Music technology is divisive. On the one hand, there are the early adopters: the musicians who take up new developments to develop new sounds. On the other hand, there is the old guard: the traditionalists who regard technology as cheating. For them, new music machines don’t represent progress. They are instead a means by which ‘real’ musicians are deprived of honest work.
The invention of sound recording was a major cause for complaint. In 1906, John Philip Sousa railed against ‘the menace of mechanical music’. He thought that if people had records they would no longer feel the need to make music of their own. Sousa fretted, ‘vocal exercises will be out of vogue! Then what of the national throat? Will it not weaken? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink?’ Musicians’ unions have campaigned along similar lines. The British MU and the American AFM have both fought to ‘keep music live’. They too have seen the ‘ever-present menace’ of recorded music, claiming that, if it becomes dominant, ‘the musician may well become extinct and music may cease to be written’.
And now we have auto-tune. This device invites similar vitriol – just look at its name. It is telling us that it will automate voices and it will automatically write tunes. To use auto-tune is to cheat, replacing humans with machines. Some musicians are angry about it. Christine Aguilera has a t-shirt that says ‘auto-tune is for pussies’, Death Cab for Cutie have worn ribbons to mark their disgust at the use of the device, Jay-Z has recorded ‘D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)’.
Those who spring to auto-tune’s defence cite its use as a creative tool. It is part of a lineage of treated vocals. Artists as diverse as Kraftwerk, Neil Young, Cher and Kanye West have used machines to reach places beyond the human voice. Conversely, auto-tune and vocoders are viewed as having a particular humanity. They can highlight both the loneliness and the funkiness of the soul. Auto-tune is also credited with being a democratising instrument, one that enables non-singers to express their full emotional range.
What is less regularly remarked upon is the ability of machines to improve musicianship. Looking back at the early years of the phonograph, for example, we can see that sound recording helped to develop rhythmic control. Early recording artists were distinguished by their strict sense of time, a skill fostered by the limits imposed upon their work. The maximum duration of cylinders and discs in the 1890s was roughly two minutes. Artists recorded directly onto master records; if any mistakes were made these would have to be scrapped and the piece started over, literally, from scratch. Consequently, the tempo and the timing of performances were worked out prior to recording. The early recording artist Billy Murray commented, ‘We are taught to keep perfect time. Stage performers are not held strictly to the limit as we are’.
Sound recording also helped to improve rhythmic fluency. The introduction of electric recording in the mid-1920s provided steps in this direction. There were now motorized record players with standardized speeds, a development that further heightened the awareness of being in time. Electric recording also enabled the rhythm section to be recorded properly: the microphone had the ability to capture both the bass and the drums. These developments could be seen as well as heard: the steady pulse of the rhythm was visible in a record’s grooves. It is in this period that we gained the verb ‘to groove’. Groups were becoming as tight and as rhythmic as a record’s spiral scratch.
I think that something similar has happened with auto-tune. It hasn’t made singers lazy; it has stretched their abilities. Auto-tune may have its roots in the human voice, but the human voice is now mimicking this machine. It has provided an example of what it means to have perfect pitch, and it has inspired singers to have wide vocal ranges and to master complicated riffs. Auto-tune has also encouraged songwriters to compose songs that demand outstanding vocal performances. Of course plenty of ‘cheating’ still goes on. Vocals are digitally manipulated so that they are perfectly in time and in tune. However, a singer will not make it these days unless they are almost perfect on their own. There is a feedback loop too. These corrected vocal performances only heighten expectations; each new vocal generation ‘naturally’ adopts the quantized characteristics of the last. The gymnastic bar of singing is constantly being raised. We needn’t lose sheep about machines replacing musicianship. In fact, if there is a nightmare scenario, it resides in the reverse. It may well be musicianship that is out of control. The singing is taking over the songs.