- A good singer's good vocals don't make a bad song any better.
- Most k-pop vocal performances are faked on some level so assessing them is like complaining that the bunny a magician pulls out of their hat was never really in there.
The first point should be basic common sense to anyone (except vocalfags), so let's talk about the second point. What techniques are used to get good vocals out of someone who can't sing well, or didn't sing well in a particular circumstance... and how likely is k-pop to be using them? Let's find out! (Spoiler alert: fuckin' likely.)
We all know about how everybody uses Autotune and other pitch-correction programs these days, but while Autotune can make good vocals sound more accurate, it actually does a fairly shithouse job of making a completely crap singer sound good, because to get the most out of Autotune you still have to be able to ballpark the note and sing to some degree. There are easier and more effective ways to hide crappy vocals and fool k-pop-loving bias-fueled dumbasses. Here they are.
THE LIVE OVERDUB
Have you ever been to a live concert, been thoroughly unimpressed by the vocals of the lead singer, then seen the same live concert that you were physically at on a DVD, listened to it and thought "gee, I don't remember the singer sounding all that good, was I just standing in a bad spot for listening?". Well, it probably wasn't you. The large majority of live concert films feature vocals and even instruments that are rerecorded in a recording studio later. A classic example is The Ramones' "It's Alive" concert film. In the following footage, only the drums and audience cheering are live, everything else was rerecorded in a studio environment later on:
Don't think it's just the crappy punk singers that get this treatment though. Here's a video that contrasts Mariah Carey's live performances on the night with the "official" audio, showing that even good singers often redo their own vocals later in the cozy safety of the recording studio:
The reason for doing things this way is fairly obvious - at a live gig you only have one chance to get it right, whereas in the recording studio singers have the luxury of recording as many takes as they want until they get it perfect (or until the money for studio time runs out, whichever comes first). If you're a producer and you've spent thousands of dollars hiring expensive camera crews for a live shoot, who wants to reshoot the whole thing again just because the singer had a cold that day?
How likely is this in k-pop? Fuckin' likely. However nobody in k-pop to my knowledge has been caught yet, but give it time. It'll be another Kpopalypse "I told you so" moment, and it'll probably happen where someone who already has a reputation as a good singer gets busted doing a mediocre live performance on fancams that sounds mysteriously better in an official live DVD of the same night's performance. Go hunting if you like, maybe you can put together a video like the one of Mariah above, and then I'll update this post and get you some views.
THE PRE-RECORDED TRIGGERED SAMPLE
Here's another Mariah Carey "performance":
A lot of Mariah "you shouldn't lipsync unless you have a reason" Carey's vocals for this performance are actually just triggered samples that are played back by the keyboardist, and it's made quite obvious because it gets triggered at the wrong times. The keyboardist forgets that the song has an extended introduction and brings Mariah's vocals in prematurely at 0.07, Mariah then gives a "hey" to her left at 0:09, which she cleverly sings to disguise it as a vocal improvisation but she's basically saying to the keyboard guy in a trying-to-be-as-non-obvious-as-possible-given-the-extremity-of-the-fuckup kind of way "hey stop playing my fucking sample you twit, it's too early". Later on at about 2:20 another wrong sample comes in and Mariah, who by now must be fucking furious, inserts the words "stop singing my part now, baby" as she stares at her backline. You can bet she punched a cunt backstage after this.
How likely is this in k-pop? Fuckin' likely. Let's look at T-ara's tribute to Ennio Morricone and nail-painting, "Day By Day".
If they're not already included as part of the backing track, triggers are used in k-pop for money-note substitution/reinforcement. If you listen from 6:23, Areum's high note sure sounds very strong, has vibrato half way through, and then descends at the end. It also sounds equally strong and has exactly the same vibrato and pitch characteristics in this performance, as well as this one, this one here, and so on, either she really is a robot or that's a sample that gets replayed along with the backing track at that point every time. In newer versions of "Day By Day" performed after Areum left the group, her triggered sample is replaced by one recorded by Soyeon, which you can hear here and here.
THE PRE-RECORDED KIT & CABOODLE
Listen to this recording of operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti at the 2006 Winter Olympics, his final performance before he died later that year. Listen from 2:14 to skip past all the other ceremony crap:
Everything you're hearing, including Pavarotti's signing plus all of the instruments, was actually recorded several days in advance and then just played back through the speaker system with the singer, instrumentalists and conductor all miming along pretending that they were doing stuff. Essentially, the pre-record is the reverse of the live overdub - instead of singing it properly after the event and then adding it in, the singer sings it properly before the event and then someone just plays it back.
How likely is this in k-pop? Fuckin' likely. Let's look at AOA's much-missed-by-hypocrites-who-didn't-support-it-when-it-was-active "band" concept to find out:
The above video of AOA is completely pre-recorded, which is fairly obvious given that they shot Jimin separately for the rap part. The backing track is the same one from the mini-album, however the vocals have been rerecorded to make it "sound live" so it's subtly different from the studio version, then the group just mimes over the top of the newly recorded vocal. It's also worth noting that because the new vocal is slightly different, this new vocal would be heard on an "MR Removed" mix and isolated as "evidence of real vocals oh look they're really singing oh gosh wow", which is another reason, on top of an existing mountain of reasons, why those MR Removed videos prove nothing are a fucking useless wank for idiots and you should always disregard anyone posting or commenting about MR Removed stuff either positively or negatively as the ravings of a one-eyed lunatic. Not only does MR Removed videos not tell you how good the vocals are, these videos don't even tell you if there are live vocals!
