1. Down With Singing Rodents!
Rumor has it that computer software exists that can shift a pop singer’s voice if it’s not perfectly in tune with the underlying music. This technology has been around for some time.
A Google search quickly confirms this. Products advertise that they can be used to shift singer’s recorded voices to create the “classic pitch shift effect,” whatever that is, as well as correct “intonation problems” in recorded music where singer is off-key. One software program claims to use to complex mathematical models of sound transmission through the human skull to reduce the “singing rodent” effect supposedly more noticeable in competing products.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of Sheryl Crow. She’s not only a great artist, but a great (and controversial) cultural icon for the United States photo/article article here). And I’m a great fan of technology. But I intensely dislike singing rodents.
Listening to “The Light in Your Eyes,” I could swear that at some point someone’s gone in and manipulated the pitch of Sheryl Crow and her backup singers during a fast trill at the end of some of verse lines. (A musical trill is where the music rapidly alters its frequency around a single note to create a pleasing effect.) Probably some sound engineer (perhaps at the behest of some evil recording industry executive, whom we’re told don’t really understand music artistry) didn’t like the way the fast trill sounded naturally, so they figured they could just go in and fix it with the computer.
Now, I have some advice for future recording and software engineers contemplating using computers to do manipulate singers’ trills. First off, don’t. We’re supposed to think that some really talented high school band could have produced the album. That means the singers are professionals who sound superb when singing a fast trill and don’t need computer enhancement.
However, if you feel you must tamper with Sheryl’s voice, I have suggested changes for your software. When a singer is following a trill on a musical instrument (or another singer), there will be a subconsciously noticeable delay. That’s because the singer will need to first hear the new note played on the instrument, or sung by the lead singer, before she can match that note with her own voice. Secondly, and more importantly, you may not have realized this, but a singer’s vocal chords are actually wind instruments, not a keyboard. So when a singer does a very fast trill, it’s going to sound more like a fast trill on a wind instrument (say a flute) than it will on a keyboard or piano. Wind instruments, unlike keyboards, can produce continuous variations in frequency, and tend to sweep around notes during a fast trill. (Keyboard-like instruments and some computers, on the other hand, are stuck with discrete-sounding notes during a trill.)
Change your software to add those tiny delays and that continuous sweep-that’s where all the artistry is. Otherwise, if you hear Sheryl Crow and her backup singers doing completely synchronized, millisecond jumps between discrete notes during a fast trill, then you know it’s a computer that’s doing the singing and not Sheryl Crow.
Remember when your music teacher kept saying “Together! Together” during lessons to scold you for not playing your chords together? Well, it turns out he or she was giving you bad advice. (Which is probably why he or she ended up a music teacher rather than a professional artist.) Scientists have studied professional musicians (there was even a Nova program about it on the U.S. PBS TV network). They asked one pianist to play music “artistically” and then “robotically,” and recorded the timing of his keystrokes on a simple MIDI keyboard. The artist was only playing the chords completely “together” and in sync when he was playing the music “robotically,” like a computer (or musical “stenographer”) would. When he was asked to play “artistically,” he would play the melody line or another voice slightly out-of-sync to help emphasize that voice.
Music, it seems, conveys an emotional message to the brain. Studies have been done using simple, musical-like sounds, and people from different cultures have the same emotional response when listening to the same simple, musical-like sounds. By playing different musical registers out-of-sync in way that’s not explicitly prescribed by the sheet music, the artist is helping convey that emotional message to the listener.
In other words, the real musical artistry is in those improvised and spontaneous delays and subtle dissonances that convey emotion. Computers aren’t human. They don’t understand emotion. If you use a computer to correct those and cause the singers to sing a “perfect” fast trill, you eliminate the artistry and emotional message hidden in the supposed “imperfections.”
Worse, if you use a computer to tamper with singers’ voices, they might end up sounding like “singing rodents,” according to at least one software manufacturer. Oh, and, you won’t be to do this while your performers are singing in concert, either. (Unless you plan to lip-sync everywhere.)
Finally, I don’t think you need to tamper with the voice of a great singer like Sheryl Crow. Listen to “Soak up the Sun.” There are plenty of natural trills that (OK, the trills are a little slower in that one), and Sheryl and her backup singers have no problems nailing them without the use of any computer software (that my ears can immediately detect). Of course, even with the computer tampering, “The Light in Your Eyes” is still a great song (although maybe it sounds better on the road). It, and many other great Sheryl Crow albums are available off Amazon.com (link below).
2. Sheryl Crow as Cultural Ambassador, or, Send Sheryl Crow to the Middle East (if security weren’t an issue)!
I don’t always agree with her, but I respect Sheryl for adding her voice to the political discourse in this country, often in risky and courageous ways (photo here). It’s clear from what happened to Sheryl’s friends, The Dixie Chicks (photo here) that Sheryl took a huge risk in advocating her controversial position. Other celebrities who have loudly expressed similar views reported haven’t fared especially well, either. Filmmaker Michael Moore is reportedly receiving death threats article. Given all of this, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when conservatives vandalized my non-political employer’s washroom (photo/article).
Some in the U.S. are proposing a “Corporation for Public Diplomacy,” like the Corporation for Public Broadcast that runs PBS stations in the U.S., except that instead of broadcasting in the U.S., it would send cultural ambassadors like Sheryl Crow to places like the Middle East to help improve misconceptions about the U.S. there that are currently going unanswered (article on CPD). This is a different type of diplomacy—cultural exchange and rock concerts instead of bombs and torture chambers—and it will undoubtedly remain a controversial idea, both here and overseas.
3. Final Thoughts
Using pitch-shifting software to sing recorded trills definitely gets a “thumbs down” from me. The difference between a naturally sung trill, with its subtle delays and dissonances, and a computer generated one is like the difference, as Sheryl might sing in one of her songs, between the sun and moon.
There many reasons to overlook this minor fault in this one particular song. Sheryl’s music, in addition to its musical quality, is also noted for its catchy and poetic lyrics. They relate to ordinary life in Southern California. For example, as I air my views by writing this review, I see from my window that the rest of the good people of the world are planning to wash and hose down their cars until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard today. Well, maybe not quite, but it was fun to sneak in a quick paraphrase of her lyrics here from an older song. Just can’t get those great Sheryl Crow lyrics out of my mind…. “Light in Your Eyes” is no exception.
Security issues aside, sending Sheryl Crow to the Middle East as a cultural ambassador would be very cool—and very controversial, as judged by the immediate angry response I received from a Jordan man in response to my suggestion: link).
“The Light in Your Eyes” and many other great Sheryl Crow albums are available from Amazon.com.