The Cher Effect

I was reading up a little on Auto-Tune, a proprietary pitch correction system well known to sound engineers. Digitally adjusting the pitch of a vocal sound is not hard to do, but having it not sound like Cher on ‘Believe’ is quite a bit more involved. It turns out according to an intresting Sound on Sound article that the ‘Cher effect’ was actually done with a vocoder, which is sort of the inverse of a pitch corrector. But lots of people have copied this effect by just using an Auto-Tune set up for over-aggressive pitch quantization.

I think it’s quite amusing that engineers probably laboured for years to make a subtle and undetectable pitch correction system, only to find that everyone just turns the subtlety off and makes themself sound like a poorly-maintained robot on purpose. For a while the effect was so annoyingly overdone that there was a big backlash against it and now Auto-Tune has a bad name - even though it wasn’t actually responsible for the Cher effect.

The surprising thing though is how widely it’s actually used. Auto-Tune-like DSP plugins are standard fare in audio software and, used sensitively and sparingly, pitch correction can be undetectable. I do notice it on the odd track, though - Maroon 5’s ‘She Will Be Loved’ has a bit of Auto-Tune wobble which I hope isn’t a deliberate producer decision. I’m sure there are lots more examples. In the old days engineers used to ‘punch’ a dodgy vocal, re-recording the line and effectively cutting and pasting the right note in, or just put together one good track from several takes. But this can burn a lot of expensive studio time, and of course you can’t do it live.

A cynic might say that the advent of decent real-time pitch correction allows people who can’t really sing to become pop stars. The trouble is that all the expressivity and emotion of human music lies in its deviation from perfect pitch and timing. Craig Anderton in an article in EQ magazine tells how he applied time quantisation to a superbly expressive piano performance to make it ‘perfect’ and completely ruined it, making it sound, well, sequenced.

I do not really listen to a lot of pop music, as I’m completely divorced from all popular culture, and tend to not be familiar with anything written after about 1750, but what I do hear leaking from people’s iPod earbuds and minicab radios everywhere sounds very bland and undistinctive. I can’t help wondering to what extent the cheapness and ubiquity of digital sound processing equipment is to blame. An engineer of my acquaintance once told me that you should spend all your studio money on a really top-notch reverb and forget everything else.

Perhaps that budget should now be amended to include a few singing lessons.

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