The above recording has live vocals but mimed instruments, you can tell by the huge decrease in vocal quality, as well as some live vocal artifacts like the microphone wind-noise blowout at 0:26. The backing vocals for the chorus from the original backing track are also left in to fatten it up, which is why the chorus still sounds great whereas the verses are a bit sketchy. AOA don't always mime and can actually play their instruments live when they want to/are allowed to, but most k-pop groups just completely fake it because it's easier from a stage rigging point of view to play a recording than set up a bunch of pain-in-the-ass microphones on everything (it's hard enough setting up the visual props alone), plus the final result generally sounds better.
Anyway, if a group specifically sold as a "band concept" group like AOA in their early days are miming it, you can bet your ass everyone else is. I guess k-pop has something in common with opera after all.
THE GHOST VOICE
Remember back in the days before electronic gadgetry, when people could really sing? Gosh, those were the days, right? Check out this performance of Natalie Wood singing "Tonight", from the musical "West Side Story", isn't it just great.
Here's another great singer, Deborah Kerr singing "Shall We Dance" from the Hollywood musical "The King & I".
Oh, but wait. Both recordings above were actually sung by Marni Nixon, a Hollywood "ghost voice" who overdubbed the vocals of many of the big female stars of the Hollywood musical era.
Marni like all ghost voices went uncredited back in the day so her line of work was a secret for decades, but she did get bit parts in a few films and "West Side Story" composer Leonard Bernstein even paid her 0.25% (a quarter of one percent, woohoo) of his royalties for her work overdubbing Natalie Wood (who was deliberately kept in the dark about how much her voice recordings were being overdubbed by someone else, presumably to not hurt her feelings).
Of course it's not just film where this happens. In the pop sphere the most notorious example of this were late 80s pop group Milli Vanilli.
Watch the singer in the blue miss the start of his "I'm in love, girl" line with the microphone high in the air at 1:23. Not only is he not actually singing, he's not even miming to his own voice. Ghost singer/songwriters and backing vocalists provided all of the real vocals for Milli Vanilli, a common practice in commercial pop of the era (although Milli Vanilli were the only ones to get caught in such a career-destroying way).
How likely is this in k-pop? Fuckin' likely. Essentially it's already happening in many groups, something we know from talking to singers who have been though the idol creation process.
With k-pop groups consisting of several singers, producers have a choice of who they want to get to sing which part. Producers will call in members one at a time to go through the parts and then pick which vocals sound best for each section, then electronically mess with the parts until even the singers themselves can barely recognise their own voices, this means that weak singers in a k-pop group are usually ghosted by the stronger ones, especially in the choruses. The line distribution (which members gets the lead vocal line at any particular point) that you see in the video doesn't always reflect who sung the part on the recording, just who the choreographer thought would look best in the front of the group giving a vocal delivery at that given moment. Choreographers like to distribute parts as evenly as possible so everyone gets a shot (as that's what fans want) but this rubs against the reality that each k-pop group only usually has one or two reasonable singers, and since k-pop tends to focus on specialisation, the gulf between the good and the bad singers is pretty wide. So the bad singers get given their obligatory non-demanding half-a-verse so their fans can see them for a bit and the rest of the time they're in the front it's smoothed over or swallowed up by chorus overdubs. This is how very poor singers in a large group get carried with essentially little problem or issue. Basically, good singers aren't needed in k-pop, you only need one semi-acceptable singer per group otherwise it's a case of "too many cooks", that's why SM turfed the vocally competent but completely unmarketable and ear-gratingly hideous CSJH The Grace and replaced them with the younger, hotter Red Velvet doing the same type of songs in a more restrained, disciplined, less vocally wanky style that doesn't make listeners want to jump in front of a train.
The only time you can't really smooth things out too much is when there's groups with a singer that has a very characteristic tone to their voice that can't be easily replicated (2NE1's Bom, AOA's Jimin), you've got no choice but to have them stand out, that's why Jimin says "hey" every two bars in an AOA feature these days. This is a rare predicament in k-pop overall though, because in k-pop people are actually deliberately trained to sound the same. That's why nobody can tell who the fuck is who on "Hidden Singer", there would be no point to that program at all if the majority of k-pop singers had actual distinctive voices.
So there you have it. Your vocalfag hobby is even more pointless than you thought it was. Of course, everyone's probably going to miss the point of this post and instead use it to be even more of a vocalfag and bombard me with questions about whether I think a certain video has a faked performance or not, or conversely show me a video of their bias actually signing and try to ram down my throat how great they supposedly are, even if their last ten songs are all shit. That's okay though, I'm prepared with the ultimate response.