Sleight of Ear: Voice, Voices, and Ethics of Voicing

Bump Halbritter & Julie Lindquist

8. Audible Voice as Rhetorical Identification

We hear what some of you are thinking: it's all well and good to espouse the virtues of speaking through the voices of others when you are the ones doing the editing. What of those whose voices have been appropriated? What might you say when you aren't the ones ultimately saying it? To respond to these questions, Bump reflects on how he came to appreciate vocal sleights of ear long before he began following students around with video cameras:

I recall thinking of myself, in some instances, as a human keyboard being played by a producer in the other room. Please, allow me to explain. In my life as a recording vocalist, I spent a lot of time looking at a microphone and listening to directions communicated to me by a recording engineer or recording producer (often, though not always, the same person). Before I describe these sessions as I experienced them, I'll describe what I think most people imagine when they think of a recording session:

Step 1) A singer sings a song into a recording device.

Step 2) The recording device captures the singer's performance of the song.

Step 3) Enjoy. Or something akin to that.

However, that was seldom my experience of recording a vocal track. Instead, a vocal track was the amalgam of myriad starts, stops, bits, pieces, takes, retakes, and re-re-re-re-takes. Vocal tracks were not captured so much as built. Sometimes, they were built a bit at a time. Let's call this style, Version A: Sing the first line of the first verse until you get the performance that you want, then move on to the next line, and so forth. Other times, they were built from multiple whole takes. Let's call this syle, Version B: Sing the song (or portion of the song) four or five times on separate tracks of the multitrack recording device, and then create a single "master" track from the best bits from each of the four or five tracks (see Fig. 4 below). Some producers favored Version A; others favored Version B; others favored a combination of the two techniques; and others still favored one version for some things and the other for others.

Oh, the possibilities.

Sometimes the process—whatever version(s)—went swimmingly well: The track(s) would go down quickly and the the choices of combinations would be obvious and easy to combine. At other times, the process resembled the work of Sisyphus: Gonna need that bit just one more time (repeat ad infinitum).

What is important to take away from these scenarios is not solely an appreciation for the labor of singing (though, that's not a bad takeaway), but an appreciation for the invisible process of vocal identification. That is, a producer and/or sound engineer—some person other than the singer herself—is extracting singing bits from an actual, indexical singer in the world and is reworking and fashioning those extracted singing bits into a thing that will be rendered—by this other person—as the actual, indexical singer's actual performance of that singing. And that is the procedural truth of that aural lie. That is the sleight of ear of music production: The resulting vocal track is the product of the producer's performance as much as it is of the singer's performances. The voice pulled from our ear is a different voice than the one that went into the producer's pocket. We simply think it's the same. Whoa-ho-ho, it's magic. And we haven't even begun talking about adding audio effects! Furthermore, we haven't even begun talking about multitracking unisons and harmonies (hence the polyphonic keyboard metaphor rather than a monophonic metaphor).

I've been on both ends of this transaction. And both can be as gloriously rewarding as they can be excruciatingly frustrating. As a singer, there is much to be gained in such an arrangement—especially if it goes well:

  1. You can write your way into a killer performance of a song—one you will subsequently learn to sing for live performances.
  2. You can get another perspective on your performance—one that may help you hear your way past what Ken Burns has called the "little darlings" of your performance—the bits that you love that mean more to you than they do or will to those who hear the performance (Morrison, 2009).
  3. You may get ideas from the producer that would not have occurred to you otherwise—for example, "Hey, try that same thing an octave lower and much closer to the mic."

That said, there is as much, if not more, to lose in such an arrangement—especially if it does not go well: See the exact same list above. When all goes well, a singer can collect accolades for having sung a great track and can feel proud of the work as representative of her singing ability, her craft, and her sensibilities. When all goes otherwise, a singer may feel as though her voice has been misappropriated: that the wrong bits were used, that it feels too choppy, that she will never be able to reproduce the performance live (though others will expect her to be able to do so—that is, after all, her voice!), or that she was led to sing it that way—that was not her idea! As a producer, you may feel as though all you need to do is hit record and let the singer give you what she's got. On the other hand, you may feel as though you need to squeeze / drag / pull / coax / force / invent a performance from the singer, syllable by syllable: all craft, all intervention, all triage. And, after all of your labors, the singer will say, "Yup, that's me! That is, after all, my voice!"

And yet.

Fig. 4: Here is a visualization of the "Version B" tracking described above. Each vocal track but the last video (the one in the lower right on some screen sizes), "Too Many Tomorrows: 4. Third Voice Mix," was recorded in a single, "live" take. The "Third Voice Mix" is a combination of the other three takes. The different glasses and shirts in the video are to help make obvious the aural sleight of hand being performed in the audio track. In listening to each of the "red," "black," and "white" versions, you may hear different options for a Version B track of your own. If you do, you should become a record producer! Regardless, you will likely never "hear" your favorite recording artists in quite the same way again.

screen capture of video editing software showing Bump in the upper right hand corner in front of a microphone; file data is on the left, and a timeline is at the bottom

Fig. 5: This screen capture of the "Third Voice Mix" from Figure 4 reveals how the vocal sleight of ear was built. Notice that the guitar(s) were recorded separately (down in the green band at the bottom of the image). Notice, too, that the audio track of the singing is actually attached to each of the three video clips in the two video tracks above the green band. The "black" track serves as the master video track, which is muted (notice the white dots in the audio track indicating where the track has been silenced) when the alternate video clips (in the topmost track) take precedence. This process of audio-multitracking via video editing is far more labor intensive than traditional audio multitrack recording. As such, Figures 4 and 5 fail to exemplify (specifically) how a single vocal track is built by way of multitrack recording in order to exemplify (in broad and obvious strokes) how a single vocal track is built by way of multitrack recording. ☺

Kenneth Burke (1950) wrote, "Identification is compensatory to division. If [people] were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity" (p. 22). Even as the resulting recorded voice—the collaborative vocal product—is indexical of the embodied singer, it is at the same time a rhetorical identification. This voice—the sleight of ear that belongs to no single person, but that sounds as though it does—is the product of authorial/editorial choice. The producer has played the singer as an instrument. In so doing, the producer is guided by a type of vocal empathy: The producer, when it all works well, is able to hear qualities of herself—and ultimately qualities of the eventual audience—in the qualities of the singer's voice and is able to craft a performance that may have never existed in order to meet these new rhetorical ends. In so doing, the producer changes the original; however, the producer does not eliminate the singer's ability to go on singing the way she intends. The producer is speaking through the singer's voice to different rhetorical ends—often with the intention of broadening the appeal and/or impact of the performance. The producer has performed a rhetorical identification; the producer has spoken through the singer's voice and, in so doing, has proclaimed their rhetorical unity. The producer's job is to render a version of the singer's voice that will travel places where the singer herself may have little authority or agency. In this way, the ethical work of the record producer has something in common with the ethical work of the ethnographer.