But then, in 1997, Dr Harold "Andy" Hildebrand, a former geophysicist studying seismic activity, developed and patented a process called Auto-Tune™. And in doing that, he may have destroyed the concept of music entirely.
Auto-Tune™ is phase vocorder, an audio processor which can be used both live and in recorded tracks, which adjusts the voice to the nearest true semitone and correct the pitch to match whatever scale is specified.
It can also be used to distort a voice - most famously, Cher's warble in 1998's Believe.
Auto-Tune™ is still considered the industry standard. In 2009, a 24-year-old Brooklyn musician named Michael Gregory started a viral series of videos making extensive use of the technology.
Although the success of Autotune The News led to the first release of original music by the Gregory Brothers, the strategy backfired to a certain extent:
Andrew (Gregory, the guitarist in the group) also makes folk music, but, unfortunately, many of the Brothers' new fans have no patience for anything that's not "Auto-Tune the News."But those are effects. The more insidious use of autotuning is its prevalence in the music industry. It's almost impossible to find a CD where a singer doesn't tweak, warp, or totally alter their voice.
"It usually ends up just like plastic surgery," says a Grammy-winning recording engineer. "You haul out Auto-Tune to make one thing better, but then it's very hard to resist the temptation to spruce up the whole vocal, give everything a little nip-tuck." Like plastic surgery, he adds, more people have had it than you think. "Let's just say I've had Auto-Tune save vocals on everything from Britney Spears to Bollywood cast albums. And every singer now presumes that you'll just run their voice through the box."All of this leads to lazy singers, unwilling to practice; lazy musicians, happy to take someone else's work, loop it, and claim that the result is an "original" composition; and lazy performers who go on tour to lip-synch to their own music.
Sir Elton John's live reputation is second to none. Even when he's not actually performing.And in many cases, performers can't deliver a "perfectly honed, exquisitely phrased vocal" in the first place.
His off-the-cuff remarks at the Q magazine awards ceremony last week, when he reacted with undisguised horror to the very notion of Madonna being nominated for best live act, surely represented the great singer-songwriter at his extemporaneous best. "Madonna, best f---ing live act? F--- off! Since when has lip-synching been live?"
At many of today's big live music events, the only thing that can really qualify as live is the dancing. I once saw Madonna drop her microphone without it affecting her vocal performance one whit.
It doesn't matter whether you have the pyrotechnic vocal skills of Michael Jackson or the somewhat more limited range of Kylie Minogue, you cannot throw yourself about like an aerobics instructor on fast-forward while delivering a perfectly honed, exquisitely phrased vocal.
If you watch Glee, a TV show ostensibly about singers, you won't hear a single note that hasn't been chopped up, glued back together, polished and shined until it's practically unrecognizable.
It's not just the lifeless characters, bad acting, unoriginal scripts and robotic music that can make Glee painful to watch, it's the unreality of the way music is portrayed. Characters burst into "song" without ever practicing a note. This leads to unreal expectations among young singers, that they don't need to rehearse (the Trophy Wife teaches voice, and runs into this problem on a daily basis) - they expect to just open their mouths and watch liquid gold flow out.
Which leads us to Rebecca Black. A 13-year-old girl from Orange County, her mother paid $2000 to the Ark Music Factory (the musical version of a vanity press) who gave her a choice of two songs; and after a 12-hour video shoot and a digital bludgeoning of the vocal track, she became an international sensation with an artificial song sung by a robotic voice with only a passing resemblance to her own.
Friday has been called "the worst pop song of all time," and that's a fair assessment. It's also symbolic of the place music has ended up: lifeless, heartless, pre-processed blandness; uninteresting gruel served to children who don't know any better than to call it "music."