  But what would happen if we had two waveforms, and they were exact opposites of each other?

wf3


As you can see, the second waveform we've now added below goes up where the first one goes down, and vice versa, just like I would if I was lying down on that stage while Eunjung bopped up and down over my lap. The second signal is what is called an "out of phase" signal, as the wave motion is considered to be 180 degrees different  or "out of phase" to the original wave motion, so in other words a total opposite, like how the 180 degree point is on the opposite end of the zero degree point of a protractor.


In this case, the two waveforms, being opposites, would mathematically cancel each other out, and if you played them both as they are displayed here, you wouldn't hear any sound at all - even though the sound is still being generated, it's being generated in equal-but-opposite directions.  This effect is known as "phase cancellation".  This is how active noise-cancelling headphones work, and it also part of how cancellation in "MR removed" MVs works.

So let's apply this to k-pop.  Say you've got a live recording of Dal Shabet's new song "Molest Me On The Subway, Oppa".


Let's also say that because you're a big fan, you've also got the studio version.


Since you know that the group just sings along to the studio recording on the live stage, by combining the two as above, lining them up just right, and then inverting the waveform so that the studio version is out of phase, the studio version's audio should cancel out the waveforms on the studio recording that they're singing along with, just leaving the "difference", which is the live vocals and any cheering, right?


Wrong - as you can hear.  There's all sorts of weird crusty shit in the mix, for a start - yes the main audio track is cancelled, but the reproduction of it in the TV studio has a different ambience which changes the sound slightly, and those differences can still be heard, including not just the effect of whatever speaker system they're using in the studio, but also any reflections of sound that are bouncing off the back walls and back into the microphones.  Also, half the vocals are actually missing - what's with that?  Is it because the girls are so busy dreaming of all the clit-rubbing action they're going to get next time the take the subway that they just chose not to sing some of the syllables?  Not likely (sadly).  The problem with phase cancellation is that it acts across the whole mix, not just the bits you want it to act on, so if you're singing along to the vocals on the backing track, then every time the waveform of your voice becomes equal-but-opposite to the out-of-phase waveform of your voice used by some Starcraft nerd to perform the cancellation, your voice gets cancelled out as well.  Oops.  Paradoxically, the more true to the original recording your vocal performance is, the more likely this will happen and the phase-cancelling software will cancel a big chunk of your voice out almost completely.  So when you're hearing an "MR removed" mix, and the voice is kind of fading in and out and it sounds really weak, that could be because that person is singing really poorly, or it could be because they are singing a little bit too well, because it's so close to like what's on the recording that a large chunk of it is being cancelled - which is of course exactly what they're trying to do.  Unless you're actually in the studio controlling those levels, there's no true way of knowing which one of these possibilities is true.

If backing tracks don't actually contain the voice itself, then this isn't a problem, and the phase cancellation works a lot better.  However, if the backing tracks don't contain the voice itself you don't exactly need an MR removed version anyway, for obvious reasons - you already can hear the vocal.

Let's move onto our second useless technique that doesn't work all that well for removing backing tracks from vocals, so we can understand why it also sucks:

2.  STEREO BANDPASS FILTERING

Sometimes, you just ain't got a studio version.  Maybe it doesn't exist, because it's a one-off never-to-be-repeated live performance of some song that this artist doesn't normally do.  On the other hand maybe it does exist but you don't have access to it because you're anti this artist and you wouldn't buy their stuff, you just want to make an MR mix to prove to the rest of the world why they shouldn't buy it either, in the vain and futile hope that this will actually affect the artist's bottom line, because you suck and should be destroyed.  Or perhaps you've already done the phase cancellation but there's still a crapload of noise in the background and you want to get rid of more of it so your pristine vocal track shines through so you can hear how shit it is.

