Written by John Brooks
Edited by Sean McCarthy
What determines the quality of music? Is it the professionalism in the recording of the song, or the musical quality of the music itself? This has become a fundamental question in today’s digital recording age. Millions of people are able to create high quality recordings of songs on a relatively small budget, and this has been the primary cause of the Home-Recording boom that has occurred in the last decade. Technology innovation has been the leading reason for this expansion and has both helped and harmed the music industry. There are a number of technological advantages that recording engineers now possess that were simply not available in the past and yet, high-budget recording studios are not the only individuals benefitting from this technology. Through pitch correction, Auto-Tune, and electronic instrumentation, every musician and non-musician is able to make quality recordings on a low budget. The question that this recently developed technology now poses is: in a world in which anyone, talented or not, can make a very powerful musical recording, how does one determine real musicians from people who just know how to push buttons and turn knobs without having traditional musical talent? Which then poses the question, is being a musician in the traditional sense even necessary anymore? This list of questions could go on and on. In this article I will discuss the potential of music creation and recording in the digital world and hopefully leave you thinking, what is real, quality music, and why?
There are many examples of technology that can be used by anyone nowadays to better musical recordings. One production tool that has become increasingly common in today’s music that it is extremely odd to not hear it being used is pitch correction, which appears to be synonymous with the term “Auto-Tune”, when in fact the two are quite different. The goal of Auto-Tune is to tune a singer’s voice with as little work as possible for the recording engineer. The most common way to do so is to tell a program such as Antares Auto-Tune or Waves Tune to tune every note to 100% accuracy as fast as it can. This creates a robotic effect and can be heard in this recording:
On the contrary, pitch correction’s goal is to tune a singer’s voice and make it sound as natural as possible. This is done in post-production, after all the recording has been completed. This can be heard in this recording:
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Both examples achieve the goal of tuning a singer’s voice; it just simply depends on what the engineer has in mind in terms of how the edited voice will fit in the song. Auto-Tune is more common in songs with electronic instrumentation whereas pitch correction is prevalent in songs with real instruments such as guitars and drums. Just for comparison purposes, here is the recording shown above with absolutely no editing performed:
These two forms of digital assistance when recording not only allow singer’s who may or may not be talented to create fantastic recordings, but also allow them to choose to hide their actual ability. Which again raises the question; if anyone can make himself or herself sound like whatever he or she wants, what is real, quality music?
Another new technology that has bettered the ability of non-musicians to create music is through the use of electronic instrumentation. This has been made possible primarily through the use of MIDI, which allows many different forms of electronic pianos to record the audio of practically any instrument the electronic keyboard can create. With simply a home keyboard like this one in my dorm room:
I am able to create any kind of musical sound I want, without knowing how to play any other instrument. The even crazier aspect of this is that I don’t even need the keyboard! As long as I have a basic knowledge of the keyboard, and a basic knowledge of musical timing, I am able to create any instrument part right on my computer without ever touching an instrument. I have done this in this recording:
Once again, this technology allows any individual to create whatever kind of sound he or she wants, with very little musical ability, which raises the question once again, what is real, quality music? Also, if creating music doesn’t actually require that much musical talent per se, and instead is simply the product of technical abilities, what is the real compelling artifact of music that people look for? Seeing as talent cannot be that much of a universal factor based on these facts.
The real kicker, after analyzing this information, is determining the reason that music is able to be an art form that does not require the same technical capabilities or discipline that other art forms do. No painter can create a masterpiece without spending years studying and perfecting his or her technique. No writer can write a bestselling book without going through years of learning about literature and writing styles while developing their own through years of practice. So why, can an individual with very little talent or practice create a form of musical “art” that millions will love without spending more than a few hours learning to use a computer program?
These are only a few of the thousands of tools people can use in the modern age of digital recording to make fantastic audio recordings of music. The central theme among them, however is that there is no amount of musical ability required to accomplish any of these tasks. One may ask, well surely even those who use a computer well must have some form of sonic talent at a minimum to achieve such feats, right? Wrong. All of these programs, including Melodyne, Waves Tune, Antares Auto-Tune, Pro Tools, and hundreds more all have countless presets for one to pick from when trying to adjust a sound. Melodyne has a “Quantize pitch” setting in which all one must do is drag the slider to 100% and Melodyne tunes the voice instantly to the necessary pitch and then informs the user of the key the song is in. A picture of this screen is shown here. Any person with any of these programs may have also heard on the internet, “Equalization is one of the most powerful tools in your sonic toolkit,” (EQ article here). All this person then has to do is add an EQ plugin to the recorded instrument or voice and choose a preset for it, for example “Rap Vocals”. The EQ plugin then automatically adjusts its parameters and creates a well EQ’d voice. For clarification, Equalization (EQ) is adjusting the individual frequency ranges within a sound and is very useful for making something that was recorded sound clearer.
A perfect example of artists who could possibly do just this are Rap artists. Creating a beat is relatively simple as I have shown previously, and all Rap artists then have to do to record a song is Auto-Tune the voice (if desired), which is tragically easy as I have shown, add EQ to the vocals to clean them up, also easy as I have shown, and simply record the audio. One may argue that the writing of the rap itself also requires talent. This is true in many cases, but also not true in many cases, a prime example is most songs performed by Lil Wayne, words are made up in order to rhyme, half of them are curse words, the list goes on (lyrical example here). But I’m not here to attack a genre, I am here to simply expose how dreadfully simple it is to create great sounding music. In conclusion, all of these tools can be used by anyone who is able to use a computer. So next time you listen to any song on the radio, or any song you hear on the Internet on a site like YouTube, just ask yourself, is this real, quality music?