February 1, 2004
Lip-Synching Gets Real
F all the lost causes in the pop music world, the most poignant may belong to the 3,500 fans who recently signed an online petition begging Britney Spears not to lip-synch on her coming tour. Ms. Spears, in keeping with the dominant star etiquette, has firmly denied the practice ("I don't lip-synch," she told a group of reporters by telephone last November). But no less an authority than her manager, Larry Rudolph, begs to differ. He said in a phone interview that Ms. Spears's tour will feature a mix of live and lip-synched vocals, and confirmed that past tours have included the same. "On those numbers that are difficult, if not impossible, for her to sing completely live while she's performing," he said, "what we do is we'll put a backing track which will support her."
The practice of lip-synching is practically as old as recorded music. But now, after decades of derision and outrage, audiences are warming up to the fakery. In chat rooms and fan sites, Ms. Spears's petitioners have been shouted down by peers from around the world who not only don't mind a little gimmickry they prefer it. They may have no choice: live pop performances rely on an ever-more-intricate mix of live music, prerecorded sound and high-tech tricks, including new programs that produce the same flawless sound as a lip-synched performance, even if the person singing is jumping around, hanging upside-down or just plain out of tune.
Consider the Super Bowl halftime show. Last year, outraged viewers accused Shania Twain of lip-synching her performance (she sang; the instrumentals were canned). But these purists missed a far more intriguing development. According to Paul Liszewski, the project manager for the broadcast's audio operations, one performer's vocals Mr. Liszewski wouldn't say whose were electronically altered, in real time, to correct off-key notes just as they were coming out of the singer's mouth. This year's halftime show, which includes performances by Janet Jackson, Kid Rock, P. Diddy and Nelly, will also include a mix of live and prerecorded singing and music. Most, but not all, of the vocalists performing will be live, Mr. Liszewski said.
Of course, like those who once felt amplification was too artificial, some people still hold dear the notion that concerts should feature only live singing. Fans of traditional rock bands like Coldplay or the Strokes, for example, would be unlikely to tolerate a great many technical shortcuts. But for an increasing portion of the pop music audience, perfection is more desirable than authenticity especially when they're paying almost $100 a ticket for an elaborately choreographed concert.
"Tell me, who can sing hanging on a harness upside-down?" said Nicholas Martinez, a high school senior from Espanola, N.M., talking on his cellphone during a year-book meeting. (Indeed, a source close to the MTV Video Music Awards confirms that Beyoncι who began her performance at last year's show by descending head first from the ceiling lip-synched part of the song). Mr. Martinez paid $91 for a ticket to Ms. Spears's Onyx Hotel Tour and will drive six hours to Denver to see the concert. "I'd rather her not ruin my favorite song and just put on a good show," he said.
These concerts are about spectacle and sheer star proximity, not the miracle of live music production and the proof may be in the microphones that are placed in the audience during concert recordings to capture cheering and clapping. Timothy Powell is the owner of Metro Mobile Recording of Chicago, which has taped shows by Paul McCartney and Radiohead as well as a recent female lip-syncher Mr. Powell declined to name. During songs, his microphones pick up a constant stream of fan chatter, including cellphone conversations. "I don't know if they're even listening to the show that much," he said.
Oddly, lip-synching got its big break because of union regulations, according to Marc Weingarten, author of "Station to Station: The History of Rock 'n' Roll on Television." No one could quite figure out what sort of royalties singers deserved for a live TV performance, so in the early days they just faked it. Later, the practice continued out of sheer expediency. On "American Bandstand" and most variety shows of the 1960's, vocals and instrumentals were all faked; Keith Moon, the drummer for the Who, famously registered his contempt for the custom by flubbing his part on the Smothers Brothers' show.
Still, those performances were the exception; most Americans still got their music on the radio. But the enormous popularity of MTV, with its almost exclusively lip-synched videos, ushered in an era in which average music fans might happily spend hours a day, every day, watching singers just mouth the words. (Milli Vanilli famously got in trouble, but that was for lip-synching to other singers' vocals.) "The production values of the videos themselves are so slick," Mr. Weingarten said, "the artifice almost vanishes for kids. And then when they see a band live, they want that replicated."
They also want to see an extravaganza. Around this time, artists like Madonna and Janet Jackson set new standards for showmanship, with concerts that included not only elaborate costumes and precision-timed pyrotechnics but also highly athletic dancing. These effects came at the expense of live singing. One former record executive, who insisted that he not be named, recalled being in the front row for a Janet Jackson performance and seeing her count dance steps with her lips while her singing voice played over the public address system. (Her label, Virgin Records, did not respond to interview requests.)
