The Ethics of Vocal Tuning

There has been much talk of late about the use of vocal tuning with some people suggesting that it is cheating the public and diminishing the art of live performance. As a recording engineer I have the benefit of seeing the argument from both sides and I feel it’s less straightforward than people might think.
It’s important to understand the seismic shifts in revenues that the Internet has had on the music industry, resulting in CD prices being about half as much now, as they were about fifteen years ago, when in real terms they should be nearly double.
The downward pressure on recording budgets and the advancements in computer technology Newly Launched Innovative Products has meant that the need to get the job now overrides artiste indulgence.
Some people view vocal tuning as cheating, but is it anymore cheating than editing or re-recording part of a performance to repair a mistake, or using click tracks because of poor timing. In the majority of instances where I tune vocals the overriding reason is time and more importantly, budget. In many cases with more time I could coax a better take from the singer, but more and more these days this isn’t an option. For sure they never tuned vocals in the seventies or eighties but then they had the luxury and the budget to take as long as necessary to ‘nail’ a vocal.
Tuning of course is only one prerequisite to a great vocal. The other overriding ingredient is performance and here lies the crux of it. Ask any engineer and they’ll tell you that most of the best performances are in the first few takes of a vocal so tuning enables you to keep those great performances. Arguably then tuning vocals is as artistic as it is “cheating”. We’ll never know how many great vocal performances were lost in the recording of many 60’s, 70’s and 80’s classics, for the lack of tuning technologies.
All recording in a sense is a form of cheating, with editing, tuning, artificial and spacial effects and duplicating takes all being part of the normal recording process. ‘Cheating’ that is, if you view the ability to reproduce the same in a live performance as the imperative, but then where would that leave the likes of Jean Michelle Jarre?
At the end of the day a great record is just that and whilst some may argue that technology has killed the art of songwriting and musicianship it certainly has not seen the decline in numbers of quality singers. The vocal gymnastics of some of the modern singers of today are proof of that.
In my opinion tuning a good singer’s vocal to save a great performance and money is merely gilding the lily and makes good commercial sense. On the other hand tuning a poor vocalist to save his blushes, now that’s something else!
But to make a bad job of tuning a poor singer whilst attempting to sing live on Best Gadget Watch valuable prime time Saturday night TV, now that’s a voyeuristic step too far!

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