Song of Surrender

Monday, 9 February 2015

What we hear is not what they render

By S Sivakumar

(Based on an article written by Shaji in the Tamil magazine Teeranadi. This writer feels greatly indebted to Shaji in this regard)

The Sound Engineer seated in front of the computer was in particular enamoured by Melodyne, the latest version of music creating software. “Look at 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. The song was now in the form of wave blocks, each note in a separate colour. More excitement was in store for us.

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 the Melodyne software. He was thus able to travel with complete confidence through the many opportunities this software affords. 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. And we were left amazed.

In this manner any song can be changed an infinite number of times. The singer’s flaws can easily be set right. He may have not sung the song to your satisfaction or indulged, in all his ignorance, in a misalignment of pitching. Any song can be easily “de-constructed” based on your requirement. What wanted, expected to hear, envisioned, can be yours, rendered so by these manoeuvres. The final product obtained through Melodyne can resonate and leave the listener enthralled. 

With a computer with the necessary software, you can become a music director! The lilting musical pieces, phrases and rhythm patterns created by someone somewhere are all in your hands now. Pick them up, elongate or shorten them. Better still, make unrecognizable changes here and there. And voila! The music is ready! Feed into the software the beat specifications, where they should begin and end, what notes should come into play, and lo and behold, you have become a singer!

In whatever manner the singing is done, it becomes easy to use Autotune, another state-of-the-art software, which will be able to correct the pitching to perfection even as the singing is on. The pitch correction can be nuanced even after the singer completes the song. The recording of sound, the mixing and the editing part were hitherto held to be professions. Now add pitch correction to the list! 

What we watch day in and 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 of the concept of pitching are made to sing and the result is later brought to recording centres, where pitch correction is done. Then the voice is made to synchronise with video and telecast to the listening public. 

This trick, manipulative music of this trade dates back to 1997 when a company named Antares came out with the automated pitch correction software Auto Tune. And in 2002, the first version of Melodyne was made public by Celemony, a German firm. These came to India between 2005 and 2010.

Country singer Alison Moorer attached a tag to a 2002 album that read: “The songs in this album have not used Auto-Tune”. 

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 at will. The beats can be made quicker or slower. We can hold the singer’s breath to sing long notes or produce many notes in a single breath. It can all be done by machine-replicated methods. And you can 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, music knowledge or breath control at all. 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. Maybe it will turn out a chartbuster. Who knows?

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