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Audio Wizardry Can Polish Live Performances – As They Happen

by Jerome Weeks 2 Dec 2011 7:03 AM

At TEDxSMU, audio professor Scott Douglas will talk about how new software makes lip-synching old hat. Is this a wonderful new bag of tricks or another music biz gimmick? It may depend on what you see as the performer’s job.


TED stands for ‘technology, entertainment and design’ – and the national conference has been so popular, it’s spun-off such local offshoots as TEDxSMU.The third annual TEDx SMU conference is tomorrow — and it’s already sold out, although there are viewing parties scheduled around North Texas. The conference is meant to foster talk about innovations most of us haven’t heard about yet. Speaking of hearing, KERA’s Jerome Weeks talks to one TEDxSMU speaker about controversial innovations in sound.

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Scott Douglas (above) has been a pioneer in noise cancellation – like those noise cancelling headphones you can wear on airplanes to catch some sleep. But the SMU professor of electrical engineering isn’t lecturing about noise at TEDxSMU. He’s talking about how advances in audio technology will affect music creativity and production — and your live concert experience.

Douglas: “What I want to show is that you can take a voice and manipulate it on the fly and basically add chords to it.”

Essentially, he means instant Auto-tuning. Most people know Auto-tune as the digital recording process that makes singers like T-Pain sound like robots.

[clip from T-Pain’s ‘I’m Sprung”]

But Auto-tune was originally developed to repair recorded performances. If a singer is flat or his voice wobbles, the recording can be corrected to sound pitch perfect. Or he can sound like an entire chorus.

At his SMU studio, Douglas sings solo into a mike.

[sings solo]: “My romance – doesn’t need to have a moon in the sky”

Now he sings solo again [sounds of keyboard typing] but sounds like an entire a capella vocal group.

“My romance – doesn’t need a blue lagoon standing by.”

You can see I can add the harmonies immediately.”

Weeks: “You just fired the group.”

Douglas: “Maybe another way to say it is we’ve created potentially 16 groups out of a 16-person a cappella group. Think about how much more music you could create with everyone deciding, ‘Hey, I have a little bit different choice.’”

Like other artistic and technical innovations – like 3D movies – Auto-tuning became popular, became overused, became a commercial gimmick. And it gained many critics. After T-Pain kept Auto-tuning all of his music, rapper JayZ (above) released “DOA – Death of Auto-tune” in 2009.

[from “Death of Auto-tune”: “This is anti-Auto-tune, death of the ringtone, this ain’t for iTunes, this ain’t for singalongs.”

“It’s really the dark side, I think,of technology’s impact on music.”

Preston Jones is pop music critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

“What Auto-tune has done has probably made celebrities and semi-celebrities out of people who otherwise might not have gotten a foot in the door in the music business.”

Case in point: what Jones calls the “Ashley Simpson debacle.” Simpson rode her sister Jessica’s singing career into something of a pop success for herself — until on her Saturday Night Live performance in October 2004, her lip-synch track started up before she did — plainly revealing that even in a small, controlled, live performance of a single song, she relied on pre-recorded tracks.

“And that pretty much wrapped up her singing career,” says Jones.

Long before then, the music business had improved the recordings of less-than-stellar vocalists. But now such singers won’t have to hide the fact that in concert they need help to get through simultaneously singing and dancing and playing instruments — and staying in tune. Instead, they can create pristine, studio-quality performances – as they sing.

Put another way, if this software were available then, Ashley Simpson might still have a singing career today.

For Jones and listeners like him, this defeats the purpose of live performance. A concert is not meant to reproduce a studio album, flawless note by flawless note.

Jones: “Which begs the question, Why is anyone there? Because you could get the same impact listening to the album at home on your iPod, it wouldn’t make any difference.”

But for Scott Douglas, this thinking treats live performance as an athletic event. We come to see and hear artists test themselves – to jump higher, run faster. There is a long tradition that demands on-the-spot virtuosity in jazz, blues and gospel. But pop also has a tradition of seemingly effortless polish — think of performers like Mel Torme or Dionne Warwick, performers who never let you see them sweat. Of course, it took them years of sweating to perfect that ability.

Douglas points to another, more recent view of the artist and of musical performance, one that has gained ground as musical production has becoming increasingly sophisticated and reliant on digital prowess.

Douglas: “The concept that musical performance is  a sport is somewhat different from the concept of the artist who says ‘I work in a medium.’ If the understood medium involves technology, then it would seem to me that any manipulation you have would be fair game.”

Douglas sees such artists not as athletes but as masters of technology and media. This is the musical performer as conceptual artist, as producer and sound engineer. And Douglas argues the new audio software that improves performances gives more artists more choices. They can show us the sweat and struggle, or they can give us impeccable perfection.

Douglas: “And so long as the musician is part of that choice, then that’s all part of the art. And the fact that we can do it instantaneously means it can be part of the performance.”