Vocal tuning is a process many of us take for granted, but it hasn’t always been so easy...
Auto-Tune arrived in 1997 as a plug-in for Avid’s (née Digidesign’s) Pro Tools. It was developed by Exxon engineer Dr Andy Hildebrand, who was working on acoustical software for interpreting seismic data and who saw its potential as a pitch-correction tool. Auto-Tune made its first impact on popular music on Cher’s 1998 single ‘Believe’, and since then, it’s become as much a cultural proposition as a technological one. Producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling’s extreme use of it with Cher aside, record engineers and producers embraced it as a way to tweak vocal pitch after singers hit their limits during long sessions (or to compensate for some talent deficiencies). It became the core product for the company Hildebrand founded around it, Antares.
But as the effect began to be used more purposefully, by artists like Kanye West and T-Pain (who literally predicated his entire career on the effect), the backlash began. At the 2009 Grammy Awards in LA, nominees Death Cab For Cutie wore blue ribbons on their lapels, not to raise awareness for some disease but to protest the “abuse” (frontman Ben Gibbard’s word) of Auto–Tune on records. Today, pitch correction runs the gamut from subtle fix to blatant gimmick. But well before Auto-Tune arrived, artists and producers had been looking for ways to accomplish the same effect. Clever engineers devised various methods to do this, but one in particular, in Nashville in the early ‘90s, turned it into a career.
Marty Williams was an engineer, working often at the multi-room Sound Stage Studios back then with producers like Jimmy Bowen and Bryan Gallimore, as well as running a small jingle and demo business with his partner Kirk Cappello, who also worked as band leader for country diva Reba McEntire. In the early 1990s, at least one enterprising engineer in Nashville had been using a Fairlight DAW for vocal tuning, but it was expensive and cumbersome. Williams remembers that “it was costing Bowen a fortune” getting vocals corrected on that platform.
In 1991, eight members of McEntire’s band and staff, including the 28-year-old Cappello, died in a tragic plane crash near San Diego. Williams closed down their small studio and in 1993 moved over to a room at Sound Stage, where he got an idea and saw an opportunity. At first, he put together a system consisting of a KAT Inc DrumKAT MIDI percussion controller, an Akai S1 sampler and some sequencing software, using the DrumKAT’s pitch-change function to tune vocals sampled through the S1, and then flying them back onto tape, sync’ed via timecode from the master reels. He demoed the process for Bowen and studio owner John Guess and, in Williams’ words, “they were immediately hooked”.
Williams started The Workstation, a business built around this service, in a room at nearby Masterfonics. At its height, Williams says he and a few staffers were working 18 hours a day, with tapes stacked floor to ceiling awaiting vocal touch-ups. Once Pro Tools came on the scene (Williams bought the first systems ever used in Nashville) the workflow became even more refined, including services like vocal comping. “Once we could see the waveform, that made a huge difference,” he says. Overflowing its existing space, The Workstation soon moved to nearby Sound Stage Studios, where Williams added a series of editing suites and a mix room.
At $75 an hour (about $116 in current dollars), Williams says the business was “incredibly successful”. Their services were in high demand at a time when country music, led by the so-called ‘next generation’ of artists like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, was bringing country closer than ever to mainstream pop — where every element of the production needed to be perfect. Vocal tuning became crucial for that. But while The Workstation was running around the clock, it was doing so under the radar.
“There are hundreds of records I worked on that I was never credited for,” Williams recalls. At least not for his trademark service, which many in Nashville felt should remain undisclosed lest the use of an artificial process taint the authenticity that country music waves as a banner. Masterfonics’ former owner Glenn Meadows, who’s still a leading mastering engineer in Nashville, remembers it more plainly: “They kept it quiet because the producers and the labels didn’t want to admit that some of their artists just couldn’t sing all that well.”
Williams, who notes that even slightly off–pitch tracks have always annoyed him, says he understood the need for discretion even though he always felt that correcting vocal pitch was really no different than any other processing applied to a recording. It’s a sentiment he shares with Hildebrand himself, who in a 2009 Nova PBS TV series episode said: “Pop music is entertainment, like movies. Is the actor who plays Batman ‘cheating’ because he can’t really fly?”
That the issue never made it beyond the confines of the studios at the time is a testament to the local industry’s discretion, considering the ubiquity of its use; Williams prefers not to specifically name any of the major artists whose records he tuned vocals for but says that it might be easier to enumerate the ones he didn’t.
What changed things was the arrival of Auto-Tune, which did for vocal processing what the Tascam Porta One did for multitrack recording: made it accessible to a far greater number of people, for better or for worse. Williams asserts that a trained ear can make Auto-Tune more valuable, but it was becoming clear that the genie was out of the bottle, and any sense of discretion permanently removed. By then, he was already moving onto other things, most notably the discovery and development, with Mark Bright, of Rascal Flatts, who have now sold close to 30 million records.
But those few years toiling under cover, as country lost a bit of its innocence in the face of both the digital tsunami and ever-increasing pressure to compete in the mainstream, remained an untold bit of history. Until now.