The Vocoder, Auto-Tune, Pitch Standardization and Vocal Virtuosity

Writing assignment for History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See a more informal introduction to the vocoder here.

Casual music listeners know the vocoder best as the robotic voice effect popular in disco and early hip-hop. Anyone who has heard pop music of the last two decades has heard Auto-Tune. The two effects are frequently mistaken for one another, and for good reason—they share the same mathematical and technological basis. Auto-Tune has become ubiquitous in recording studios, in two very different incarnations. There is its intended use, as an expedient way to correct out-of-tune notes, replacing various tedious and labor-intensive manual methods. Pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music producers have also found an unintended use for Auto-Tune, as a special effect that quantizes pitches to a conspicuously excessive degree, giving the voice a synthetic, otherworldly quality. In this paper, I discuss the history of the vocoder and Auto-Tune, in the context of broader efforts to use science and technology to mathematically analyze and standardize music. I also explore how such technologies problematize our ideas of virtuosity.

Ableton vocoder

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Ethnomusicology and the body

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

It is such a strange artifact of Cartesian dualism that we have to specify experiences as being “bodily,” as if there were some other kind. It’s like specifying that a place is in the universe.

René Descartes

Blacking (1977) observes that we can understand the convention of the mind/body dichotomy as a cultural construct, a reflection of the way that capitalism divides manual and mental labor, and puts pressure on us to use our bodies in a lopsided way (see, for example, my being hunched over my computer right now.) Furthermore, the mind-body split symbolizes the left brain/right brain split. The arts require both sides of the brain, and this may be their biological function in humans: to activate both brain hemispheres and let us attain a more complete and unified consciousness.

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The value of music

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

In a capitalist world, one job of anthropologists is to explain behavior that is “irrational” or “inefficient” (what even is the difference, right?) Anthropologists also get hired to understand the mindset of consumers, since economics has tended to regard individual humans as black boxes. When we decide what to buy, we must be constructing our unique individual or ethnic identities and forging social ties. However, the world of cool market-based appraisal and the jungle of irrationality in our cultural lives may not be so cleanly separated. Graeber (2005) points out that in English we use the same word for “having good values” and “getting good value for our money.”

We prefer to separate the sphere of the market, where goods are fungible, to the sphere of ethics, where we hope they aren’t. “Exchanges within a sphere are commensurable; conversions between spheres are incommensurable and incite moral anxiety” (Lambek 2013, 143). This makes me think of the Simpsons episode when a home security system salesman admonishes Homer: “But surely you can’t put a price on your family’s lives!” Homer responds: “I wouldn’t have thought so either, but here we are.”

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Ethnomusicology and world music

Writing assignment for Ethnomusicology: History and Theory with David Samuels

People like me listen to world music to hope for and imagine a world without imperialism. I’ve sampled Central African pygmy music in my own work, and while I do a better job of attributing my sources than Deep Forest does, I’m motivated by the same impulse.

Timothy Brennan attributes the popularity of African diasporic music among white people to our unconscious desire to resist imperial capitalism. The same is true of world music.

More than just expanding tastes, world music characterizes a longing in metropolitan centers of Europe and North America for what is not Europe or North America… It represents a flight from the Euro-self at the very moment of that self’s suffocating hegemony, as though people were driven away by the image stalking them in the mirror (Brennan 2001, 46).

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The vocoder and Auto-Tune

This post documents a presentation I’m giving in my History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See also a more formal history of the vocoder.

The vocoder is one of those mysterious technologies that’s far more widely used than understood. Here I explain what it is, how it works, and why you should care. A casual music listener knows the vocoder best as a way to make that robot voice effect that Daft Punk uses all the time.

Here’s Huston Singletary demonstrating the vocoder in Ableton Live.

This is a nifty effect, but why should you care? For one thing, you use this technology every time you talk on your cell phone. For another, this effect gave rise to Auto-Tune, which, love it or hate it, is the defining sound of contemporary popular music. Let’s dive in!

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My music technology syllabus

I use variations on this project list for all of my courses. In Advanced Digital Audio Production at Montclair State University, students do all of these assignments. Students in Music Technology 101 do all of them except the ones marked Advanced. My syllabus for the NYU Music Education Technology Practicum has an additional recording studio project in place of the final project. Here’s the project list in Google Spreadsheet format.

Music Ed Tech Practicum image

I talk very little about microphone technology or technique in my classes. This is because I find this information to only be useful in the context of actual recording studio work, and my classes do not have regular access to a studio. I do spend one class period on home recording with the SM58 and SM57, and talk a bit about mic technique for singers. I encourage students who want to go deeper into audio recording to take a class specifically on that subject, or to read something like the Moylan book.

My project-based approach is informed strongly by Matt Mclean and Alex Ruthmann. Read more about their methods here.

I do not require any text. However, for education majors, I strongly recommend Teaching Music Through Composition by Barbara Freedman and Music Technology and Education: Amplifying Musicality by Andrew Brown.

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The aQWERTYon pitch wheels and the future of music theory visualization

The MusEDLab will soon be launching a revamped version of the aQWERTYon with some enhancements to its visual design, including a new scale picker. Beyond our desire to make our stuff look cooler, the scale picker represents a challenge that we’ve struggled with since the earliest days of aQW development. On the one hand, we want to offer users a wide variety of intriguing and exotic scales to play with. On the other hand, our audience of beginner and intermediate musicians is likely to be horrified by a list of terms like “Lydian dominant mode.” I recently had the idea to represent all the scales as colorful icons, like so:

Read more about the rationale and process behind this change here. In this post, I’ll explain what the icons mean, and how they can someday become the basis for a set of new interactive music theory visualizations.

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My first Musicto playlist

I have started working with a startup called Musicto, which creates playlists curated by humans around particular themes. For example: music to grieve to, music to clean house to, music to fight evil. My first playlist is music to sing your hipster baby to sleep.

Music to sing your hipster baby to sleep

These are songs I have been singing to my kids, and that I recommend you sing to yours. It isn’t just a playlist, though. Each track is accompanied by a short blog post explaining what’s so special about it. New tracks will be added regularly in the coming weeks. If you’d like, you can follow the playlist on Twitter. If this sounds like the kind of thing you might enjoy putting together, the company is seeking more curators.