OK, before we start, I need to get something straight.
Aretha Franklin is a legend, one of the greatest singers of all time, and if she chooses to sing through a kazoo whilst breathing helium, that’s fine with me.
Seriously, you just don’t argue with talent like that.
But I am going to argue with her production team.
Because they’ve messed up her new single on SO many levels – in my not-so humble opinion.
And despite the title of this post, there’s so much more wrong with this than just the auto-tune, unfortunately.
Let’s talk about the auto-tune first
Production Advice reader Steady Fingers messaged me on Facebook this morning with a heads-up about Aretha’s new single, a cover of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” from the forthcoming album “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics”.
He thought he was hearing auto-tune being used on Aretha’s vocals, so I took a quick listen.
Sadly I had to I agree with him – there were glaringly obvious artefacts at some points, and the more you listen, the more you hear it.
But that’s just the beginning.
I also have a mass of other complaints about what I’m hearing – none of which have anything to do with Aretha’s performance – but I’ll get to those in a minute.
Firstly – so what ?
What if someone did use auto-tune on this record ? I said it before, I’ll say it again – Aretha is a legend. And she’s 72 years of age ! Maybe she needs a little technological assistance, these days ?
A quick google revealed a live perfomance of “Rolling In The Deep” on the Letterman show – take a listen:
Does it sound like Aretha needs auto-tune to you ?
Nope – me either. Sure, it’s not a flawless performance, but you know what ? It knocks the stuffing out of the single version on almost every count, for me.
On the single, you can hear the side-effects auto-tune all the way through. In the first line alone, there are two characteristic “warbles” – in the middle of the word “heart”, and at the end of “reaching”. It’s there at the start of almost every vocal phrase, and even more clearly at 2’28”, where the line “Throw your soul through every open door” sounds more Daft Punk than Soul Diva.
But what I also hear, and almost upsets me more, is the lacklustre, plodding arrangment, swamped in loudness-war distortion and peak-level crush – and don’t even get me started on the inept vocal comping.
Wait, vocal what ?
It’s short for “compiling”, and it’s the process of combining multiple takes of the same song to get the best parts of each one.
It’s standard practise in recording studios, and has been for decades. Done right, it can combine several great takes of a song into one stellar production.
But in this case, it’s a car-crash – in my opinion.
The single makes her sound stiff, un-natural, robotic – and at times, as if Aretha is being rushed, or can’t keep up with the tempo of the backing.
Whereas the live version proves that’s not true – it feels fluid, natural, musical and real.
What’s the reason ?
Too much vocal editing.
In the live version, Aretha’s performance is loose and relaxed, weaving in and out of the beat, playing off the performances of the back-up singers and band.
Musical, in other words.
But in the single, she’s been digitally sliced and diced, re-timed and tweaked to be metronomically, monotonously on-the-beat.
Much of the musicality and feel has been sucked out as a result, so when she was probably just singing slightly behind the beat in the original performance, it’s been “corrected” to stay in time with the (probably programmed) drums.
As a result, the feel doesn’t work. It makes the vocal sound rushed – literally as if Aretha didn’t have time to catch a breath.
Listen to the join between the phrases “Don’t underestimate the things that I will do / There’s a fire starting in my heart” about 30 seconds into the song – there’s no breath, and the lines almost run into one another. That to me is a clear sign of editing one take into another, or maybe even recording phrase-by-phrase.
An even more obvious example happens at 2’38”, when the two takes of Aretha’s voice literally overlap each other – you can even see it in Izotope RX’s spectral view !
And don’t even ask me about the sound – if you ever wanted evidence that the loudness wars are still in full effect, look no further than this track. It’s been thrashed within in inch of it’s life, despite being quite a retro-sounding song.
In this case, it would actually have been better if they’d taken their cue from Daft Punk !
Is it REALLY that bad ?
The thing is, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these techniques – you’ll find them on almost any mainstream pop or rock song released today. Many couldn’t be released without them!
The difference is that when they’re applied to an artist of Aretha’s calibre, who we know and love for her ability to sing anything, they stand out by a mile.
The overall effect – the stomping beat and dull, lacklustre arrangement; the burbling, artificial autotune; the feel-free vocal editing and the stifling loudness-war squash – is that the single feels laboured, lifeless and uncomfortable.
Whereas the live performance feels open, lively and engaging.
And it proves that none of the technical jiggery-pockery was necessary ! Aretha can still sing, still perform live convincingly.
So why did it happen ?
We’ll probably never know. Maybe the production was rushed, because of time and budget restrictions – they usually are, these days. Maybe someone in the studio team did all these things because they thought “That’s what you do” in a 21st century recording studio.
Maybe someone in the production chain insisted on it, because they’ve been hypnotised into thinking it’s necessary to sell records, just as they have been by the “loudness war FUD”.
Whatever the case, it’s a crying shame, and I’ll bet Aretha knew nothing about it. If she did, she was probably told “everybody does it” – which would be true.
But that doesn’t mean they should do it to her.
The truth is, if they’d just booked a cracking band, recorded a few live takes, picked the best and released that – it would have sounded ten times better and sold just as many copies. Maybe more.
The fact that they didn’t – well, call it a cheap shot, but in my opinion – it just shows a lack of Respect.