Now, common conventional audio mixing wisdom dictates that both vocals and instruments in an audio mix need "room", which means you've got to find somewhere in the audio field to put them, otherwise you can't hear everything clearly.   Let's look a visual representation of an audio field.

wfyeah1


Now let's separate our field into areas, so we know what we're dealing with.  The vertical axis of our field is the "frequency field", which means the pitch of our instruments and voices.  High sounding things go up the top, low sounding things down the bottom.

wfyeah2


Now let's add stereo.  We'll conceptualise our sound as being either in the center of the stereo field (coming out equally through both speakers) or it will be panned either "hard left" or "hard right", and we'll use the horizontal axis to represent this.

wfyeah3


Now, when someone mixes a pop hit what they're attempting to do is fill up all the boxes with "stuff" so they get a nice full-sounding mix, but without anything overlapping.  If there are too many things in the one box, they tend to compete for space, so the aim is for a reasonably even distribution of sounds.

A typical result of elements that you might hear in a pop mix:

wfyeah4


Dead center is almost always where the main vocal track sits.  Seeing as how we want to isolate vocals and hear them on their own, if we apply a filter, we can filter out the deep stuff and the high stuff (thus leaving a "band" of audio in the middle hence "bandpass" because we let that bit "pass" through and block the rest), and we can also filter out the stuff at the left and right edges of the mix.  This should just leave us with the vocal, right?

Well, yes...actually it works great.  Check this original and then the MR removed version:



But whoever made that video wasted their time, because with a recording like that, you don't need the MR removed version anyway - there's no studio version with a vocal backing track for Ailee to sing over the top of, therefore no reason to separate the parts.  Whoever made this is just having a "look how good I can make an MR removed video sound" wank.

If we're talking about the more typical k-pop scenario of a singer singing over a backing track that includes their own voice, then we're straight back into shit-filled toilet bowl territory again, because there's no way that bandpass filtering can tell the difference between the studio vocal track and the live one that's been plopped over the top.  Most MR removed videos therefore have to use a combination of stereo bandpass filtering and phase cancellation to bring you a result, which in turn butchers all the audio, including the stuff that you're actually there to listen to:


You can hear the guitars and the snare drum bleeding through quite strongly - because these instruments are operating on a similar frequency range and stereo location to Lee Hi's voice.  Other instruments you can't hear at all, they're outside the filter range.  However, what you also can't hear is half of Lee Hi's actual vocal performance, and what is there sounds like a bunch of warbly crap because half of what actually makes her sound decent has been ripped out along with all the other stuff.  If you didn't know who she was you could well be forgiven for thinking that she's no better or worse at singing than anyone in Dal Shabet.

Here's Ailee again, singing to a backing track of her own voice this time and you'll notice half her voice is actually gone, from 0:40 the audio is a shitfest and she's dropping in volume everywhere:


What a mess, right?  Forgetting the fact that this is Ailee who we do actually know is a slightly above average by western standards but nothing to write home about good singer, if you didn't know the song or the singer and closed your eyes and heard this for the first time, you'd think "whoever the fuck that is, they can barely sing, her volume is all over the place and she sounds strained... she must have nice 'talents' to get this far in the industry".  So the only reason why you know that this performance didn't suck is because it's Ailee and you already know that she can sing, not because the MR removed track actually "revealed" anything whatsoever, because if you were judging it on that alone you'd wonder why she lost her voice halfway through the first verse.  In this way it's easy to see how MR removed videos have just become a tool for either praising your bias to the skies or bashing whoever it is you don't like (I could easily make an argument for either based on the Ailee video above), and reveal basically nothing of insight.

I hope this blog post has demonstrated to you how MR removed gadgetry doesn't actually do the job it's supposed to.  Having said all that, even if it did work, you'd still be an idiot to evaluate someone's vocals that way, for one very obvious reason - why should the way you are not hearing the performance in a live setting take primacy over they way you are hearing the performance in a live setting?  Or to put it another way, if a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is around to hear it, are you a cunt for wanting to know the frequency of the sound it made when it fell over and killed a bunch of animals fucking?

