Girl you know it’s, Girl you know it’s, Girl you …

Anybody wanna guess what tomorrow’s lecture will be on in my Music and Ethics class?

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My favorite quote of the day comes from Ray Lott, head of Arista, when the Milli Vanilli scandal broke. “Embarrassing?” he said. “I don’t mean the end justifies the means. But we sold seven million albums.”

69 thoughts on “Girl you know it’s, Girl you know it’s, Girl you …

  1. PortcullisChain

    OK, it’s early and my brain is still thick but it might be the over-hyped patriotism and the ethics surrounding it?
    -PC
    WTH is with the salute that the lady and her son in the stands do at :36

  2. Stick

    Clip 4 is a travesty. Of all the people you DON’T need to AutoTune, Billy Joel is one. Billy Joel singing the friggin’ National Anthem at the friggin’ Superbowl! I hope the dude in the sound booth that thought that was a good idea is fired. And, if you ARE going to Autotune Billy Joel, a light touch is plenty. I mean come on! Sigh. Sad. Sad. Sad.

    Should be an interesting discussion Mike. As one who takes mediocre singers and makes them sound decent, and solid singers sound amazing with the use of various tools, this is something I see everyday.

    I’ll start off by saying that the use of overdubbing is unrealistic, and therefore “untrue”. Likewise, multi-tracking and mixing later is unrealistic. Well, even recording something with a microphone is unrealistic, because every mic and recording medium imparts a “sound” on the recorded material that changes the nature of the original live sound. So, the question you’re asking is, “where is the line where ‘fixing it in the mix’ becomes unethical.”

  3. June

    Mike, if you’d like, I have a window in my schedule today in which I’ll be available to insult, degrade and offend anyone who needs it.

    (Did Billy sing “srooo the perilous night?”)

  4. Chad

    Well, first of all… it’s art, so I don’t think this is an ethics question, but a taste question. If it’s an ethical question, and we’re making autotune the focal point, then we had better put compressors, eq, reverb, delays, and… well.. the whole shootin’ match on the table.

    All of these things are tools that make the human voice sound “better” to our ears, or worse… depending on your tastes.

    I had a client who was ill in my studio for a long, arduous, 5 day session. Rescheduling was not an option, as they had moved mountains to be there. I edited him to death. I patched single words here and there, I snipped and trimmed to get phrases sounding good.

    Now, homeboy was actually a good singer, still is, with a rich tone and great musicality. He was just straight up sick. He was utterly grossed out at how much work it took for me to get it sounding “right,” and I understood his position.

    I kept saying this: “Look… if you want unedited, untouched vocals, don’t make records. Play live. Live music is like live theater. What you see (hear) is what you get. Making a record is like making a movie. It’s not real. It’s not linear. It’s a cobbling together of many different artistic disciplines to create something that is nearly unattainable in real life.”

    So, it’s a taste thing… not an ethical thing, IMO.

    On the flipside, I think the bottom line is that, if you’re a crap singer, no amount of editing is going to make you sound actually good, period. They can make you sound decent, and in this day and age, unfortunately, many young ears are accepting of this level of sonic quality. Edited, tuned vocals sound like edited and tuned vocals. They sound mechanical. Computers cannot elicit emotion.

    Our vocals on the new record are edited, and yes, in places, tuned. However, as we are craftspeople of music, with years and years of work and experience under our belts, there’s a fundamentally unmistakable quality and emotion to the vocals that no 14 year old singer with a Rockstar Pro Tools guy can attain, plug-ins be damned.

  5. michael lee Post author

    Chad, my take on in this not quite as binary as all that. It’s very subtle, complex, sexy, and cool. For $10 I’ll sell it to you.

    And yes, it is an ethics question. Ethics makes a distinction between falsity and deception, and that is every bit at the heart of this issue.

  6. Chad

    Milli Vanilli is deception, yes, and should be used as an ethical case study or object lesson.

    Use of AutoTune is a matter of good (often bad) taste.

    As for the rest… it’s showbiz. Do you consider it unethical that Disney replaces the singing voices of some of their stars with studio ringers? What about Marne Nixon singing for Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood? Are My Fair Lady and West Side Story ethical violations? Is it a credit issue?

  7. michael lee Post author

    what made Milli Vanilli deception?

    false and deceptive aren’t the same thing – something can be non-real, non-true, and not be deceptive.

  8. Chad

    There was an implication that they sang it. Their voices were not the building blocks for those tracks, manipulated or not.

