Ever since we’ve been technologically advanced enough to add computers and hardware to our existing music setup, musicians have been experimenting with various tools to find new sounds. Last month we talked about the progression of recording hardware and consumer listening formats, which if you didn’t catch you can read here. It’s always been fascinating to me that the music industry is constantly changing and adapting as a rebellious move. There is no certain way to do anything and just when you think you’re comfortable with how things are, something new swoops in. We’ve talked about multiple ways to drastically change your guitar tones, micing drums and using the room tones to give a certain characteristic to your sound, but what are some technological innovations we have made to altering vocals?
From the very first point that humans started recording sound, there’s always been one element that was the most vital, vocals. The word song literally means “a work of music meant to be sung”. Songs have been used to tell stories for centuries and are the embodiment of our artistic outlet. Over the past years, we have seen massive changes in the way we use vocals in songs. The use of autotune, pitch correction, vocoders, talkboxes, vocals chops, and other various techniques have inspired entirely new music genres and new ways of recording and processing vocals. Let’s discuss these changes and see how they affected modern day vocal recording.
Probably the most controversial of the bunch, but without a doubt the most influential in modern-day recording. The way I see it is that there’s two way of using autotune/pitch correction, as a tool and as an effect.
Let’s be real for a second, there are very few artists that have perfect pitch. Even if an artist has perfect pitch it’s unheard of for a lead vocal not be pitch corrected, even if it’s just the tiniest amount. If the vocalist is focused and on key, you won’t even hear the pitch correction if done correctly. These tools should be used to do small corrections, not to be a safety for your sloppy vocal skills. Yes autotune and pitch correction can fix your problems, but if you’re off-key you’ll be able to tell the work that had to be done to fix it. Pitch correction is a wonderful thing and will make an amazing vocal performance sound even better than it originally did.
Autotune as an effect is a whole different ballgame. I’m sure that we’re all familiar with certain artists that popularised this effect in the rap scene. So much so that it inspired a whole new wave of artists to create their own sound using this effect. The result, an almost vocoder sounding vocal on top of a hip-hop beat, without much of the original vocal left to hear. I don’t want to discourage anybody from doing this or say anything bad about it, we all have our own way of artistic expression and if that’s yours then more power to you. I hear many people say: “I can do the same if I had some autotune on my voice”, to that I would have to argue that the use of autotune alone doesn’t make or break the song. It’s an effect used to give characteristics to a specific element in the song and should not be mistaken for something that’s an easy fix for any song.
When vocoders were first created they were the size of a large room. They were used during World War II to send top-secret messages. One person would speak into the machine on one side and it would scramble the message. It would only be decipherable once it reached the machine on the other end. One of the first musical uses of the vocoder technology was the Sonovox. It was used by Kay Kyser and His orchestra in recordings as early as 1940.
To me, the vocoder has always seemed like a novelty but the truth is that it’s been used excessively throughout various genres and by big-name artists. The first one that comes to mind and I think this goes for everyone, is Daft Punk. I still to this day know the first time I heard a Daft Punk song and was amazed by the fact that I heard a robot singing, there was no way that hits could be a human singing, now it doesn’t seem like a strange concept at all.
A vocoder can be used in various ways. The most popular concept is to have your vocal signal (carrier) and a synthesizer (manipulator) signal. The vocal signal would run through a vocoder, which is being manipulated by the synthesizer signal. If you were to play a chord on a synthesizer simultaneously as you would be singing, your voice would be the same notes as that chord. It can be described as a manual way of autotuning. If you hold down a C major chord for the entirety of the song, then your voice will sound like a C major chord for the whole song. It’s personally one of my favorite vocal effects/techniques and if used correctly can be an incredible element of a song.
Stevie Wonder was one of the first people to popularize the talkbox as we know it today. He played the instrument when he appeared on Sesame Street and inspired many future adopters of the instrument. Most notably Roger Troutman who would go on to start the band Zap and Roger. Another notable historical moment with the talkbox is the intro to “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath, whose intro features a robotic altered voice saying “I am Iron Man”.
What Zap and Roger did for the talkbox though was infuse the technology into ballads and more sentimental music. In his own words, Roger Troutman said: “We used to do covers like ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’, and people complained that it sounded too gimmicky so we started writing love songs”. I think that’s when talkboxes use becomes really interesting. When an artist is able to convey emotion through the vocoder it is an extremely interesting.
It is a feeling robot, it really is computer love, a brand new story an interesting and in a way it’s the story of the millennial generation. How to we convey heart, emotion, and humanity through all the layers of technology that are heaped on us year after year. It seems like the odds are stacked against honesty and real communication but as Roger Troutman demonstrates it is possible to be real anyway.
Like many other things in today’s world, the talkbox and vocoders are a version of digital communication. Besides the fact that voice-altering technology is actually inserted into every modern cellphone, we have adopted robotic voices in one way or another for a lot of what we say. Text messages and e-mail are examples of our new modern robotic voices which we must find a way of connecting to others with. I personally can’t wait for a song to come out with Siri killing it on the vocals.
This is an interesting element that became extremely popular with the rise of electronic music in the United States. Vocal chops have been used in many songs throughout various genres, but the vocal chops that we’re now familiar with in modern pop music didn’t really come to the consumer’s attention until Skrillex’s Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites EP in 2010. The concept is taking a recorded vocal into a sampler and automating the starting point of the sample whenever a midi note hits. This will make it sound like your “chopping” between different parts of the vocals, using this the right way can result in some very unique vocal lines that a person wouldn’t ever be able to sing. Before then it would be used in by DJ’s who would scratch vinyl records to achieve the same effect. A particular song by Limp Bizkit comes to mind that used this technique, but there have been many songs that have used this use of vocals.
It was also Skrillex aka Sonny Moore who popularised this technique in mainstream pop music. I think we can all remember the popular “Where Are Ü Now” as made famous by Jack Ü (Skrillex & Diplo) and Justin Bieber. The lead sound in the chorus, which many people thought to be a flute of some sort, is, in fact, Just Bieber’s vocal altered and changed so much that it sounded like a live instrument. Shortly after, the popular song “Lean On” as made famous by Major Lazer (Diplo & The Jillionaire) became so popular, that it became the most streamed song in the history of music. Their lead sound in the chorus being vocal chops. These two very popular songs, without a doubt, have distinctively altered the modern day pop music vocal recording and production.
From the very first point that humans started recording sound, there’s always been one element that was the most vital, vocals. The always forward driving passion of producers to find a unique sound has resulted in many different ways to alter vocals. The word song literally means “a work of music meant to be sung”. Songs have been used to tell stories for centuries and are the embodiment of our artistic outlet. Over the past years, we have seen massive changes in the way we use vocals in songs. The use of autotune, pitch correction, vocoders, talkboxes, vocals chops, and other various techniques have inspired entirely new music genres and new ways of recording and processing vocals. Never stop experimenting.