It began with a Facebook post made by a well-known (and well liked) US sound engineer/tech/commentator – the vocal feed from a Britney Spears concert originally posted on YouTube with the strap line, ‘what she REALLY sounds like!’
The vocal was everything you knew it would be. And everything you knew it wouldn’t – no further comment needed. But it did prompt a debate that’s worth exploring.
The comments prompted by the original YouTube post were poorly-informed and readily descended into fans bragging about various artists and demeaning others. But it did contain two essentials – the conflicting physical demands made by dance and voice, and the use of Auto-Tune for live performance.
It seemed a good time to take an informed look at performance, as Rihanna's casual approach to her appearance on X Factor – a talent show, no less – had won her a broadside from the UK press. For me, it brought together a couple of threads. The most recent was a radio interview with renowned choreographer Rafael Bonachela. Then there were Robbie McGrath’s comments about the special relationship that exists between a good FOH engineer and artist.
So I reposted the YouTube link to see what a Fast-and-Wide audience might have to say. I wasn't surprised when I didn’t have to wait long to find out...
It was quickly identified as ‘a classic case of the FOH engineer giving the web feed guys the wrong vocal channel output’.
‘They usually have the lead vocal and the rest of the music and ambient sound mixed on a second channel,’ the reply (from Singapore) went on. ‘It’s no secret Britney lipsyncs, and she does sing along with her backing track, which is what you are hearing in this live feed. But they are only supposed to use her live track faintly under her pre-recorded track. Yes, I do mix front of house and yes, I’m a geek...’
‘Few pro audio people will be surprised to hear this, but that’s not really the point, is it?’ came a second voice response from France. ‘The question is more: should this go public? Artists should be able to trust their technical crew.’
A short while ago, I had listened to Robbie McGrath give a talk to students at dBs Music (see Live and Dangerous: Tomorrow's Sound Crew). This covered the need for FOH engineers to ‘support’ their artists, including covering a poor performance by any means possible should the need arise. This seemed to take things a step further – someone here had actively betrayed (or exposed) Britney by putting this into the public domain.
‘Heard lots like this in my time,’ offered a UK voice. ‘Loads of this embarrassing stuff has circulated in pro circles for years (eg. the infamous Troggs Tapes of the 1970s). But, of course, no-one ever made it public, because it would be a complete dereliction of professional trust. I have witnessed mountains of truly insane stuff in my career (it would make the tabloids salivate), but no way am I ever going to try and gain notoriety by revealing any of it – obviously not.’
‘The fact that she can’t sing a note is not the surprise,’ agreed another UK industry name. ‘The surprise is that someone on her touring crew leaked this. The industry better hope this doesn’t happen too often, otherwise some major balloons are going to get burst.’
To sing or to dance?
With his own Bonachela Dance Company sitting alongside appointments that include Associate Choreographer of the Rambert Dance Company, Artist in Residence at the Southbank Centre in London and Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Company, his work with Kylie Minogue and Tina Turner might seem incongrous – if not demeaning. But Bonachela makes no apologies. Instead, he points out that his dance routines for Kylie are constrained by her wish to sing live, rather than hide behind a backing track.
So it doesn’t necessarily have to be a choice between song and dance, but often is. Who makes the call?
It may be the artists, as in Kylie’s case, but audience expectations are clearly a big factor. When a show is sold as a sound and light extravaganza, that’s what an audience expects.
‘I think audiences want a show, a spectacle even,’ came a new voice from the US. ‘If that means the vocals – even the music – comes via Auto-Tune or off Pro Tools they don’t care. It’s nothing new, but current technology makes it easier to achieve. I think many would be surprised by how many artists use AT and PT live. The audio set-up for the Grammy Awards this year included a position for an Auto-Tune operator.’
A return comment from the US seemed to signal consensus: ‘I think the key is that entertainment is what a live pop music show is primarily all about – and artists should be forgiven for the tools they use to achieve it.’
‘It’s pretty impossible to imagine anyone giving an acceptable vocal performance whilst jivvying around the stage,’ it continued. ‘The only thing one might criticise is the focus of the show being a spectacle rather than musical excellence. On that I would say she has become victim of current concert fashion trends – this is the kind of show her audience demands of her.’
Then it was lost…
A US producer – of some note – felt rather differently: ‘I’m so tired of excuses from contemporary singers claiming it’s too hard to sing and dance at the same time. Think: Sammy Davis Jr, Michael Jackson at ten years, James Brown… any number of performers every night on Broadway. Yes it’s too hard, if you don’t have the talent!’
‘I’ve done more live show recordings than I can remember – and when you get to mix it down and solo individual vocal tracks, I’ve heard stuff every bit as bad as this from some of the top talent,’ came a response from the UK. ‘The biggest technique they applied was to concentrate only on parts where they were singing alone and let go on parts that were drowned out by others in the line-up. That’s OK on stage, but a nightmare if you mix for listening on its own. No Auto-Tune in those days – all you could do is let them be drowned out on the mix too.. :-(’
‘Performers from previous generations did work harder on their craft,’ our US producer maintained. ‘For example, check out old live Beatle clips on YouTube and check out how good the vocal tuning in three-part harmony is, when they didn’t have any monitors and they couldn’t possibly hear themselves above the screaming. I too have mixed some of these “old school” performers and the reality is they sing better (whether jumping around on the stage or not).’
‘The key word here is entertainment,’ came a returning UK voice, with a link to a Barbra Streisand performance in close pursuit. ‘The fact that a huge number of people pay big money to see acts like Britney is what keeps us all employed. Everyone in pro audio knows – or should know – that as professional people it’s not our place or our job to criticise the talent. Our role is to deliver the experience as well as possible to every seat in the house, be that via audible or visual means. With the greatest possible respect, acts like Britney, Kylie, Lady Gaga and many others are not singers, they are performers. Their audiences come to see a show, a spectacle, which is exactly what the paying punters here saw, and with a bit of luck they all went home happy – if so then everyone involved has done their gig. We are in the business of entertaining people, we’re not music critics. Personally, I’m disappointed that this material has come into the public domain, because it is absolutely not in our interests for the paying public to know the facts behind the glitter.’
The conversation did not close here, but it’s where we will leave it. And open it to other points of view…
How do we weigh performance against spectacle? When does an artist become an entertainer at the cost of their core performance? Do social media like YouTube and Facebook threaten to undermine the professional standing of artist and technician, and are we contributing to your own downfall?
We need to know…