    Keep in mind, here, this is nearly 20 years ago, now, when there was an expectation about such things. Everyone knows these days, for example, that the Pussycat Dolls are not exactly in the booth working out their harmonies, arguing over whose tone better fits each song. The implication isn’t there, isn’t as profound. These guys changed all that in the publics mind, ironically. I think consumers are FAR more willing to accept a pre-fab, bait and switch musical entertainment reality these days.

    Think about High School Musical (the 1st one.) Zac Ephron did very little singing on that one. In fact, if you listen, you can hear where his untrained voice gives way to Drew Seeley, the ringer they used on part one. Now, Zac got irritated about this, practiced, and did all his own singing on parts 2 and 3. It’s not like they violated some ethical standard on the 1st one and corrected it on 2 and 3, this was the market correcting itself. Ephron wasn’t a star before HSM1, and then he was. He said he wanted to sing it, made it a deal breaker, and then did it.

    Ashlee Simpson, as gross as I find her, is at least the one in the booth getting trimmed, tweaked, tuned, and manipulated into the product. Her music is non-true, but it’s not deceptive.

  9. Chad

    It’s ironic, now that I think about it, but if Milli Vanilli came out today, they’d be able to do their own “Singing…” as a competent PT guy could have fixed it.

    Of course… they should ALL hire me instead…

  10. corey

    I dunno, stick. That last Billy Joel clip isn’t as criminal to me as it is to you. I love Billy Joel. But at the same time, I would speculate that age and (dare I say) addiction are compromising what used to be one of the greatest pure vocalists of my childhood. I might be making an tool of myself, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was running the keys through something similar to the Digitech Vocalist Live where the chord tones feed both the pitch correction and the harmonies (which would obviously be bypassed in this case). You and I both hear the tuning, but many of our wives couldn’t- and it most definitely flew past middle America unnoticed.

    I think a greater travesty would be the 1998 SuperBowl where the track started before jewel got to the microphone…

    link is here:

  11. Stick

    Oh wow… I’m really surprised to hear you say that. Right away June was like “what’s up with his voice” when we were watching it live. I was speechless.

    Yeah, it’s the Autotune hardware box set to “full stun” (or it’s the Digidesign Venue system with the Autotune plugin). The way it catches notes when he overshoots or slides down is just brutal to me.

    I doubt it’s the being fed from the keyboard… it’s missing and sliding by chromatics. And isn’t it a real piano?

  12. corey

    June has highly trained ears from years of domestic exposure. Beth can tell you what all the pedals on my pedalboard do, too. :)

    The autotune gives me whiplash, that’s for sure. “Full stun”. That’s awesome. And I WILL be stealing that…

    Unfortunately, there’s no way to know what BJ woulda sounded like without it. Maybe he might’ve hiccupped and a cute little bubble would float out and stick to the microphone. :) Maybe during sound check, when he fell off the bench and peed himself, they decided to stick a little safety net beneath him just in case. :) ah, I dunno. You’re probably right.

  13. Chris

    what, you mean there are people out there making records who can’t sing????

    I feel so cheated…..

    The Billy Joel thing was terrible. I’d be curious if it was messed up from the broadcast feed or if it sounded that way everywhere. If the tuning was only on the broadcast feed there might be video of what the un-tuned vocal sounded like in the stadium.

    I remember discussing the Billy Joel Super Bowl fiasco with a friend who worked on “River Of Dreams” back in New York. I seem to remember him saying that the singing left a lot too be desired but I don’t remember specifics so if I get a chance I’ll hit him up to see if memory serves correctly.

    Billy Joel could have been having an off day or who knows, maybe Corey is right and the years have caught up with Billy Joel. Still, no excuse for that kind of mess from the production crew aspect of things. I say let the guy fall on his face. If you can’t sing the National Anthem in key, don’t book the super bowl (or at the very least do a pre-record as a safety in case you develop Laryngitis.)

    I’d be curious to hear the lecture and class thoughts Mike.

  14. June

    Corey, I wondered the same thing….did Billy show up so sloshed that the production crew felt like they had no choice but to go the full stun route?! Billy, Billy, Billy….(and again I note: “srooo the perilous night…”)

    And if my ears are “trained” they are they only part of me that is. I have no idea what all of those little black boxes in the studio do…besides drain the checkbook that is. (love you babe! rock on!)

  15. corey

    A simple clarification would’ve sufficed. Now I have to clear today’s work and guitar playing schedule to sit with my therapist.

  16. Chad

    I don’t think it’s worth $10. Let’s say you post it, and then I’ll give you three nickels next time we hang.

