Pitch correction

matthew's picture

Posted to this article on Slashdot today, and I figured I'd like to archive it somewhere useful...

Tuning, pitch, and scale are closely correlated. The two most common "tunings" in the western world are even-tempered and Pythagorean. The most common "scales" are Ionian and Aeolian (major and minor), with Dorian and Phrygian sometimes chiming in on popular music, but rarely others. Other cultures offer non-pentatonic scales with sometimes only five notes. I'm not confusing pitch and scale. I'm explaining that often pitch correction is necessary, particularly in some unusual recording situations, due to the conflict between modern even-tempered 12-tone tuning of certain instruments and the natural instinct of a singer or inexact-pitch instrument (such most strings, which depend on finger position for pitch, and some woodwinds where one can slightly adjust pitch via jaw tension) to gravitate towards a sweeter, non-logarithmic tuning.

It appears you've never done harmonic analysis of choral music, or tried to match an accompaniment to an in-tune choral arrangement when said piece was first performed a cappella. Any competent digital piano will allow you to change tunings (note: NOT change pitch, A=440 all the way here) to match the harpsichord needs of pre-Baroque pieces or gain the sweet sound of a perfect Pythagorean chord.

If a piano is tuned to the Pythagorean scale in, say, the key of B flat, trying to play a piece in C major on the same piano without retuning will sound horrible. This is perfectly well-understood in the music community. If you wish to play an even-tempered instrument in multiple keys, you accept a slight dissonance across all ranges of the keyboard in exchange for the flexibility of playing in any key without unbearable dissonance. It is perfectly possible, and often done even today with harpsichords, to tune a keyboard instrument to a non-even-tempered scale in order to provide "perfect" consonance in playing pre-Baroque period pieces.

Now on to the rest of your nearly-coherent rant:

Good singers have perfect pitch

Baloney. You can be a good singer with good relative pitch. "Perfect Pitch", as inexpertly named for this article, is a totally different thing from singing in tune, or having good relative pitch. Given that I mentioned "imperfect pitch", above, I stand by what I said: all singers have imperfect pitch. They will not always nail the note perfectly, particularly at the end of an exhausting recording session. There will be times that pitch correction is welcomed as a practical measure in many vocalist's lives. There are, of course, purists who will raise holy hell if someone were to pitch-correct them.

Since when does a key change sound awful?

If your instrument is even-tempered, key changes within a piece do not sound awful, although there is a slight dissonance to this tuning. If you are using a natural temperament or other alternative, sweeter tuning, it will sound awful in other keys, particularly if those keys don't have a fundamental on the major fourth or fifth with few accidentals versus the primary scale.
Since you are obviously a complete novice to the understanding of tuning systems, allow me to recommend checking out this brief talk on "Math and Music". These days, we've taken the even-tempered scale a bit further by using logarithmic tuning devices rather than simply dividing octaves by 12, but even those tuning devices are not quite "perfect" when tuning a piano. You need to stretch the octaves on the upper regions of the piano in order to avoid perceived dissonance on the part of the listener, and that is a skill that takes a long time to master.

It is not and has never been called the Cher Effect. Its called over compression.

OK. I believe you. No, no, actually, I don't. It's very often referred to as "The Cher Effect" when you have fast response times on pitch correction (or vocoder) that force a slur into an unnatural abrupt pitch shift that sounds electronic. Welcome to reality, dude, it's what an awful lot of people in the pro recording circles I frequent call it, and the moment anybody mentions "the Cher Effect", nearly everyone knows exactly what they're talking about.

And compression has absolutely zero to do with pitch adjustment. I think I can safely assume you've never been caught late at night in the hypnotic glare of the lights on your audio equipment, compressor readouts gently bouncing to the soft knee you set to manage volumes on the last step of your effects chain as you dump to your mastering deck. Compressors are wonderful, useful (and today, somewhat over-used) pieces of equipment -- but they don't effect pitch, just volume.

Nobody in their right mind really thinks bullet time happened (Matrix fans can flame me later), but correcting a lack of ability and passing it off as 'quality' is just plain dishonest.

Bullet time is an example of art in action through technical excellence. It's over-used today, but nevertheless it takes skill, preparation, and knowledge to get it working right. It's but one tool in the arsenal of the special effects master.

I was a music theory & composition major in college. I admit that I lean more toward the engineering & composing side of things, as my performance skills are merely above average. The job of the sound engineer is to make the piece sound perfect, listenable, and balanced, and pitch correction is just another tool in the vast array of options we have available to us. Pitch correction is neither dishonest nor is it correcting a "lack of ability". It's just part of making a song perfect.

