Remember how many times you were mad because you have noticed some sounds weren’t quite in tune on your recordings? Or even on someone else’s recordings? I mean, rarely, cause we’re non-critical angels, naturally. Just ask yourself. Many times, hey? And it’s really your own music you’re the most overly critical with. What’s the remedy of all that? Things get corrected, tuned, polished, re-recorded… you know the drill. And then the music starts to sound clinical, boring, and just plain dead. Way to kill spontaneity, way to tame raw energy.
Resisting the urge to correct pitch
Of course in reality, there are plenty of occasions when some (or a lot) correction is needed. It’s you who has to decide when and what to do, if anything. Let’s check out a couple of situations when being out of tune is completely natural and musical!
1. Vocals are never perfectly in tune
About the most natural thing for the human voice is to be at least slightly outta tune. It happens pretty much all the time. Think about vibrato. It’s nothing else but frequency modulation. The pitch keeps going up and down, and the target pitch ideally falls somewhere between the two extremes. If it’s done the pro way (effortlessly and with confidence), chances are high that our brain will perceive the performance as being in tune. Besides vibrato, it’s all those slides, vocal riffs, spoken word parts, etc. that drive a real vocal performance off of the theoretically correct pitch. As long as the general good feel is there, you’re golden. Who would want to tune Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billie Holiday, Sade Adu, David Bowie, and so on and on. Oh, you would? I was sure you were going to fight a bit. Go and give it a try. It will end up sucking antelope balls. That slightly flat pitching of Sade, the wide, theatrical vibrato of Bowie or the overblown notes of Morrison or Springsteen are their vocal signatures. You can’t just erase those things without radically changing the way the whole thing sounds.
2. Guitar pitch fluidity
Sounds more or less in tune, right? But it’s never really in tune in reality, by default. Of course the intonation is still close enough even on an acoustic guitar, but how about those heavy chorus or vibrato ridden guitars? How about a 12-string guitar? How about the micro bends of Jeff Beck, Neil Young or Eddie Van Halen? Yeah, listen to the solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. It’s pretty much out of perfect tune at many points, if you ask me. Yet it works great, cause it’s got power and reckless energy. Check out a couple of Alan Murphy solos as well. He had this fluid quality down, in spades.
Mike & The Mechanics – “Silent Running” – guitar by Alan Murphy (solo starts at 2:44)
The same applies to slide guitars, be it a dobro, a pedal steel or Sol Hoʻopiʻi on anything stringed. But it all works just like vocals work, because those little imperfections are part of the expression of the artist.
3. The violin family, fretless bass, trombones and the likes
Yeah, you gotta learn to intonate on these things consistently. It comes even harder than in the case of your own voice, because these instruments are not parts of our bodies. So outta tune notes will always happen on these. Yet our brain still adjusts just fine. It will place the tones on an imaginary grid of perfect, in-tune pitches. Pino Palladino was THE fretless bassist to hire all the way through the 80s and early 90s. He admits that about 50% of what he played on all those big hit albums is out of tune. Some producers were standing above him checking his playing constantly with a tuner, pointing out all of the “mistakes”. Pino just said: “Does it sound sharp? Because it really doesn’t matter what it looks like on the tuner”.
As long as it sounds good, feels good, grooves like it should, it’s music, and you’ve done your job well. Don’t let today’s technology and production practices get in the way of the true power of expression.