IASPM 2014: Pitch Perfect – Autotune or Out of Tune?

Pitch Perfect – Autotune or Out of Tune?

(Steven Williams, Kingston University)

[Steven is a practitioner and academic (pop producer with extensive sound work in film) and sites his work in this context. He intends to use ‘Actor Network Theory’ to discuss the agents and agencies in the processes under analysis.]

T-Pain – ‘Robotic’ use of Autotune (deliberately dehumanised)

He begins with two auto-tune examples – firstly ‘Natural’ (a demo of his own song ‘The Beloved’) and constrasts it with ‘Robotic’ (giving examples from T Pain, Will.i.am and others). The two opposing opinions of pitch corrections are discussed (negative views are that AT is for people who can’t sing, takes away from expression, dehumanises etc) and he cites Adorno’s description of the ‘standardisation’ of popular music [possibly a theoretical stretch IMO but it’s a defensible viewpoint that if AT had been around in 1941 Adorno might well have discussed it]. On the positive side we hear Kanye West’s ‘Heartless’, where the plaintive grief in the lyric is arguably enhanced by AT.

There is even an argument, Steven suggests, that AT can increase authenticity – because by fixing the odd bum note in an otherwise authentic performance it reduces the need for vocal compositing or ‘comping’ from several takes. There is even a playful diversion into what it means to be ‘authentically robotic’. The authenticity issues brought about by so-called ‘authentophiles’ bring Steven to the conclusion that you’re ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’!.

He next covers an overview of ANT (see link above), citing Crawford (2005).

Why is AT such an issue? First, because it takes away from the idea that affective music can only be made by humans. Second, it is a technological mediator that reduces the human-ness of communication. We have a new acronym – SMASL (singer/mic/amp/speakers/listener) – and AT is inserted into this conceptual chain. More realistincally in the recorded world we should have PAMSL (producer/applications/mixing desk/speaker/listener). Any tweaked element could affect content and therefore communication.

He asks ‘Where is the music’, with terminology [presumably] from ANT – Actors? Producer? Composer? Technology? Punctuation? Actant [after Latour]? This question follows into ‘Where is the meaning’? and the paper cites Barthes’ idea of ‘readerly’ texts, and constrasts this with Sheila Johnstone’s view that the meaning is pre-created. Melodyne is contrasted with AT and the implicit meaning of the former’s greater subtlety is highlighted. There is a brief discussion of the subjectivity of meaning (including a reference to chronotopia).

Love, friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge and religion (Daniel Levitin’s titular ‘World in Six Songs’) may all be affected by AT’s tweaking of Actors and Agencies. If listeners are the final interpreter of all popular musics, the meaning induced or introduced by AT becomes a necessary cyber-organic form of communication. There is still a network from composer to listener, but AT is a non-human [or I would argue part-human] mediator.

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