Resources for the Recording Musician
October 27, 2009

Pitch Correction

Tonight my wife and I were listening to a young country singer on television. My girls have her CD and so we, of course, have heard it many times.

My wife made the comment that she (the singer) didn't sound nearly as in tune as she does on her records. Bar the singer having a bad night, would this simply be due to the use of pitch correction? And if it is, why isn't the singer using pitch correction live? It can be used live, can't it? And it if can be used live, why wouldn't a platinum selling singer use it live to ensure a great performance on television?

There could be any number of reasons why a singer wouldn't use pitch correction live.  In fact, apart from the young, and not so talented, boy/girl band pop singer types, I would say that the majority of artists do NOT use any type of pitch correction live.  Many people view that as cheating, much like using backing tracks or totally lip syncing to pre-recorded tracks.  Thus, you usually wouldn't hear pitch correction being used by anything but those type of young pop acts that target the younger crowd (and those type of acts have a lot of dancing, and would usually use pre-recorded tracks and just lip-sync anyway).  I think it would certainly be frowned upon in country music.

Also, pitch correction is a digital process, and doesn't always integrate well with live sound equipment.  While Antares does (or at least used to) make a hardware pitch correction box, it is still digitizing the audio and doing it's work in the digital domain.  There is some inherent delay in the process.  Also, the signal needs to be very clean for the pitch correction to detect and correct the pitch properly.  In a live sound situation, there is often too much bleed from all the other instruments into the vocal microphone, which can confuse the pitch correction and cause it to do strange and unpredictable sounding things to the audio.

You also have to realize that the studio is a MUCH different environment than a live show.  Singers can hear themselves MUCH better when recording vocals in a studio as they usually aren't recording at the same time as the rest of the band, and there aren't thousands of screaming fans either.  Plus, they usually use very nice studio headphones rather than floor wedge monitors, or those little in-ear monitor things.  In addition, they can do multiple takes in the studio and piece together a great take.  If they miss a note, or are a little bit out of tune, they can simply keep trying that part until they get it right.  So, they can often be MUCH more in tune with the tracks recorded in a studio, even without the use of pitch correction.  I myself only use pitch correction on an artist as the very last resort if they simply can't get something they are happy with, or if the performance simply had a great feel that could not be repeated, and just needed to clean up the pitch a bit.  But, I think it's faster and much more natural sounding to just have the singer do it again until they get it right.

You don't have the luxury of singing it over and over at a live show until you nail each line.  Plus, in the studio, you usually don't have to dance or otherwise "perform" while you are singing.

Personally, I'd rather hear someone singing for real (as opposed to lip syncing) and would rather have them be a little off pitch here and there, so at least I know I'm getting a real live performance, rather than a pre-recorded, or totally computer corrected performance.  I don't expect bands and singers to sound exactly the same as they do on their CDs, as I'm fully aware of the studio process and how it can be used as a creative process in itself, and allows for things that you simply can't pull off live.

Many bands and artists that I really enjoy don't sound anything like they do on their CDs when they perform live.  Sometimes that can be disappointing if you find out that they really aren't very good and can't pull off a decent live show.  However, many times, with great artists, I find it exciting to see how they rework complex studio arrangements for their live shows.  The first time I saw Seal perform live, I wondered what they would do with all the elaborate Trever Horn produced arrangements.  They just did their own thing live and Seal had some really great musicians playing with him that just totally made the songs their own, without all the elaborate synth and string layers that were all over the CD versions.

Anyway... those are my thoughts on that.  Hope that gives you something to discuss with your wife and kids!

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