Meanwhile, the rise of hip-hop which generally uses live vocals but recorded instrumentals brought credibility to the use of prerecorded music on the concert stage. "There were plenty of times at House of Blues when artists would walk in, hand a tape to the front-of-house engineer and say, `That's my show,' " said Dave Wells, the former manager of sound production for House of Blues clubs across the country and now a production consultant and audio engineer with Sunbelt Scenic Studios, in Tempe, Ariz.
On television today, some effort is still made to have performances seem live, but it's often not very convincing. When Casey Spooner of Fischerspooner appeared on the British show "Top of the Pops" with Kylie Minogue, for example, he said he was asked to wear a bogus headset microphone. "There is no microphone," he said. "She's wearing, like, a coat hanger with a piece of electrical tape on it." Even when televised performances aren't lip-synched, there's a good chance that the vocals have been worked over. In post-production, sound levels can be adjusted and vocal or instrumental mistakes can be corrected.
Awards shows sometimes seem like nonstop parades of lip-synched gimmickry, but according to Ken Ehrlich, the producer of next week's Grammy Awards, that show will feature only live vocals. That means that the rock duo the White Stripes will play every note of their performance but that a funk music tribute featuring the hip-hop duo OutKast is expected to include sampled music. Paul Shefrin, the spokesman for the American Music Awards, said artists on that show are free to lip-synch if they like, although he added that "very few" do. And the country-rock-rapper Kid Rock began his performance at the 2002 American Music Awards with a mannequin and a tape recorder in an apparent protest of canned vocals.
At the Super Bowl, however, a concern for "authenticity" pales in comparison to the overwhelming logistics of staging a show that big, that fast. The halftime show, which features four acts, has to be set up and ready for broadcast in just three to five minutes. That doesn't allow time for doublechecking live microphones and instruments. "When you're broadcasting to 800 million people," said Mr. Liszewski, the Super Bowl project manager, "you don't like to take chances."
And what kind of performance would rank as "authentic" when the original is a collage of more than 100 layers of professionally engineered sound? In the case of many hit songs today, there's just no way to avoid a serious technological coefficient. "This has become a business of sampled stuff and little boxes that sit in back of the stage that are full of symphony orchestras," Mr. Ehrlich said.
Consider Bruce Springsteen, whom many consider the ultimate live artist and who's so averse to lip-synching that he insists on singing new live tracks for all his videos. Still, his last tour featured digitized samples of the Pakistani singer Asif Ali Khan during the song "Worlds Apart." Similarly, managers for R.E.M., the Offspring and No Doubt said those bands have each used sampled sounds or voices during their stage shows.
Many bands beef up their live shows with, for instance, the sound of extra backing vocals or a horn section that is generated from a stack of ultra-high-fidelity machines backstage called ADAT's (or Alesis digital audio tape recorders), or from computer hard disks. An engineer can use the same machines to play a singer's prerecorded lead vocals, allowing the singer to lip-synch them in part or total.
With all the complexly layered, prerecorded vocals that echo around a stadium electronically adjusted, in real time, to sound studio-perfect is it possible to detect the difference between lip-synching and what earlier cultures referred to as singing? The answer, the experts say, is yes and no.
Albert Leccese, the vice president of engineering at Audio Analysts, a company that has provided concert sound equipment and engineers for such artists as Norah Jones, the Offspring, No Doubt, Ms. Twain and Mr. Springsteen, says that there are tricks to look out for, like sampled background voices from a keyboard: "If you see, for instance, that there's 3 vocal mics and it sounds like 15 because it sounds like there's a choir back there, that's usually coming from a keyboard player."
But a lot of what might seem to be lip-synching, or faked instrumentation, might not really be. Paul Sandweiss, the owner of Sound Design Corporation, which has mixed sound for TV specials by Ms. Jackson, Cher and others, points out that light travels much faster than sound. If fans sitting in the back of a stadium see a drummer hit a kit before they actually hear the sound, he said, the delay can be mistaken for poor synchronization.
That kind of confusion may be a concern to some artists. But while those traditionalists labor to create an illusion of perfection, others are pulling back the curtain. During a concert at Madison Square Garden in August, the R & B singer R. Kelly did not even bring a backing band with him, working strictly with prerecorded tracks. At one point, he put down his microphone in the middle of a song and let his recorded vocals keep singing. By all accounts, the audience loved it.
Chris Nelson writes about the music industry.