  17. michael lee Post author

    not possible. now that you know that there is a brilliant, earth-shattering piece of wisdom that you will never, ever possess.

    Knowledge is to be hoarded, Chad, and doled out in small pieces to those who pay me my blood money.

  18. Sharolyn

    I had a long car drive this weekend, and listened to some of my favorite jazz CDs. I heard the occasional pitch “issue” – I won’t call them “problems”, because I enjoy these imperfections. They are what makes the musicians creative and human and made in the image of God, The Creator. (And if they used auto tune, please don’t tell me!)

    I love live performances that aren’t recorded. That is part of the reason to pay for a ticket, rather than listening to the CD. I love that the creative juices I am hearing will only happen once; that I am present for something unique and special.

    Then my thoughts meandered to Ella Fitzgerald. To the world’s standards, she was not the most beautiful singer. She had a great and unique way of delivering a song, and you could probably tune a piano to her pitch. So (since this is a question of ethics), every time we take a calendar girl and fake her pretty voice, I wonder what great musicians we are excluding from our collective attention. There will never be another Ella Fitzgerald, but who like her are we ignoring? Also, I don’t think Ella would have been successful today, which would be a loss to us all.

    So, I think the producers in the first video clip are being MUSICALLY unethical. (But what if they made the recording to feed their starving children? The question goes on and on, I know…)

    Lastly, when Jason plays in brass ensembles, and they are tuning a major chord, if the third is a little lower in pitch and the fifth is a little higher, the chord rings. In other words, Jason’s pitch and playing changes a little depending on the function of his note. This is the difference between well-tempered and natural tuning. Does auto tune take this into consideration?

  19. michael lee Post author

    And if they used auto tune, please don’t tell me

    I think that phrase, right there, is one of the most significant in the conversation.

  20. Stick

    Straight-ahead jazz probably isn’t going to be tuned, and if it is, you aren’t going to be able to hear it.

    I’ve tuned vocals in every genre, including classical. It’s a tool in the tool belt to make recordings. Like overdubs, compressors, equalizers, digital reverb (no, that isn’t a real cathedral you hear, it’s faked), sample replaced drums, or any kind of samples, for that matter. Can you say Vienna String Library?

    The art of pitch correction is doing it so it’s not noticeable (well, unless that’s what you want it sound like… like say most country, R&B, and CCM, etc.). And sure you can account for well-tempered versus natural… you can set scales for it to follow or do it by ear.

  21. June

    Is there really something called “screamo?” I thought that was just what I called the world I live in with my two small boys.

  22. Sharolyn

    Me again. (Can’t… let… go…)

    Since this is a MUSIC and ethics class, I guess I have a hard time with the first video being called MUSIC. It’s like soft core porn with some notes attached. Eye candy at the least. (And as a heterosexual chick, I’m kind of grossed out when she eats the pizza. Cory, can I borrow your brain scrubber?)

    A photographer using a soft-focus lens is one thing, using photoshop to altar features is another. At some point people ceases to resemble themselves. The producer in the first clip could be guilty of FRAUD.

    None of them are doing anything illegal, and I’m sure the male audience doesn’t mind the enhancements. I’m imagining June’s disappointment when a cheezy pop artist becomes successful while the deserving ones are unheard of, and that is how I feel about clip #1.

    It’s not music, it’s just silliness.

  23. michael lee Post author

    What if we say … it’s music, but it’s music in the service of theater.

    They are creating a character, one that has appeal to a certain audience, and the music functions in support of the character. In theater, the audience enters the environment with a willing suspension of their skepticism, for the purpose of heightening their enjoyment. When Michael Bay creates huge CGI robot explosions, I don’t accuse him of fraud because the robots and the fire aren’t real. I suspend my disbelief, so that I can enjoy the movie.

    When an industry-created pop diva comes out on stage, perhaps there is the same kind of suspension of disbelief, and the tools used to create the character, the music, the experience are not tools of fraud, but tools of theater. I don’t expect the experience to be an authentic representation of the person’s musical ability, I expect it to be an emotionally satisfying 90-minute musical experience.

    As long as both audience and artist share the same understanding of what’s being presented, is any deception, or fraud, happening?

  24. Sharolyn

    No. I agree with everything you just said. I just don’t like it when it is slutty girls. (laughing at myself)

  25. undertoad

    As long as both audience and artist share the same understanding of what’s being presented?

    It’s still fake, and I believe — I have to believe — that the audience is hungry for real, honest expression. It’s why they reach out to reality programming (which is also pretty fake). To standup comedy, which can’t be faked whatsoever (if it’s not funny, the audience cannot laugh, except in the case of Dane Cook).

