Music Biz Monday: Why Melodyne Is A Blessing And A Curse

Music Biz Monday: Why Melodyne Is A Blessing And A Curse

One of my most common complaints any time I do an album review is the level of auto-tuning involved. Nearly every album I review includes SOMETHING about tuning being too high (to the point that I actually started using a “tune-o-meter” scale when rating albums). Of the few things in life you can count on, you have death, taxes, and Kyle complaining about vocal tuning in his album reviews.

Now some folks may see that and constantly wonder, “What in the world is he talking about?” To the average, untrained consumer’s ear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these recordings (or, if they do detect anything, it’s something they don’t necessarily recognize as being “wrong”). To some, however, there is somewhat of a “robotic” sound to some vocals. That robo-voice is the result of auto-tuning.

The premier tuning plugin is Antares, which basically filters a performance in real-time by “snapping” notes to a set scale. For example, if a song is in the key of G, then you tell Antares the key, tell it to snap the notes to that scale, and it will do the rest, taking any notes that are flat or sharp, and bringing them back to center. You can also tell it how rigid you want the changes to be, leading to a more natural-sounding performance or the dreaded “T-Pain” effect (sounds like a robot). Over the years, the plugin has gotten more sophisticated, allowing engineers to use midi keyboards or draw virtual melody lines to manually edit performances.

Melodyne is another plugin that has quickly surpassed Antares as the go-to performance “fixer.” On top of the auto-tune parameters, you can map out an entire performance note-by-note on a visual diagram (similar to Antares’ note mapping). What makes Melodyne so much more powerful is that every single note essentially becomes a separate waveform that can be manipulated in some way. You can tighten up vibratos that are too wobbly; you can straighten out “sliding” notes that don’t nail the pitch right away; you can also take those rigid “robotic” edges to notes and smooth them out to make them sound more natural. It can be quite time consuming, but the resulting performance is one that can sound virtually flawless (emphasis on “virtual”).

So, if this plugin is so great, why am I always criticizing its use? The problem lies not in the use of the plugin itself, but HOW it’s being used. Some engineers using it are taking the quick/easy way out by turning it on a higher setting and letting it go rather than taking the time to painstakingly edit a performance. THIS is where my complaints come in, because the result is a bland, robotic performance that is hindered more by the tuning than helped.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and knock down these engineers over this, necessarily. It’s not their fault. Some of these studios (especially ones owned by record labels) are constantly busy, so these engineers don’t have the time to sit and go note-by-note on some of these projects (nor do the artists all have the budget to do so). When you’re on a time crunch and have deadlines to meet, you have to decide what you’re willing to sacrifice, and in some cases, the sacrifice is a completely natural-sounding performance.

So who IS at fault? I would start with the studios, who are booking as many artists as they can in as short a time as possible. Quantity over quality is a very tough balancing act, and it seems that quantity is winning out more often than not. Secondly, I would blame the artists themselves for booking as little time as necessary to record their vocals. Some artists will book a studio several hours away (because it’s a “big name” studio), and spend two, maybe three days recording vocals, then go home, leaving the engineer with whatever they were able to capture in those two days and doing what they can with it, so long as it’s “close enough.”

Third, I blame consumers. SG fans may love their music, but they’re not always willing to pay top dollar for it (just ask Gerald Wolfe about his recent run-in with a Brazilian-run file sharing site). If we’re unwilling to spend our money on a final product, then how can we expect artists, labels, engineers, etc., to spend their money making it? If we want top-quality music from top-quality artists, we need to show them by supporting them, not just with a dollar in the plate, but by purchasing their albums and showing them that it IS worth spending the extra time and money on an album.

And finally, I blame myself, and other music critics who continually take these projects to task. The irony is not lost on me that I may be partially responsible for poor album sales based on my reviews (although, I honestly question just how far my own influence goes, especially after some big-name artists have insinuated that my posts are not worth reading). If someone reads a negative (or, at the very least, a “non-glowing”) review that I’ve written, I may be undermining the artist as well. Rest assured, this is NEVER my intention, but the chances still exist.

So what’s the solution? Well, the easy one would be to just stop making mediocre recordings that sound overly robotic, but until the circumstances under which this happens are addressed, we’re stuck with what we have. It’s not an over-night fix, and it’s definitely not one that any single person or group can fix themselves. Perhaps it’s a little of everything, and everyone just agreeing that it’s time for a change overall….

Kyle Boreing

Kyle has been writing for MusicScribe since 2008. He is a musician, producer, arranger, and occasional quartet singer, who pays way too much attention to recordings. He is an alumni of Stamps-Baxter School of Music and has shared the stage with many different artists. He also really likes movies that are "so bad they're good." Visit his website at www.kyleboreing.com, or follow him on Twitter @kyleboreing.

MusicScribe Comments

We love comments

2 Comments

  1. Lee
    Reply August 28, 09:30 #1 Lee

    If we want to get to the heart of the matter… three words in your article: “top quality artists.” If you have to be overly tuned, you. should. not. be. singing. professionally. Period. But we’ve made stars out of people who can’t pull off live what engineers manufacture in the studio. It is industry wide, not just in southern. We’ve let technology become a substitute for talent and training.

    • Kyle Boreing
      Reply August 28, 09:33 Kyle Boreing Author

      Lee, you said what I tried to diplomatically side-step, but I do agree.

Tell us what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.