Would you tell the director of a movie he can't use blue screens because that's "dishonest" and the performers should be able to do in real life what is portrayed on-screen? Of course not. I admit singing is a different field, but the principle applies. Performers are selling entertainment and illusion; if people are entertained, the artists have done their job well.

Their "natural" sound is talent and ability. Your sound may be fun or interesting, but the reason others thrive is because they don't need use technology to sound good.

When I was referring to the natural sound, what I meant was the gritty sound, the not-quite-perfect, late-at-night-and-six-beers-down singing that we all get down to. There are people that really enjoy in-your-face music that has nothing extra on it. While it's cool to listen to, and I enjoy a lot of that music (heck, I'm a Garageband member with many reviews under my belt, I love hearing raw talent), I also enjoy technical excellence and applaud the engineers who elevate the level of already outstanding performances to perfection. Some folks don't appreciate that. And that simply boils down to taste. So yeah, some artists thrive in simple performance of their tunes, free of adornment. Others get their satisfaction from the engineering and compositional skill of the product. I'm in the latter camp, happily -- and that's something up to personal taste.

Real artists neither want nor need pitch corection.

More baloney. Composers are artists, and often want the performers of their works pitch-corrected. Vocalists sometimes find certain passages impossible to sing, and after fifteen takes are just sick of trying to get it perfect and welcome the pitch correction. Guitarists miss a bend halfway through a solo that they can't easily repeat in the studio. Hired backup singers turn out to have missed a note, but are already out of the studio. A singer with no natural vibrato may want some added to a particular passage, or one with too much vibrato may want it reduced. The saxophone player you hired for your session may have been slightly sharp the whole time. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of uses for pitch correction, and it is used on many, many professional products these days.

The human brain may be good at sensing when something's not right, but the competent engineer first gets a take that's close enough to work with, and the subtle manipulations of that take simply enhance the work, without "faking" anything. You're simply hearing the combined efforts of the performer(s) and the engineer(s) on a CD or, these days, a live performance.

I stand by my statement that singers and instrumentalists with non-even-tempered instruments naturally seek out a slightly different scale/tuning than the even-tempered one to which our ears have become accustomed. This can often lead to tonal clashes that are easily remedied by very slight pitch adjustments in post-processing of the work. It's not my "arse talking" -- it's fact. A singer is often slightly flat on the third of many chords because that's the natural tonal balance, where the even-tempered piano or guitar accompanying them is slightly sharp of the sweeter, instinctive tuning of the singer.

I admit that, you're right, rap artists are almost certainly not pitch-corrected. Neither are recordings where everything is choral, since there are no known pitch-correction algorithms that can handle multiple-voice correction other than in the roughest manner like changing the key of a piece one semitone. Orchestral pieces, likewise. But mainstream pop, rock, and heavy metal or alternative with strong melodic lines? If there's been a mainstream million plus-selling melodic release without pitch correction of any sort on any instruments or vocalists on the album, I'll be very surprised.

I somehow can't shake the feeling, though, that I've just responded to a very subtle troll, due to the apparent familiarity of topic, combined with numerous factual innacuracies of Anonymous's post...

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tra la la

ok ok ok

pitch correction

I pity you, jesus christ man, have you heard of Motown? The Beach Boys? Did they ever pitch correct? Most of today's music is just product, so if that's what you're going for, go for it. It'll sell a million today, and be forgotten tomorrow. If you want something timeless, which I believe should be the goal, not making a quick buck, there's no amount of fancy computer stuff that can help you.

matthew's picture

Mmm, thanks for the comment...

I get a kick out of engineering a nice piece of work. It's just me, I guess, but it's a heck of a lot of fun to play with all the tools that are available.

I'm a musician, an engineer, and a sysadmin. I've been using music in technology for well over a decade. I get a kick out of using every tool available both in the technical and musical repertoires.

Be a purist who says that all of today's music is crap, or "product", because they use the latest & greatest technological marvels to come up with new and unique sounds. That's totally cool, and you're entitled to your opinion. But in ten years, some of those pop tunes you despise will be considered timeless classics.

And some of them will be using pitch correction on them.

A tune is timeless because of the song itself, not so much the performance. A good composition is still a good composition even if performed poorly. A poor composition performed well is generally still poor (except in some cases where you have an absolutely brilliant soloist or something). Pitch correction is just another tool in helping a good tune sound better -- it will never be a substitute for good composition.

My two cents. A lot of luddites really hate these new technological gizmos that improve musicality and performance. Me, I like to roll with the changes and play with the new toys that come out. In some cases, they can do some really, really cool stuff.

--
Matthew P. Barnson

--
Matthew P. Barnson

well...