49 comments:

  1. I'd imagine adjusted differences between mixing devices from studio to live, is gonna fuck it up even more, should one decide to overlay, especially with the natural reverb, as you said. More so if the live sound engineer is retarded, lazy or Rob Zombie.
    I'm not big into live mixing, so yay me for learning something today, though.

    Also, I've already touched on the talent jerk-off once; it's rationalization. People that justify their allegiance to pop by attributing talent to their preferences. It's all about self worth, and identity. Projective narcissism in short (refer to Kpopalypse's article "Confirmation Bias 101"), because as I've stated before, anyone who values talent, in essence, wouldn't be listening to pop in the first place. In short, Vocalfags are plebs.

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    Replies
    1. I always tell these people to go and listen to opera and they always act like I told them to lick JYP's smelly turds, but really, if people are really THAT much into technique for it's own sake, that's what they should listen to. The fact that they don't rush to take up my friendly suggestion just shows that their real agenda is just casting the biases in as favourable light as possible and shitting on everyone else.

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  2. This is awesome…… But I'm still explaining why "idol rap" does not mean "oppa is god"… I think it's a losing battle.

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    Replies
    1. Kpopalypse, if you can write an article explaining rap, it will be good. Or else, the fangirls will simply not understand the difference between speaking in a fast pace in a song and rapping. On the other hand, the fangirls may not even come here in the first place.

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    2. There seems to be some demand for it so I may. But not soon - don't want to dominate this place with technical stuff and bore the T&A crowd. There's a balance to be struck!

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    3. Just don't use CL as an example for rap, thanks

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    4. Don't make me "do the unnie" ahahaha

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  3. I can imagine fangirls who will use this to justify that their oppas can sing. Oh, my oppas weren't lip sync-ing, they were simply singing too similar to their studio version so their voices were cancelled out in the MR version.

    Oh well, I agree that there are more aspects than vocal talents, and using vocal talent to judge an idol is simply not enough. It is also why they become pop stars and not opera singers.

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    Replies
    1. Their oppas probably CAN sing - but that isn't really the point. A great singer singing a crap song is still singing a crap song, they're just sucking optimally instead of inefficiently hahahaha.

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  4. All hail Kpopalypse oppar. My head was spinning around as I tried to understand this article. Too many technical shits and English is not my main language to make matter worse. But it was worth it.

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    Replies
    1. I tried to make the explanation as simple as I possibly could without being too boring about it and also conveying the bare minimum of required info. There's a lot I had to gloss over or simplify. Glad you got something out of it.

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  5. Interesting.
    Didn't read every single sentence, but the examples made clear what you were trying to convey.

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  6. I wish there was an explanation for morons. I was always bad at scientific shit and I'm technologically retarded as well. I understood and agreed with most of what I understood though.

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    Replies
    1. If there's anything you don't understand feel free to ask questions - either here or at ask.fm. That goes not just for you but also any others who were confused by this.

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  7. None of this is news to me, but I must commend you for actually writing all this shit. How did you overcome your apathy? Hatred of fangirls talking shit based on MR revoved stuff? Sheer boredom? Deep passion for mixing (I prefer the playing/singing part)? Smoking enough weed that everything is on the apathy level and, well, you gotta do something, so why not this?

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    Replies
    1. I just cruise the net until I see something that fucks me off enough to write an article. Fortunately many k-pop fans are stupid enough in their statements and opinions that inspiration isn't hard to come by.

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  8. Write an article on the bastardization of rap in k-pop. Rap was great until the world turned it into shit. write it oppar. pls do it nAo

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    Replies
    1. Honestly, modern American rappers did it long before Korean idol rappers did >_>

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    2. I'd say the commercialization killed it, but more qualified music historians could probably say it better.

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    3. I could easily write a blog on why rap mostly sucks now, but it would be very long and not relevant to k-pop whatsoever. I'd personally trace the origins of rap's downfall to Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" - an excellent album which unfortunately inspired a whole lot of west coast rappers in the 90s to do horrible third rate knockoffs that never should have been released.

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    4. There's lots of good rap still around, even in Korea. You just gotta look a little harder than the surface.

