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Sheryl Crow’s “The Light in Your Eyes” as cultural ambassador, and why I dislike singing rodents!

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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.

Indeed, my humorous suggestion of a Sheryl Crow concert in the Middle East drew an immediate, angry response from someone in that very conservative part of the world (here, my response).

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.

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About E.E.A. Eaton

  • Eric Olsen

    EEA, another fascinating post – you are an exceptional addition to the site. Thanks!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3326636 E.E.A. Eaton

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I was wondering what other readers thought…. Did any of them catch the suspect trills? What do they think of Sheryl Crow as cultural ambassador, or her political stances?

    In another post, you mention that “World Peace” was canceled in Vietnam. These are some of the types of events that would be sponsored by the proposed CPD were it chartered by Congress…. Do people think it would be effective? My own sense is that it would be (if you follow my link the post you’ll see why) because from talking with people that have lived in Middle East it’s clear that there is a great deal of un-countered propaganda in the media in that part of the world….

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    “The first cut is the deepest…”

    Oh, so sorry. I thought this was the self-mutilation topic. My sincerest apologies.

    Anyone want to hear a great story about Sheryl Crow’s ass and the airport? True story.

    God, I’m funny.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3326636 E.E.A. Eaton

    I might regret this later, but let’s hear the “great story”…. ;-)

    I think you are referring to photo on my site (here
    in which Sheryl makes a controversial political statement — I believe it was taken at an airport.

    Personally, I’m more of a hawk (and you’ll get that sense if you read my blog), but I am dismayed that so many people seem to have forgotten just how vital political debate in this country is.

    People think they go around vandalizing property (read the post above for that link), effectively censoring people (at least the accusation being made byt he likes of Michael Moore, Ken Burns, even Dan Rather).

    It’s not in any ones interest to muzzle thoughtful points of view simply because we don’t agree with them.

  • Eric Olsen

    no it isn’t E.E.A., I agree

  • Sandra Smallson

    Get used to it. The acoustic guitarists bemoaned the arrival of electric guitars for tens of reasons. Now nobody blinks an eye. It’s life. the world evolves. Enjoy it if it sounds good. If u want to hear Sheryl sing without the new puter wizadry, catch her on her next tour. Simple as that.

  • http://dear-free-world.blogspot.com E.E.A. Eaton

    My main point was, if you read my article closely, is that, in this case, it didn’t improve the sound or sound particularily good, and could have been used to better effect. That’s always going to be a valid criticism, even if you approve of this type of “puter wizardry” as you call it.

    A real artist, when playing chords, introduces a slight, barely perceptible delay when playing the melody line (or some other register) to help bring it out. The amount of the delay contains the emotion message that is music.

    A computer, when given sheet music, doesn’t do this. (Unless you program it in, which the standard software doesn’t. Even then, the computer is going to have a hard time varying that subtle delay to introduce the right sense of emotion, spontaneity in response to the changing music.)

    I suppose what someone could do is play the notes to be sung (the trill) on a MIDI keyboard to introduce the right subtle delays for each singer (in a way that cannot be deduced directly from the sheet music). Then they could use software to convert those keystrokes to time trill sweeps, like a wind instrument playing a fast trill. That would almost be natural. (I’d swear there’s still some distortion. I was listening to a song, and noticed a slight distortion at the end of phrases. I guess someone felt the singer was a touch lazy and wasn’t holding the final note quite long enough, and decided to do an enhancement on the computer rather than re-singing. So now you a digital artifact at the end of every stanza.).

    I don’t quite get the relationship with electric guitars. Granted, they were new-fangled instruments at the time, but there were plenty of ways to introduce spontaneity and artistry with them. The person who enhanced this song used the computer to eliminate that artistry and emotion by bringing in the singers into perfect unison during the trill, effectively turning them into robots.

    They’ve ‘Stepfordized’ them. (And yeah, I wrote two linked reviews (here) for blogcritics.org on that as well.)

    If you really believe in this type of computer enhancement, my review tells you how to do it right, so that it sounds better — more artistic and more natural, and results in a genuine enhancement rather than a ‘Stepfordization.’

    It’s interesting that you seem to agree with me that the singers’ trills in “The Light in Your Eyes” likely have been computer “enhanced.”

    We just disagree as to whether that made them sound or better or worse. I argued that the technology could have been used to much better artistic effect.

  • Sistahkuz

    hey, every studio uses pitch correction, it is a standard procedure. after everything is done, and sounds fine. you STILL run it through, just to be sure, because nobody is perfect all the time.Its the old story we have technology so we use it, some guyz over use it, some guyz like to create quirky sounds to set an artist or song apart from the rest.It is a digital world we live in.If artists did everything analog you’d complain it sounds to real, not perfect enough by todays new standards.

  • djmips

    “The Light in Your Eyes”… isn’t that a LeAnn Rimes song? Not to take away from your good point. You can also hear similar and very bad sounding maninpulation on recent Kelly Clarkson pop tunes.

  • Junkyard Dawg

    Pitch correction is old stuff nowdays. It is also used during live concerts which you said could not be done but it is, and really helps when the artist is moving around or trying to strum wildly on guitar at the same time.

    Then again sometimes you get a good vibe going on a song and even though it’s not perfect the energy that happend in that particular recording makes it worth sticking with.

    All in all it’s music and it’s up to the artist to create it. Your job is to listen to what you like.

  • Dale Birmingham

    I guess you didn’t listen to the music, the words, the meaning of the song, just your dribble on how the music industry is stealing yout mind, who gives a fuck on the computer hack, het a life. You my are a complete idiot. Go play in the freeway…..