All i want to say is that music has never needed to be perfected in the past- it was raw for a reason. That reason is plain and simple. If a singer can't hit a pitch, then she should work on hitting that pitch HERSELF and not cheat- yes it is cheating.

When u can't do something without aid, and u take that aid, it is cheating.

If i can't pass a level in a video game of mine, and i use a code to have full weapons, health, etc.- THAT IS CHEATING. Yes movies cheat too, but movies are supposed to be unreal- supposed to be about fantasy. Otherwise we would all be watching movies on real life- and the only way to film a bullet flying action sequence would be to use REAL bullets and really kill the people. That is why movies and other types of visual stimulation use aided help.

But music is a very real art.

Everything in music can be doable without using electronic aid.

Its called practicing if you can't get a guitar lick correct. Its called having two people play or sing at once to make it sound like a group- not having the same person play twice and just overlap the recordings. It is these types of things that make music what it is. I don't want to bash what u do, because it is a very interesting field. It DOES require a lot of work. There needs to be a way to tell people, "hey, the singer on this album is great, but (enter name here) worked the engineering booth and helped her produce the sounds you hear on this cd".

And at live performance, there should be announcements that say weather or not certian voice over/backing tracks are being used. i don't want to just go and hear the cd EXACTLY. I want the real artists, live, un-aided. What u do in the recording studeo is great, but that is where it should stay. Live performances should be 100% LIVE. Otherwise we better start changing the name to "replayed performances".

Timpane's picture

REAL MUSICIANS DON'T NEED HELP

I agree that real musicians should never use technology where realuty will suffice. Never should there be use of electronics to change sounds (like reverb, pitch correction, distortion), nor should computers or fancy audio equipment ever be used.

If a guitarist can't be heard, he should use no amplifier, he should just play louder. bassists should use giant basses with megaphones, and microphones should be done away with. If a singer can't be heard, he shouldn't be singing.

In fact, I am against recording music as well.. because that sound can be done without electronics. I think every band should come to my house, and play acoustic instruments. Unfortunately, it will be hard for them to see, as I also am against the idea of using light bulbs. If I can't see by natural lights, then I should arrange my schedule such that I can.

Also, while we're talking about what shouldn't be done in music, I am strongly against the following hacks who have used electronic additions to their music. The Beatles, Stephen Sondheim, Danny Elfman, Howard Shore, The Rolling Stones, Nine Inch nails, John williams, Stevie Wonder, Quincy jones, Dr. Dre, Billy Joel, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Claude Michel Schoenberg, Aerosmith, The Doors, Eminem, and the San Francisco, London, New york, APris, and Los Angeles Philharmonics to name a few.

Shame on them. Shame.

NVZ: NINJAS VS ZOMBIES - THE MOVIE - www.nvzmovie.com
THE OFFICIAL JUSTIN TIMPANE WEBSITE - www.timpane.com

matthew's picture

Opinions and facts

Opinions are like bowel movements. Everybody has them, and with few exceptions, they all stink. Including mine.

All i want to say is that music has never needed to be perfected in the past- it was raw for a reason. That reason is plain and simple.

Yeah, that reason is plain and simple: artists didn't have the tools at their disposal to be able to do what they can do today. If they had them, they'd use them. Should I abandon the use of a digital delay, wah, and distortion pedal in my guitar leads because the technology didn't exist 20 years ago? I think not.

When u can't do something without aid, and u take that aid, it is cheating.

That's a ridiculous straw-man definition of "cheating". I thought up a half-dozen examples related to music which explode your definition without even thinking hard.

If i can't pass a level in a video game of mine

Video game players are not the artists. They are players, playing by rules set up by the game's creators. The programmers, graphic artists, and composers behind the game are the ones creating art. I have worked behind the scenes on several major video games, and I know the kind of creativity required to produce a high-quality game. Creativity, and creatively using tools, to improve the customer experience is simply good craftsmanship.

By your definition, the graphic artists who sit behind computer screens designing the textures for the game are cheating if they use blur filters on textures, or do anything other than hand-craft them using the fewest tools they can.

Yes movies cheat too, but movies are supposed to be unreal - supposed to be about fantasy.

That's your opinion. I submit that music, too, can be "supposed" to be unreal. It can be about fantasy.

Otherwise we would all be watching movies on real life- and the only way to film a bullet flying action sequence would be to use REAL bullets and really kill the people. That is why movies and other types of visual stimulation use aided help... But music is a very real art.

