Dec 21, 2011
The message of this post is simple, short and sincere. In fact, it could almost be an open letter:
Dear Peter Jackson,
PLEASE ask your audio engineers to stop auto-tuning the dwarves.
What the hell am I talking about ? Well, check out the first official trailer for the new film of the “The Hobbit”, above.
It’s a great trailer. As a massive fan of both the books and the films of “Lord Of The Rings”, I’m very excited. But after seeing this trailer, I’m also now very nervous.
Why ? Just listen to the use of auto-tune in that song. It’s not blatant – not like the X-Factor’s ill-fated experiment last year – but it leapt out at me within the first few notes, and again and again throughout the song. (The close-micing and miming doesn’t help either, but let’s stay focused.)
Now, call me a stuck-in-the-mud fuddy-duddy traditionalist, but I don’t quite recall the exact moment where Tolkien described how Gandalf fired up a quick “sound like T-Pain” charm while the dwarves sat around Bilbo’s fire and sang of gold and dragons. I wouldn’t put it past the elves, mind you, but not the dwarves…
Which film in the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy was the best ? For me, unexpectedly, it was the second – “The Two Towers”. In no small part, because it relied least heavily on CGI.
It felt more real, and personally that’s what I want from a film of Tolkien – I want a cinama experience that will immerse me as deep into the story as the books did when I first read them as a ten-year-old. And as they did again when I read “The Hobbit” to my seven-year-old for the first time last month.
And there’s nothing that will jolt me out of my state of suspended disbelief faster than hearing that most unnatural of 20th-century music tools, the auto-tune box. It made Cher sound like a robot, it makes Michael Buble sound like a robot, and it makes Thorin sound like a robot.
And if there’s one thing they don’t have in Middle-Earth, it’s robots.
There may yet be hope
I haven’t given up on the film just yet – mainly because this is only a trailer, and since the song features prominently, I can imagine some exec somewhere suddenly deciding that the dwarves’ vocal performances were a bit shaky right at the last minute, so auto-tune may well have been applied as an after-thought, and it won’t come anywhere near the finished film. I really hope so.
And in case anyone misunderstands, this doesn’t mean I want out-of-tune dwarves.
Because the good news is – its perfectly possible to improve the tuning of any musical performance, without auto-tune – even a dwarf.
How to tune a dwarf
You do it by hand.
(Stop sniggering at the back, Gimli ! Oin and Gloin, don’t even get me started on you…)
You work through the performance, note-by-note if necessary, and tweak the tuning by hand – pitch-shifting or time-scrunching the audio up and down as necessary, through a process of skill and trial-and-error to find what works.
But wherever possible, you only do it to whole notes, not within the note.
Which means, you retain all the essence of the original performance. Slight shifts and twists in tuning that aren’t problems, they’re character and emotion. Exactly the things you get from real, great vocal perfomances.
The result is something that still sounds real, true, natural – and also in tune.
It takes longer, it takes skill and patience, but it sounds so much better – especially with harmonies. Auto-tuned harmonies end up sounding like synths, somehow – or like choirs of robots out of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Share And Enjoy!) Check out the dwarves in the trailer at 1’26″ and 1’42″ to hear a milder version.
Whereas well-tuned vocals, like those from a great singer (or a well-tuned less-great-singer) sound rich, and exciting, and emotional – exactly the feeling you need from a ragged band of dispossessed dwarves singing gloomily about regaining the long-lost treasure that’s rightfully theirs.
So come on, Peter – do the right thing, if you weren’t going to already – send the songs in the film back to the studio and get them tuned by hand.
Care and attention is lavished on every other aspect of these films, the songs deserve it too. You can do what you like with the end credits (although seriously, did Annie Lennox really need autotune ?) – but in the film, it’s just plain wrong.
And if your engineers look blank, or tell you auto-tune sounds better ? Send it to me, and I’ll prove them wrong.