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20 December 2011

IZOTOPE T-PAIN BUNDLE | *£59.95/*$99

*Be mindful that iZotope's European distributor Time+Space is offering this £59.95 money-saving deal on The T-Pain Bundle until a time that is yet to come (as about as accurate as can be had for now), while iZotope's US website has it at $99, a saving of $59 on the US SRP.

When a singer has a bad throat and there’s still a job to do, he or she may reach for a potion enriched by dextromethorphan, eg Robitussin. Interestingly, if you take a butt-load you enter an anaesthetised, dissociative state called robo-tripping. But what if the singer can’t sing anyway? Not through malady or overdosing on meds, but because they're tone deaf. Well, for the young, good-looking, pneumatic type who’s sectionable enough to want to give up every last shred of credibility in the pursuit of X-list celebrity, there’s good news. And yes, I am addressing those attention-craving nut-jobs who aspire to be assembled in facilities like The X Factory.

Singers who can’t sing have long been able to bluff their way, in live performance or on TV, by miming. However, trouble arises in pressure situations, such as facing a microphone in a recording studio and having no control over the pitch of what’s coming out of one’s gob. It’s a bad idea to use a real singer, as Milli Vanilli discovered, but there is a work-around: Robo-singing. And no, it doesn't involve DXM, ketamine or PCP, although you may need such stuff when the tabloid press has finished with your private life. Prior to that, we've a technological solution called autotune, by which the voice is cranked forcibly into pitch.

One artist taking autotune to the extreme is vocal-tech-toting radical T-Pain, a man inclined to mix it up with urban, or RnB, or something - well, he talks a lot, so let's call it rap with frilly bits. And his take on the genre has lately been given an extra shove by that most rad of software developers, iZotope. So, leaving a polemic on autotune in modern pop production until later, let's take a butcher's at iZ's The T-Pain Bundle.

Mr Pain's career so far is redolent with robo-rap all the way (if it's not, please write in and tell me), possibly even assisted by iZotope's offering. The Bundle bundle comprises a Windows XP to 7 and Intellichipped Mac OS X 10.5.8 compatible trio of devices: The T-Pain Engine, Effect plugin and iDrum: T-Pain Edition. The Effect and this special rendition of iDrum cover all the major plugin formats, so you should be right no matter which soft sequencer you're using, within reason (sorry Amiga/Atari users). And no, they can't be used within Reason.

Ease of use is of prime concern from the developer's standpoint, so let's have T himself (yes, we're on first-initial terms, y'know - he calls me 'Kuh') tell you, in painful detail, just how easy it is to use...

Right-ho, that's 13.5 easy of the useness. Glad we cleared that up. Shall we just say 10/10? Lovely. So what exactly can be done with relative easilation? The video fun ain't over as we look at making beats and recording vocals within The T-Pain Engine...

Nice interface, huh? Reminds me a bit of Terry Gilliam's vision of a dystopian future in Brazil, but the only thing being tortured here is the vocal. Essential to a session of disciplining is a good beating and you've more than 50 T-Pain-approved beats from which to choose. They're arranged in sets of song parts, such as intro, verse and chorus, and when you pick a beat, a whole song appears in the Beat track. You can, of course, arrange your own beatings within this custom copy of iDrum and save them for when the need becomes overwhelming. With the backing in place, you'll need a vocal, which entails inducing an associative state (word association, that is) and devising rhyming couplets of varying metre, plus variations ('bustin' rhymes', as it's known). A gizmo named Sound Check helps with mic setup and the vocals can be laid down on two separate vocal tracks, tweaking the amount of pain via the hardness/softness control. And here it all is in moving pictures...

Bagpipes. That's what I'd like to talk about right now. The Highland bagpipe, by its very build, is almost totally impossible to play in an expressive fashion. OK, you can bung in flurries of grace notes, change tempo and generally pump-up the piobaireachd, but there's no pianissimo; no fortissimo. Tremolo and vibrato are out, as is glissando - the latter not sitting as well with the Highland pipes' musical canon as it does with the Uillean pipes'. You don't even get rests. Once the bladder is inflated and the drones are blarting, there's no rest until the onset of cyanosis and you collapse with hypoxia. This is why a really cracking tune is so important in Highland bagpipe music. Have a listen to the genre - it's skirling stuff, heavy on heady melody. You can get away without fancy note-bends, flutter effects and the like provided the tune is top-notch and positively reeks of heather.

Pop/dance music, meantime, while good on groove, glam and gimmickry, is often a bit crap on melody and typically sterile on lyrical content. Hence the singer must ooze charisma and throw every trick in the singer's Big Book of Blagging It at typically very thin material. Now try that with autotune. It's rather like performing a charisma bypass on the vocalist. Where once was the harmonic richness of a larynx aflame, you've the synthetic grate of what is, in effect, an automatic vocoder.

A modicum of vibrato can be ridden, but at operatic levels the system's pitch tracking will snap between notes. This is called yodelling and, while OK if you're in a Sound Of Music tribute band, it does not sit so well with chart fodder. Faced with such denudation of expression, the modern pop song will limp from the speakers pitch-perfect, but lacking human emotion. Not surprising, really, because you'll not be listening to a singer, but the output of a computer. I'll make no comment on, for example, Hollie Cook's rendition of The Shangri-La's classic Walking In The Sand (remember?), except to mention you may as well be listening to Herbie Hancock circa I Thought It Was You.

There's a host of numbers with autotuned vocals charting right now although, in the UK, at least the No.1 spot for Xmas appears to be tied up by the all-natural women of The Military Wives' Choir, rather than lesser mixes ladled with whatever enhancement tech can be had from a state-of-the-art hit factory. With that lot off my chest, here's how The T-Pain Effect plugin does its pitch-cranky thang...

Rap (or RnB, urban, dubstep - argh!) has a distinct advantage over sung pop. It's a genre seemingly devised by folks who've figured that singing isn't necessary and poetry will do. Rap saves money on singing lessons, opens the mic to the tone-deaf and rap lyrics are so much easier to write when you're wired on stimulants or during the manic upswing of bipolar disorder. There's that, along with the sheer facility of the English language when it comes to rhyme, as well as the ease with which you can make up words and have them readily accepted into common parlance if there's not an adequate word in one's vocab. A language that offers up such easy pickings as 'generation', 'nation', 'frustration' and 'stagflation' can't be all bad. It's just a shame about the spelling.

What T-Pain, and artists like him, do is to slam together tuned vocals with the rap ethic, making no pretence at singing skill and using the technology to deliberately create a mechanised, pitch-jumping warble. Double-tracking, distortion, echo, flanging, chorus, filter sweeps, vocoding and more have all been deployed in the past when aiming for a distinctive vocal. So why not cut out the timbre of a natural voice? Replace it with synthetic tone and use the singer as a control voltage to hit somewhere near the appropriate pitch, a gate to determine the triggering and length of each note, and a filter for intoning the words.

OK, some people hate this and it would likely not be the first thing on the list of processors when treating the vocal of Amazing Grace, but it's a legitimate treatment. What iZotope has done is to make it affordable. Rap, allegedly, grew up on the street. And, despite the bling worn by some of its most high-profile preachers, its roots are on the street. The cost of studio-spec autotune tech can be prohibitive, but The T-Pain Effect makes it affordable to the masses. Whether this is a good or bad thing is down to your own sensibilities, but what is inarguable is that this product makes creating pitch-cranked vocals insanely easy and even has built-in sharing tools so you can be utterly 21st C and disseminate your robo-rants online without second thought. Thirteen point five easy, indeed, and rather like an audio version of Twitter, but via SoundCloud.

Finally, well done to those of you who can still remember the odd word I used earlier. Piobaireachd, remember? It's the name for an expressive, stylized form of Highland music, means 'piping' and is pronounced (close enough) 'peep-rock'd. So maybe, despite it taking ~400 years and a technological leap to do so, Highland bagpipe music has fused with rap (or RnBurbanstep) to keep the people rockin'. Or are we, through technology, robo-tripping our way into musical oblivion? Or am I clutching at straws here? Discuss.

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