Auto-tune (is) the news

See a followup post on the Gregorys’ breakout hit, the “Bed Intruder Song.”

The Gregory Brothers (including a sister-in-law) are musicians here in Brooklyn who have a series of videos called Auto-tune The News. Here are a selection of their better episodes as of this writing.

The Gregory Brothers also produce straight R&B tracks. With all possible respect, I don’t find their serious music to be anything special. It’s when they submerse themselves in TV that they shine the brightest. The internet doesn’t have a lot of info about their production techniques, all I could find was an interview where Michael Gregory says:

Logic Express was a godsend for composition–it has an enormous sample library. I use it for all my audio now. For vocal processing, auto-tune and melodyne plug-ins come in super handy. I use Final Cut Express for all the editing, but the capture feature is somehow rubbish, so iMovie gets called in for that.

So there’s a lot of very sophisticated computer software at work, though with a charming zer0-budget lameness of video compositing and audio mixing. I imagine when they wind up on Comedy Central or wherever, the production values will get a little more slick.

Musically, these videos are working for me. If they slowed the tempos down and found some heavier kick and snare sounds, they’d be ready for the radio. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. My own experiments with Auto-tune show any kind of human speech as pretty tonal to begin with. When you automatically tune someone talking to the closest piano-key pitches, it makes it easier to make out the melodies that were already present. The Gregorys do a lot of further manipulation and harmonizing, but their best moments come from unintended speech melodies, like Joe Biden shouting “God bless America”, from space.

Some languages are more tonal than others. Chinese uses pitch to differentiate words semantically, the way English uses combinations of vowels and consonants. The same string of phonemes spoken at different pitches in Mandarin might have completely different meanings as words. Even in English, we use pitch to communicate punctuation, emotional stance and other metadata. Read this out loud to see what I mean:

Okay?

Okay.

Okay…

Okay!

Speech has a lot of profound overlaps with music, to the point where it’s sometimes difficult to draw the line between them. This is I why I’m convinced by the theory that music is the evolutionary precursor of language, the bridge between monkey calls and our present communications systems.

By quantizing and digitizing information, you make it easier to memorize and replicate it. I find myself humming phrases from the Gregorys’ videos the way I hum Andrew Lloyd Webber. Digitized sound information is easier to memorize, store and copy. The subtle nuances of Katie Couric’s speech with all the pitches on a continuous spectrum are difficult to remember and imitate, but once it’s Auto-tuned, it becomes effortless. Digitizing data in any medium makes it much more robust across many generations of copies. DNA is a digital medium – the G, A, T and C of your genes can be logically expressed as ones and zeros, and ones and zeros can be replicated flawlessly and endlessly.

I find Auto-tune bottomlessly entertaining to listen to. Jay-Z and many of my friends say they’re tired of it, but I’m not. I can understand why you might be getting a little burned out on it if you listen to pop radio. However, there’s a lot of resistance out there to Auto-tune that’s too deep and intense to just come from jadedness with a music fad. The Time magazine article about the Gregorys allows that Auto-tune “isn’t always a way to cheat.” I find that funny. How can Auto-tune be cheating? How can you cheat at music? It’s not a competitive sport. I prefer to think of music as more like a game. You can play better or worse, but there aren’t really winners and losers. We’re adept at coming up with systems of rules for music, but we get carried away with that. Who cares how you make it so long as it sounds good?

If Auto-tune causes you distress because you care about authenticity in your music, I can understand that. I resisted “fake” music through most of my teens and twenties. Now I regret all the effort, but I guess I had a point. I was worried that someone was trying to put something over on me. I gave up my desire for authenticity after it became clear that it’s an impossible dream. There is no authenticity anywhere.

Ever since the sixties, we urban elites have fetishized the bluegrass of the forties as a pure folk form. But Bill Monroe wasn’t some naive backwoods hick. He designed his music deliberately for its commercial appeal to a particular audience. For instance, all that intense treble was there to cut through radio static and low-tech mics and mixing desks. This doesn’t make Bill Monroe’s music any less truthful or good. I commend him for finding a way to reach a mass audience with such idiosyncratic, regionally specific music.

I don’t think there’s anything magical or transcendent about good music. It’s like good food, if you make it with care and attention, then it makes people feel good. Sometimes you’re cooking for yourself, sometimes you’re cooking for anyone who walks in the door, sometimes you’re cooking for paying customers. It depends on the situation which recipes are going to work the best.

The half-life for “bad” inauthentic pop music to decay into “good” authentic art music seems to about one generation. The analog synths and drum machines that sounded so fake and lame in the seventies and eighties are cherished vintage gear today. Even the digital samplers of the eighties have attained authentic status because of the digital crunchiness you get from the low sampling rate. I’ll bet you anything that future hipsters are going to fetishize Auto-tune once the pop mainstream has safely abandoned it.

Potentially the most offensive but also the least ironic video by the Gregorys is this one:

Here’s the mp3 if you want to download it. It makes me a little uncomfortable, especially the greenscreened backup singer thing, which feels disrespectful. But I can’t argue with the message. I’d like to hear a producer with more chops do a version of this, maybe at a mellower tempo with less embellishment. Imagine turning on the news and seeing that speech. Either version.

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