While most musical instruments are man-made, one—the voice—is a natural part of the human body. Because the voice and the person using it are inseparable, singing is a particularly personal form of expression. Many vocalists, even professionals, experience a sense of vulnerability related to the use of their bodies as expressive, emotional instruments. Vocalists who take expressive risks, despite these feelings, are often the musicians we most closely relate to on a “human” level; John Lennon, Amy Winehouse, and Aretha Franklin are among that special group. Such singers are sometimes described as “authentic,” because they are perceived as revealing themselves honestly, or as some might say, “from the heart.”
Singers were among the first musicians to benefit from the emerging recording technologies of the early 20th century. While previously a loud voice was a survival skill—singers depended primarily on volume to be heard—artists such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra embraced the microphone, singing softly and with a dynamic range that would have been lost before the microphone’s invention. To many who were accustomed to the “shouters” of the past, the softer tones of singers such as Crosby and Sinatra signaled a dramatic shift.
With the heightened sense of intimacy made possible by microphones also came increased scrutiny of vocal performances. Projected over the musical accompaniment, singers were heard with increased clarity, and many also felt more exposed and vulnerable. As students discover while completing the vocal activity in this lesson, by nature the sound of one’s own recorded voice often sounds alien, not quite right. We hear our own recorded voices in a way that is different from how we hear other’s recorded voices. Many singers, even professional musicians, report such a feeling. For instance, in Soundbreaking Episode Three, The Who’s Roger Daltry reports that he and most of the vocalists he knows dislike hearing recordings of their own voices.
As recording technology improved, many singers embraced studio techniques that enabled them to manipulate their recorded vocals with effects such as reverb, which creates a sense of physical space around the voice, or even push toward a “perfect” performance by splicing the best moments of several “takes.” Some singers, such as The Beatles’ John Lennon, employed “double-tracking,” a process of thickening a vocal performance by recording a second, nearly identical version atop the original.
Since the dawn of the digital recording era in the early 1990s, the possibilities for vocal manipulation have only increased, with software such as Antares Audio Technologies’ “Auto-Tune” encouraging musicians, producers and engineers to aspire to “perfect” performances. Auto-Tune pushes and pulls vocalists’ pitches toward selected notes, “correcting” the pitch. Most recordings are in some way “corrected,” but some critics argue that pitch correcting technologies risk removing the human element from recorded vocals. The very vulnerability that listeners often connect with can be compromised.
There are many who believe that “less is more” when it comes to using technology. This is the heart of the debate around recording vocals in music: how much manipulation is too much? If recording engineers and producers can use computers and software to digitally alter a vocal track, what happens to the original voice, and what role does talent play? To many, there is a fine line between the “perfection” that can be achieved with technology and the experience of “authenticity” in a recorded vocal performance. This lesson explores the ways in which music technology can enhance a singer’s performance. It also considers the listener’s interest in hearing the “authenticity” of a vocal performance. Either way, the heart of most popular music is the same, important center: the human voice.