Toby Alingtion: But is it Live? Tuning and editing in post-production

There was a bit of a debacle in 2011 around the alleged use of auto-tuning contestants’ vocals on The X Factor. Well, in fairness, this was a talent show and once the cat was out of the bag Simon Cowell “…banned producers from ever using this software again.” We’ve had the same edict – quite rightly – for The Voice UK, in that no fixing-up of artists’ performances is allowed. How on earth can you judge a singer if you can’t hear what they can do without the aid of toys, which, as has often been said, can make anyone sound good.

But in the post-produced world, what is or isn’t live? If we tamper with a live performance, are we betraying the audience or do we use these techniques simply because of audience expectation? And what about fixing the odd wrong bass note, re-timing an out of place kick-drum, re-recording the backing vocals, enhancing the audience? You can start at the very thin end of the wedge and say what about simply hiding something less than perfect in the mix? How come reverbs, ADT’s, delays and so on are forgivable (all of which can be very flattering when applied in the right way), but pitch and timing correction is not?

So there’s clearly some kind of line-of-integrity to be drawn if we’re worried about not portraying a live performance faithfully. I remember a while back having a good debate over a few beers with a classical fan, who started berating the pop-world for being unable to put a performance on TV or DVD without all these fixes, without the Photoshop techniques of the musical world. I pointed out that most classical CDs contain hundreds of edits between different takes, and that most classical TV/DVD shoots are followed by a patching session, with or without the live audience staying behind. In the pop/rock world, we can’t really ask a band to start a patching session at eleven o’clock at night once the audience have cleared, so we find our own way of making it sound that little bit better. He had to agree that it’s all indeed a smoke-and-mirrors world, translating a performance into something the audience want to hear whatever the genre.

The ear is very forgiving in a truly live environment, and there are many good articles on the transient moments of psychoacoustics, which try and explain how we are so forgiving in the excitement of Live. But in the cool calm of the home environment, and especially being able to replay recorded media again and again, those warts-and-all live moments don’t quite translate; they now start to be very noticeable. So this is why we tweak and fix performances to be acceptable, hopefully without losing any of the live feel.

There was an increasing tide of heavily overdubbed, if not completely re-recorded, ‘live’ album releases in the early 80s. Sometimes only the audience reaction remained truly untouched. Dire Straits were one of the first bands to address this; on the cover of Alchemy were the words, “This is a recording of excerpts of one Dire Straits performance, it contains no re-recordings or overdubs of any kind.” This was quite a refreshing thing for the industry, but I wonder whether the public were a little confused as to why you would say that – surely “all live albums are live”? However, it was very warmly received as a proper live album, and I think it helped stem the tide of remaking live albums in the studio after the event.

You also have to remember, however, that live recording back then was a bit of a different game. Noisy dynamic mic’s buzzing like hell on lighting changes, long copper multicores running alongside lighting mains cable (however hard you tried to avoid it), earthing issues with everything connected together with cables, and passive transformer splitters linking the worlds of FOH, monitors and recording mobile. Fibre optic audio, high quality cables and mics, and many other things in the live world have taken many of the unwanted electronic artefacts away. But also on the performance front, until the arrival of computerised tuning, it was hard work putting a singer’s flat note back into pitch. Easier to re-sing the word, the line, the chorus, ah – let’s just do another take of the whole song! As for moving a kick-drum on analogue multitrack, it was actually quicker to re-record it, and hey if we’re re-recording the kick why don’t we replace the whole kit?

The toys we have now, whatever workstation is your chosen one, allow you to keep the original live recording and tweak the mistakes. So actually, the live recordings we make now are on the whole a lot more faithful than those of the past. As with every tool, it’s down to the operator to know what to deploy, how to deploy it, and when to stop deploying it.

So when is Live truly Live? I handle the music for the annual live transmissions of The BRIT Awards and MTV Europe Music Awards, and multi-artist live-to-air events like Children in Need Rocks. My next big live-to-air one is the Diamond Jubilee gig in June. The bands and artists on these shows are live, we’re mixing live, and the audience is (hopefully) listening live. There’s no auto-tuning, no shifting of things that went wrong, it is what it is. You can’t help respecting an artist who’s capable of doing that, let alone willing to do that, allowing their live performance to be judged alongside post-produced music television.

At the same time, a bit of polishing in post-production for something, which will have a shelf-life of potentially many decades is surely forgivable. As long as it’s not a talent show.