Ol' Blue Screen

New software lets anyone sing like Sinatra or compose like Mahler. But do we really want computers that make country-and- western stars croon on key?

Hildebrand was back in business. He quit music school. He hired a distributor. That, too, proved to be a more fortunate move than he had imagined.

"I was with my distributor and his wife and a friend, and his wife said, 'If you could make me anything in the world, why don't you make me a box that would make me sing in tune?' " Hildebrand recalls. "Everybody looked at the floor, so I dropped it."

But the problem began to bother him. In the oil patch, Hildebrand had designed algorithms that fine-tuned the sound waves bouncing off underground rocks to paint a crystal-clear picture of subterranean petroleum deposits. How different would it be to fine-tune the sound waves coming out of somebody's throat?

Troubled, Hildebrand went to bed.
"I went to bed for a month. I do my best engineering in bed," Hildebrand explains. "These are complex things going on technically, and it takes a lot of careful thinking. I do my best thinking with a minimum of distraction. I don't sit near a telephone and don't sit near a computer screen. The best place for that is in bed."

When he finally arose, he had devised a way to alter vocal pitch without changing the flavor of a person's voice, long a studio engineer's holy grail. It was already common practice for engineers to snip tiny portions of out-of-tune vocal track, change the speed, and rerecord at the resulting changed pitch. But, besides being cumbersome, speeding up bits of tape to achieve higher pitch makes people sound like chipmunks; slowing those bits down can sound worse.

With AutoTune, you just sing through a box and come out on key.
Hildebrand has since moved to Applegate, two hours north of San Francisco. He plans later this year to buy out the Los Gatos company that distributes his software. Hildebrand has a hit on his hands, audio engineers say.

"Now, I can't speak for other towns, but I live in Nashville, and let's face it, a lot of country guys can't sing," says Jeff Mac, a recording engineer, explaining the prominent role AutoTune has taken in his hometown's recording studios. "Our buying public expects a whole lot more than people did in the '70s and '80s. People want perfection now."

If programmer Chris Weare gets his way, singers will have access to a sort of perfection that goes beyond correct pitch. They may be able to don the voice of any singer they wish.

"It's like chopping off your head and putting someone else's on it," says Weare, describing his Harmony voice-altering software package.

At this point, the software is designed to be used for creating a chorus effect by playing multiple, altered versions of a single person's voice, says Weare. To demonstrate, he plays a recorded voice singing the words "Sweet Adeline." He then plays a second voice, singing a single, uninflected note.

By analyzing the fleche-shaped spikes and dips of the second voice, then adjusting the original voice according to these characteristics, Weare creates a third. A little tweaking, and he has a fourth. Together the altered voices make a barbershop quartet. The effect might prove useful for musicians who can't afford backup singers, Weare explains.

Weare came up with early versions of this software while working on the movie Meet Joe Black. He had been assigned to morph the voice of Anthony Hopkins into that of Brad Pitt. Weare didn't finish the project in time to make the final cut. But the voice-combining techniques he developed seemed worth salvaging -- especially the possibility of creating a third voice from two disparate ones.

The idea behind the program certainly fires the imagination: Greg Tomassian as Ray Charles? Soul Candy as Queen?

Exciting though the prospect sounds, true head-switching is still a ways off, Weare admits. Now he's limited to slowly, subtly altering voices to create musical sound effects.

Even with this painstaking process, the third voice he has achieved so far is only a minor improvement over those mechanical answering-machine voices that plague corporate telephone switchboards.

A solution might seem far in the future, but for the fact that Weare has some backup. The Illinois company Symbolic Sound is also pursuing the ephemeral third voice. It has released a program that cross-fades sound frequencies in a way similar to the effect Weare attempted to create for Meet Joe Black. Symbolic Sound's equipment is already used to produce an audio-morphing effect employed in some movies, and in radio and television commercials. Kurt Hebel, a partner in the company, demonstrates a British radio spot in which a soccer player's voice morphs into that of a nagging schoolmarm. The fully produced transition is convincing. But when Hebel singles out the middle, morphed voice, it sounds unconvincingly thin, much like Weare's effort.

Hebel admits this. He admits also that he, too, is in the race for the "third throat."

"It's a very, very difficult problem," he says. With current technology, "we're still working on trying to make the in-between sound like a real voice."

By the time that happens, the broadening palette of digital-audio looping interfaces, rhythmic correction software and tone correction programs may have moved closer to the mainstream. By then, Soul Candy may be playing the Fillmore. The San Francisco Symphony may premiere Cope's "Symphony No. 1383."

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