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In-Studio Vocal Invitro Fertilization

In this article, I would like to talk about the modern recording studio and its inherent advantages and disadvantages. One of the most frustrating things for me as a music lover is when I see a performer who cannot come even remotely close to reproducing live what we have heard on CD. Unfortunately, this has become the norm rather than the exception and much of the reason for it is the modern recording studio. At the advent of popular music, artists such as Elvis and the Beatles had only very rudimentary recording equipment at their disposal and their albums were essentially live performances recorded in a studio. The band played together and the singers often shared a single microphone. Most people would not even think of recording this way today, but this method of recording produced the very real benefit of not allowing performers the opportunity to hide behind technology and mask their flaws. Singers had to be able to sing well and bands had to play well. There were no overdubs or pitch shifting tools available. Unlike today, most performers did not go into the studio until they had really honed their skills as a live performer. The benefit of this was that when they had to play live to support their record, they were genuinely good performers and could replicate what people heard on the radio.

Today's studios possess millions of dollars of sophisticated equipment. They can change the pitches of a recorded instrument or voice, they can add all kinds of effects to make things sound different and performances are not captured on tape but edited and compiled on computers. This has been great for creating CD's that sound fabulous in headphones but has also had quite a few very negative effects on the recording industry.

Firstly, the majority of live performances are pretty unsatisfying. Because the recording studio can now compensate for unpolished or weak performers, many artists have great sounding records that they can't reproduce live. Their voices sound thinner, shakier and more off key in person. (The ones that are really weak singers will simply lip synch to their record when giving a "live" performance!) That said, technology is never inherently harmful or evil, it is how human beings apply technology that is either good or bad and music is no exception. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in two recording sessions that utilized the modern recording studio in very different ways.

Vocal Genie in a Bottle

The first of these two sessions was a real revelation to me. Having worked for years as an In-studio Vocal Producer in many different recording studios I was very familiar with the technology available to artists. But in this instance, the things that the engineers were doing were truly remarkable and showed that technology seems to have experienced another big jump in the last several years. I showed up at the studio and proceeded to watch the artist lay down her vocal track. It was thin sounding, off-key in places and generally sounded bad. After all, she was very inexperienced. I was sure that the engineers would tell her that this track was pretty much useless and that she would have to record another. Instead, they told her that it was great and basically sent her home so they could fix and mix the track in private. After this artist left I approached the engineers and told them I was surprised that they were going to keep the track she recorded. Their response was that it really didn't matter; they knew she couldn't sing and that they could fix her performance in the mix. They went to work and did exactly that. The final result was stunning. The artist's voice was not recognizable. It was almost a state of the art performance, but it had nothing to do with the original state of the track. What's the point? I know for a fact that the artist was never going to be able to produce the mixed track live or at least she wouldn't be able to at this point in her development as a singer. Furthermore, although the singing sounded full and completely in key, it also sounded somewhat cold and sterile, as well as lacking any type of human emotion. I was both impressed and appalled by what the engineers had created. They literally engineered a Frankenstein monster of a song. In many ways, this approach to vocal production is akin to the artificial insemination techniques that are often used to help couples conceive babies when for whatever reason they cannot accomplish it naturally. In this instance, modern technology is very helpful as it allows people to realize their dreams. But in the case of 'vocal invitro fertilization' I consider it to be a complete fraud. Furthermore, in the cases of artificial insemination the baby was conceived in a 'bottle' but was implanted back into the mother's womb and then naturally delivered by her. In the cases of 'vocal invitro fertilization' the 'baby' (vocal genie) was not 'implanted' back into the singer's anatomy and, therefore, in the final analysis, the performer could not sing to save her life. Either the performer can sing or he or she should not be given the opportunity to do it artificially. Afterall, there are more than enough talented singers who wouldn't need to have a performance engineered for them. They can cut it naturally.

Enhancing of the Natural Performance

A few weeks later I took part in another recording session with one of my most talented and accomplished clients. Again, she was singing in a studio that had all the bells and whistles. After she had recorded her performance (which was very good) the producers mixed the track. The song sounded great, as it retained all of the spirit and emotional qualities of my artist. Yes, of course they also used state of the art technology but only used it to enhance the original performance rather than to create something entirely new, ie. a little reverb here and there and a cool flanging effect during the bridge. This was a prime example of how to use the modern studio to add the icing on the cake and not to create the cake from scratch with artificial ingredients. In my opinion, this is the way that artists should record. The new technology should be used along with the natural talent of the artist in the same way that a great writer now uses word processing and benefits from computer graphics and desktop publishing software. Change is the one thing in this world that is constant and to resist it outright is futile. But with respect to how people are using modern recording technology, we need to ensure that it is beneficial to the final product, instead of being harmful.