    I think of Steely Dan and how the ultra-perfected studio musicians contrast against Fagen’s very imprecise vocals. I bet Fagen would have autotuned if he had the opportunity. And if he did, how incredibly shitty Steely Dan would have been.

    I’m so glad that you included the Billy Joel performance. As I sat and watched it, I realized he was being corrected and I could think of nothing else. I know that there is a special problem with singing in an outdoor arena, where you hear yourself echoed back a hundred times, but I expect this can be corrected for with in-ear monitoring.

  26. Zack

    Chad: You said something that tweaks my musical sensibilities a wee bit: “Making a record is like making a movie. It’s not real. It’s not linear.”

    Only if you make it that way. Only one man’s opinion here, but that’s a methodology not every recording artist has to embrace. “Real” and “Linear” are wonderful aspects of a record, if they’re embraced properly.

    I like real. I like linear. Especially in the current, “Crank-The-F*cking-Compressor-To-Eleven” climate – I think real and linear are more important than ever.

    And yes, I will produce the 3rd Dailies record for free.

    PS – What the hell happened to the “Covers” project, AKA, “An Excuse to Drink Expensive Scotch at Eldorado Studios”? I have a nearly-complete song list for that project, and the longer we wait, the more ridiculous the list becomes. (See: Ska-versions of Bob Seger tunes)

  27. Stick

    I agree Zack, that not every record HAS to be made that way, but Chad’s certainly was. As were 99% of the records we hear. My whole thing is that by putting sound on a recording medium, you’ve changed the “real” performance. It already doesn’t sound like the original because every recording medium and playback system has inherent sound affecting shortcomings. By overdubbing a guitar, you’re way past “real”. By punching in a botched word in the vocal performance, now we must be in “fraud” territory?

    (I know you’re not saying this… just going to the extreme to make my point.)

    I’d be curious to understand what it looks like to make a “real” and “linear” record? What does that entail?

  28. michael lee Post author

    Stick, do you think there’s a significant ethical difference between what Milli Vanilli did (wholesale swapping out of one person’s performance for another), and the production of Charo’s “Guitar Passion” CD, where the engineers took both her playing and singing and cut them down to individual notes, pasting it back together across hundreds of takes to form one single coherent pass (won a Billboard award for production, BTW, in one of life’s great ironies).

    In both cases, the person being presented as “The Artist” was absolutely incapable of delivering the musical performance being credited to them.

  29. Stick

    I think there’s a difference, but it’s pretty slim. At least the raw building blocks were performed by the “artist” in the case of Charo. To me the real artist in both cases is the producer.

    And at the same time, there are very few “big” records you could say the artist was capable of delivering the musical performance being credited them. Very few use one single take all the way through without some punches or fixes (even if we’re not talking about tuning).

    Where along the line of “real” to “completely not real” does the ethical red flag pop up?

  30. michael lee Post author

    I think looking for a line is the wrong perspective. It seems more realistic to find extreme cases, where there is obvious fraud, and where there is obvious transparency and authenticity, and then ask, “What makes it so, and what relationship does the audience have to these experiences? Can we identify problematic features and trace them back to a fundamental principle?”

    There are several contextual questions that I think modify that questions. Different genres have different expectations of musical execution. A classical recording with an operatic soprano, there would be a great deal of hue and cry from the listening public if they discovered that pitch correction was used on the vocal. American Idol, not so much.

    There is also a different expectation between live and recording. Same technology, pitch correction, might be acceptable on a Billy Joel recording, but being found out using it live, people have a sense of betrayal. How many people watch that clip and thing, “I wonder if he was using pitch correction when I saw him?”

    In all of these, the basis for deception vs. enhancement is the audience expectation. Which brings into the play the interesting idea of increasing sophistication among audience members. Arrrgh. I have to go. More later.

  31. sharolyn

    So, I was suspicious of hearing auto tune today (gee, I just love being paranoid of technology while having a musical experience). It was a male singing quite high. Some of the tones were straight, and some contained vibrato. Can auto tune do vibrato?

  32. Stick

    Yep. Even I, who completely lacks natural vibrato can sound all cool with the “spin” thanks to Auto-tune. Though, Auto-tune can also fix the pitch without destroying the singer’s vibrato too.

  33. sharolyn

    Wow, thanks. I’ve wondered that for a long time.

    So… someone remind me… why practice?

  34. sharolyn

    Good point. One plan was to write some crappy music with crappy liner notes and then have Stick and Aly fix it all. But smug condescension is fun, too.

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