How pitch-correction and autotuning practices in the music industry are creating a new mechanized reality.
When a new recording of Verdi’s Il Trovatore was released in 1976, whose cast included the rising meteoric tenor Luciano Pavarotti, I listened with enthusiasm. I had heard the tenor several years earlier in concert at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, where he sang to a half-filled house. It was an exquisite recital by a singer who would soon thereafter become a dominant star.
However I noted something a little ‘off’ in the aria ‘Di Quella Pira’, so I played it over and over until I had figured out that the high C had been spliced. (I may be wrong about this particular recording but I’ve learned since that keeping a bank of notes for a singer is now commonplace, to draw upon for insertion when needed.) At the time Pavarotti had been known as ‘King of the High Cs” and I was tremendously disappointed. Fortunately, in the live performance of opera no splicing or alteration of anything is possible, and my affections returned to the great man after I had seen him in a wondrous performance of Puccini’s La Boheme, also in Philadelphia, during which his bright high C rang out as the culmination of the famous aria ‘Che Gelida Manina’.
Certainly we all knew that songs — particularly those that featured in the popular charts of the day — were mostly studio confections, and we accepted the tracks and inserts and modifications that made for the polished public production without a thought. But the incident in Il Trovatore had disturbed, had unsettled, had soured me, as if a rancid aftertaste persisted after a posh dining experience in one of the best and most expensive restaurants of the city.
Two decades later I purchased an orthophonic victrola — the last and best of the old-style playback machines manufactured by RCA Victor — principally because I loved Caruso and I wished to hear as near as possible what his great voice really sounded like. At the time he recorded the process was analog and mechanical, and the machine I had used to play his heavy 78 rpm discs on was hand-wound. The voice that emerged from the large horn was immense, and although the clarity of electronic recording could not be achieved, one felt the power and strength of the core of the magnificent voice, even though that voice was veiled as if by a layer of cheese-cloth that had interposed itself between it and its full sparkling brilliance. When Caruso recorded it was impossible to interpolate anything into the ‘take’, so a ‘take’ was what we got, for good or ill, with every glory and imperfection. A ‘take’ was an honest and genuine reproduction of an undoctored moment of time.
Although I have been dimly aware of the practice of pitch-correction in the modern-day music industry — a process by which a singer’s voice or an instrumentalist’s notes are brought precisely in tune — I had had no idea of the extent of its adoption and use and dissemination. It is a process which, thanks to progress in digitization and computing technology, is even applied to live performances!
I chanced in my YouTube meanderings upon the following video: