We happened to flick over to the MTV Movie Awards last night before Game of Thrones (it’s back!!!). Fall Out Boy were performing “Centuries”, a song we previously posted about. Straight away it was obvious that they had pitched the song down a couple keys or so. This is pretty common practice, Rihanna is an artist that does it all the time and we’re not saying there’s anything wrong it- but it’s interesting how often it happens nowadays.
The key of a song is often dictated by the energy it brings to a chord progression and also the range of the vocalist. There are certain artists we work with that sound great in particular keys so we write songs to match. Conversely we may write a song and have to change the key because it just sounds better a few steps up (we have some pretty amusing demo vocals where we sound like chipmunks after pitching them up).
The problem a lot of vocalists run into now is that us tricky producers and engineers are able to tune and tweak the hell out of their recordings to make them sound great in the key that brings the best out of the song. We say this is a problem because this can’t be done live and artists have to reproduce a vocal that sounds close to the original without all the processes we have available in the studio. To counter this, the artist will sing the song down a few keys which to most people goes unnoticed but it can often make the song drag because it loses that energy we mentioned earlier. Take a song like Sia’s “Chandelier”, the way she hits those high notes is what makes the song. If she were to sing it down a couple keys it would lose that intensity and her voice wouldn’t sparkle quite as much. We haven’t seen her do this live so can’t comment as to whether she does it in its original key or not though.
This is often a conversation we have with artists in the studio, “just remember you have to sing this live, are you sure you want to go to THAT note?”. There’s nothing worse than someone’s vocal ability being exposed live because they don’t have the technology to mask their flaws. There are cases where it may be necessary because the singer is sick and his voice is compromised but for the most part the song gets pitched down because the singer just can’t perform it in its original key.
We’re not arguing for or against the decision to do this but it is something listeners should become more aware of, particularly as it’s happening more often. Does it mean the singer isn’t as good as we thought they were? No, not necessarily. It’s just becoming more apparent now that a lot of work goes on in the studio to make a song sound the way it does and without the technology or techniques producers use, an artist may not be able to deliver what we thought they could.
Just some food for thought, listen out for it, when you see a song being performed on tv or online, pull out your phone and play the song along with it and you’ll hear if they’re singing down or not. Betcha it happens more often than you realize!