Minutes before my interview with Michael Bublé, his shiny single It's a Beautiful Day starts blaring away in the hotel suite. When I turn to the crooner's label publicist to tell him that I planned to ask him about Bublé's use of Auto-Tune, the flack stiffens. "That will offend him," he says.
Which makes no sense. Why wouldn't Bublé want to talk about his use of pitch-correcting software? "Because I don't know," the straight-faced publicist tells me, "that he uses it."
Can the man not hear it? The vocals on It's a Beautiful Day are positively inhuman, devoid of DNA. The publicist listens to the music for a few seconds, then turns back to me, expressionless, and shrugs.
Perhaps the label guy was guarding his meal ticket. Maybe it was a matter of plausible deniability. Or, more likely, he really couldn't detect the obvious Auto-Tuning. The use of pitch-correction shenanigans is so prevalent on pop radio that we don't even notice it any more. And like athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, artists are fairly forced to employ Auto-Tune or risk being left behind.
Radio listeners are so used to perfect, compressed vocals that the condensed, scrubbed sonic quality is now practically required for airplay. "It's become the pop standard for radio," says Bob Rock, who produced Bublé's forthcoming new album, To Be Loved. "It's almost like you have to use it."
Auto-Tune was created by Antares Audio Technologies in 1997, a year before the making of Jennifer Lopez's debut album, On the 6. The software's intended use was to inconspicuously nudge a singer's wayward voice to a desired note. But in 1998, with Cher's androidal hit single Believe, an abusive use of Auto-Tune hit the mainstream. Cher's flat warble was transformed, jumping outrageously between notes.
The recording artist T-Pain is synonymous with the overembellishing use of pitch manipulation. Because T-Pain (not his real name) cannot sing properly, he began using Auto-Tune in a highly exaggerated, synthesized manner. It is now known as the T-Pain Effect, and it is rampant in hip-hop music. Drake, the popular performer who heroically started at the bottom and who often boasts about what he feels is a unique ability to both rap and sing, uses Auto-Tune. Perhaps he really can sing, but we'll likely never hear him unadorned enough to find out.
Not that many people really care whether Drake can sing or not. Same goes for Katy Perry or Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift (who famously received the stink eye from Stevie Nicks for her off-key contribution to their duet at the 2010 Grammys) or the indie-pop band Fun, whose smash-hit 2012 album, Some Nights, was surgically enhanced to the hilt.
But music lovers probably do care about a crooner. For instance, does k.d. lang, the golden-voiced angel with a lariat, use Auto-Tune? "I've never, ever used it in a studio recording," the singer told me recently. "Not that I'm opposed to it necessarily, but I prefer the organic sound," added lang, who will perform and be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame during Sunday's Juno ceremony. "I love imperfection."
Pop radio, however, does not share lang's affinity for impreciseness. Which brings us to the British Columbian Bublé, who is to host tomorrow's broadcast. He's a gregarious young man who, contrary to what his publicist thinks, isn't at all shy when it comes to speaking about Auto-Tune. "I think it's brilliant," he tells me, surprisingly buoyant. "For a pop song, I love it."
For the multiple Grammy and Juno winner, affection for Auto-Tune is not so much a genuine embrace of the technology as a matter of how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. "I need to get on pop radio," he explains. "And if my songs don't sound like all the other songs, I'm not getting on pop radio."
Bublé is getting on pop radio. It's a Beautiful Day, a happy-chappy breakup song, reached No. 26 on the Canadian Hot 100 and No. 40 on Billboard's adult-pop chart. These are not Bieber numbers, but for a crooner act the positions are solid. The song is heavily Auto-Tuned, not to outlandish effect, but certainly beyond the software's intended purpose.
Used as an aesthetic device, the Auto-Tune robotic vocal effect is not unlike the talk box (famously used on Tupac Shakur's California Love in 1996) or the vocoder (favoured by artists such as Daft Punk and Jeff Lynne).
Producer Rock, a long-time Bublé collaborator, sees pitch correction as a fashion, compar-ing it the use of digital-delay devices three decades ago. "If you listen to some of the records I produced in the 1980s, I'm guilty of putting more reverb on those snare drums than humanly possible," he says. Of course, that was the sound of the era, and most everybody making records for major labels was doing exactly the same thing. "That's what you do," reasons Rock, "when you make pop records."
Daniel Lanois, who makes popular records but not pop ones, doesn't use Auto-Tune. "I don't have it in my studio," says the producer whose name appears on albums by Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, U2 and the silver-voiced Emmylou Harris. "It's someone else's gig." Lanois admits to enjoying the effect when it is used extremely, as a gadget, but not when it is employed more subtly. "If we're pretending we're not using it, but we are, it might be a bit of plastic surgery there."
Critics of Auto-Tune despise the cosmetic nip and tuck, believing that the imperfections of the human voice are what make it affecting and relatable, and that voice manipulation erases the resonance and emotional power of unadorned vocals. Bublé claims he didn't use voice-assisting software on the new album's non-pop (ballad and swing-orchestral) material.
"It's actually difficult for me to listen to Have I Told You Lately That I Love You," he says, referring to his swanky version of a country standard previously covered by Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Slim Whitman. "I thought I gave a great performance, but my singing is pretty pitchy," he says. "But it's natural, and I was emotionally honest."
Backing Bublé on the song is Naturally 7, the a capella septet which, one would hope, and for the love of god and Emmylou, sings au naturale.
In the footsteps of Seth MacFarlane
Not that he'll perform a snazzy We Saw Your Bublés song-and-dance number when he hosts the Juno Awards gala in Regina tomorrow evening, but Michael Bublé admits to loving Seth MacFarlane's polarizing performance as the emcee for February's Oscars ceremony.
"It's a thankless job, and you know it going in," he says. "It's hard to win. I thought Seth McFarlane was great at the Academy Awards. I watched it with a tableful of people. Half of them were saying that Oscars used to be classy, and 'Now look at what he's doing to them.' The other half were saying, 'This is why the Golden Globes are so awesome,' because things were so loose.
"So, there's no possible way to make everybody happy. But it's an honour. It's a small moment in time, and it's a celebration of your fellow artists. I've talked to friends, and they've told me to just go and have fun. And, you know what? I'm the head writer. If it sucks, it sucks because of me."
The 2013 Juno Awards will be broadcast by CTV, April 21 at 8 p.m.; additional multiplatform coverage includes a live chat on CTV.ca, and a live stream of the Juno red carpet on MuchMusic.com.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article had the incorrect accent on Bublé.