Song of Surrender

Monday, 12 January 2015

What we hear is not what they render

By S Sivakumar

(This edited translation is based on an insightful piece written by Shaji in Teeranadi, a Tamil magazine for serious readers. This writer feels greatly indebted to Shaji in this regard)

The Sound Engineer who was seated in front of the computer was in particular enamoured by Melodyne, the latest music creating software. “Look and understand the magic this software can turn out.”  He had picked up a song that a famous singer had just sung and was able to break it into small fragments that were manageable in size. We could see the song in the form of wave blocks, each note in a separate colour. More excitement was in store.

The notes C D E F G A B C, were arranged one below the other in a frame and against each swara stood the appropriate wave block in a neat manner. The Sound Engineer seemed well-versed in the grammar of music and the intricacy involved in Melodyne. He was thus able to travel through the many opportunities the software could afford, with complete confidence. The point with all these manipulations was that in half-an-hour’s time, the same song with the same voice could now be presented in a different tune altogether. The pitch and the beat had changed! But, neither the lyrics nor the voice rendering the song had changed at all.

In this manner this particular song, or any song for that matter could be changed an infinite number of times. The singer’s flaws could be set right easily. He may not  have sung the song to your satisfaction or pitched wrong. Any song can be easily “de-constructed” to cater to  your requirement. What was wanted, what was expected to be heard, what you had visioned, could be yours by all these kinds of manoeuvres. The final product obtained through Melodyne can resonate and enthral the listener.

All you need is a computer with the appropriate software and you could become a music director! The lilting musical pieces, phrases and rhythm patterns created by someone somewhere all in your hands now. Pick them up. Elongae or shorten. Or better make some unrecognizable changes here and there. And voila! The music is ready. The beat specifications, where to begin and end, what notes that should come into play - all these can be fed into the software on hand and you have a singer!

Autotune is another state-of-the-art software, that can the pitching to perfection even as the singing is on. The pitch correction can even be nuanced after the  singing. The recording of sound, the mixing and the editing part were hitherto held to be a profession. Now add pitch correction to the list.

What we watch day-in, day-out on our TV screens is all cooked-up music of this kind. Hum-what-you-will and that will become a song. Singers who belong to this category and who do not have any inkling about the concept of pitching are made to sing and these are later brought to recording centres, where pitch correction is done. Then they are made to sync with the video to be telecast. Little do we realize what has happened in the background.

Manipulation of music dates back to 1997 when the company Antares came out with automated pitch correction software Auto Tune. And in 2002, the first version of Melodyne was made public by Celemony, a German firm. But these came to India only during the period 2005 to 2010.

In 2002 a country singer Alison Moorer had given a tag to his album that read: “The songs in this album have not used Auto-Tune”. This clearly shows that great and original singers thought of these auto tuners as something abysmal in nature.

Software and music have come together and made available to us many short cuts to cook up and construct music. You can manipulate voices in umpteen ways. Make the voice sound mechanical, cast a single voice and falsify it to sound as a thousand voices, create harmonies artificially. The pitch can be altered lower or higher at will. The beats can  be made quicker or slower. The singer’s breath can be held to sing long notes or produce many notes in a single breath. It can all be done by machine-replicated methods. You can also copy/paste anything from anywhere! Gone are the days when a musician must have immense range or depth in his voice. He need not care about his pitching and music knowledge and breath control at all. All the popular songs we hear today are therefore of the same sound and same feel!

Catch hold of a person who does not have even the basic understanding of music and get his ‘singing’ recorded. Then run it through Melodyne, Auto Tune or Waves Tune which convert it into naught. It may become one of the favourite songs of the new generation. Who knows?

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