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    5. I agree. As anyone who clicks my OH profile will know, I listen to a lot of rap music and there's plenty of good stuff out there. When I say "most" what I really mean is "most of what's in the general public consciousness".

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  9. All hail Kpopalypse hyung; he who turns fangirls into rational human beings by making them think :D

    Also, idk why anyone would subject themselves to those shitty as fuck MR removed videos. All of the frequency garbage (which is what I assume is all that weird sounds in the background) hurt my ears and you can hardly even hear the vocals. If you like the damn song, then you like the damn song; who cares if the people singing it can actually sing well or not -_-

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    Replies
    1. Strange creatures these k-pop fans. Butchering the audio until it sounds terrible and then going "look how great it sounds!"

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    2. Hyung? You mean ahjusshi? (Or however its spelled)

      Lil

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    3. Hyung because he's older than me and I like saying that more than oppa :3

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  10. These articles will never be TL;DRs for me; I find them informative and hella refreshing from the fangirl drivel I hear around the internets. However, it doesn't explain what has galvanized Kpop fans to scrutinize the vocal quality in pop music. It's... pop music!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. Feedback like this ensures that I will do more.

      Seriously I couldn't find a single article about this topic anywhere on the k-pop side of the Internet with actual information in it. Everyone who has written articles about this topic just wanted to talk about "should we judge idols harshly for vocal performance or should we be kind and understanding about their difficult schedules" on a really basic, moralistic "is it ethical, what position has the higher moral ground" kind of way. Everyone kind of missed the fact that the tools to do all this high-horse judging don't actually even fucking work. I thought it would be interesting to take a deeper look at that, rather than just rewrite the same article everybody else wrote with my opinion in a box at the bottom.

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    2. And your guess as to why these people give a fuck is as good as mine. I mean, obviously western fans care because Korean fans care and western fans want to be Korean fans oh-so-much, but why the Korean fans care... good question.

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    3. I still gaf about vocal ability cos I've been trying for ages to form my own band without success due to shitty talentless vocalists with even shittier attitudes, not willing to improve and humble themselves.
      This article was definitely a TL;DR for me but the Ailee vid for U& I surprised me.
      Hmm...so much for vocal "talent".

      And agreed...looking good at all times PLUS STAGE PRESENCE IS SO IMPORTANT!!! That's why people dgaf about the uglies of the groups they stan, cept to tell em to gtfo.
      Right on.

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    4. What you've got in your band is an attitude problem, not a vocals problem. Someone with bad vocals but a good attitude will eventually learn. It depends on the style of music, how important vocals is. In k-pop - not really at all. The whole entire setup of the genre is designed so good vocals isn't necessary. In other styles it's a bit more important.

      Delete
  11. NOW the crazed fangirls should be able to believe that their oppas can't sing :p

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  12. He's just an oppa and he's on fiyaaaah.

    ReplyDelete
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    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, "Lol is the Laugh out of Laugh where you can Fun Unlimited and Laughing Unlimited". There's something in that for all of us, don't you think?

      Delete
  14. As a quite vocalfag myself, I have to say that vocals does matter for me, I mean not as much as the song itself, but to have a good vocal really is a huge plus for me.

    I also like how you always respond to your article comments oppar

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    Replies
    1. I don't really have anything to say in reply to this but I'm just responding to you because I know you'd like that.

      Delete
  15. "B-b-b-but mah crayon pop can't sing! Just listen to the MR removed Bar Bar Bar!"

    - Every "western netizen" ever.

    How the fuck can you sing "properly" to Bar Bar Bar anyways?

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    Replies
    1. Bar Bar Bar strikes me as kind of the k-pop equivalent of Toni Basil's "Mickey", and I'm sure nobody raked her through the coals just because she chanted her way through most of that song.

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    2. "Mickey" was one of the best songs of my childhood

      Delete
  16. her talents are huge
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vj2_Pu66ac

    ReplyDelete
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  20. excellent excellent, deeply informative shit, kpopalypse.

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