Tuning the simulacrum

20/02/2013 Comments Off on Tuning the simulacrum

Yesterday, I was singing along to One Direction with my daughter (hey, girl gotta have a boy band). From the sound of the album, they are avid users of Auto-Tune, the software for ‘adjusting’ vocal performances. The software is generally used to adjust singing to the ‘correct’ pitch; in the process, it changes the quality of the sound. Heavily used, it comes close to the synth voice sounds of the 1970s.

This morning, it was Joe Cocker and ‘Hitchcock Railway’. The album was in 1969, but I don’t know when the version I heard on the radio was done. There’s a massive blues-based rock piano that introduces the song and carries through. The part being blues-based, the piano is purposely out of tune. The old blues players had to work with whatever was available, pianos being notoriously hard to carry on one’s back. The pianos in the bars and honky-tonks where they played would be out of tune. That became part of the blues sound and continued into music like Cocker’s.

The thing about ‘Hitchcock Railway’ is that the piano is worse than anything I’ve heard on any blues recording. It’s particularly noticeable on the sevenths but you can hear it all the way through.

And so I wonder — has this out-of-tune tuning been chosen, been manufactured? Have they purposely fiddled with the piano strings to get the sound they want?

And then, given that the recording might have been from 1969, one wonders what might happen today. Would Cocker use Auto-Tune to do some post-production out-of-tuning to get the sound he wants?

Regardless of the method (analog or digital), this un-tuning is producing a simulation of a sound, a sound based in the poverty of the Mississippi Delta. But in ‘Hitchcock Railway’, this staged authenticity is different — quantitatively more — than the original.

Niall and the guys use Auto-Tuning for a ‘correct’ pitch, but simulating the wrong pitch seems exactly the same.


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