So if I put a gunshot into my music, and the sound of a man dying, and that's the theme of the tune I've composed... I'm supposed to actually go out and kill someone? So when I listened to that old Queensryche song which features a gunshot at the end, someone actually shot someone else? Or that Kansas tune featuring a chandelier dropping, a scream of pain, and an audience gasping, that actually happened in real life? Your argument holds water like a sieve.

Everything in music can be doable without using electronic aid.

I call BS. Try creatig a fat, multi-layered synthesizer sound without using electronic aid. Better yet, try to do multi-track recording without ay sort of electronics. Heck, I doubt you can find any recording in the last seventy years which did not employ electronics. An electric guitar without electronics? Whatever. May as well go back to scratching sonic imprints in wax barrels using a hand-cranked phonorecorders, I guess.

I love live performances as much as the next guy, but I have to wonder what planet you're from, and if you have any musical experience at all? Other than as a consumer, I mean. Because even those "unplugged" performances on MTV are anything but.

There needs to be a way to tell people, "hey, the singer on this album is great, but (enter name here) worked the engineering booth and helped her produce the sounds you hear on this cd".

There is. Look on the credits in the jacket of any professionally-produced CD. The engineers are usually listed, right underneath the artists. When I look at the playbill for the Phantom of the Opera which I attended, the sound engineers who helped create the performance are given credit. Not top-billing like the faces people know, but they get full credit in every album I've seen.

And at live performance, there should be announcements that say weather or not certian voice over/backing tracks are being used.

Umm, dude, should they have to announce what brand of footpedal, amplifier, and guitar the lead guitarist is using,too? What about announcing what pitches the drum heads are tuned to, for good measure? Pitch adjustment is just one tiny tool in an arsenal of tools.

i don't want to just go and hear the cd EXACTLY.

Of course, neither do I. But I don't think it's the show's responsibility to have to issue disclaimers for what tools they choose to use to bring you a high-quality presentation. And there are many performances that are simply flat impossible to completely reproduce live. Think about the band Rush. Bass player and singer. Guitar player. Drum player. Yet you hear a ton of synthesizers in their stage performances, and either they hire someone to play for them, or it's pre-sequenced, recorded stuff every bit as much as that video they're playing in the background while performing.

I want the real artists, live, un-aided.

Wow, good luck with that. You'll have to pay a lot for the artist to show up in your house with her guitar and a 3-hour set to perform just for you and the few friends which can be reached "unaided".

What u do in the recording studeo is great, but that is where it should stay. Live performances should be 100% LIVE. Otherwise we better start changing the name to "replayed performances".

Ahh, there's the core of your concern, I think: artists using pitch adjustment or pre-recorded stuff during live performances. Well, once again, good luck with that. If you ever go to a performance where the drummer's wearing a headset, you can be positive he's synching his performance to a click-track so that the prerecorded stuff doesn't go out of synch with what the performers are doing.

I think there's enough space for musicality however the artist wants it done. There's room for the live, raw performances. There's room for the click-track lip-synchers. There's room for the "performance artists" with very little talent. If they can find an audience who wants what they can show, it's all good, it's all fun, and it all makes money. Yay humanity.

--
Matthew P. Barnson
- - - -
Thought for the moment:
BOFH Excuse #133:
It's not plugged in.

--
Matthew P. Barnson

Pitch correction?

Has pitch correction gone mad? It sure sounds like it to me.
Why are so many digitally re-mastered CD's so far out of tune? Try playing your in-tune musical instrument along with your favorite re-mastered CD and it's quite painful to hear how far out of tune the re-mastered stuff is. What gives the studio engineer the right to change an "A" from 440 to something else? I trust science, not opinion. Maybe every CD player I own is junk, but then how do we explain computer files? That sound is digital information and not based on the speed the disk spins.

matthew's picture

Pitch Correction gone mad

Every time I hear the tunes from "High School Musical", I die a little bit inside. The singers are so ham-handedly pitch-corrected that I cringe. A singer naturally sings a different scale than an equally-tuned instrument.

A CD player spinning at a different speed will make no difference to the audio stream: it's 150kbps stereo 44.1KHz, 16-bit. If it's the wrong pitch, that means either the playback circuit on the CD player is wrong, or that when they re-mastered the tapes they did so without using absolute pitches or they used different tape machines.

Think back to thirty years ago: we were using reel-to-reel or cheap four-track recorders. Now those, if you play faster or slower, the pitch and speed both change. My thought is, those digital remasterings were remastered on different equipment with a different speed. They didn't think about the needs of those of us who like to play along, and I doubt the audio engineer was sitting down with a pitch pipe to make sure he matched the printed music's key.

Then again, there are those groups like Guns 'n Roses who play everything in E-flat just to be different. Yeah, try capoing to that tuning, guitar hero.

--
Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson