Songs That Got Their Magic from Being Sped Up
We’re living in a crazy time for audio tech. Amateurs can easily deepfake famous voices, turning Joe Rogan back into a sitcom character or forcing 2000s Eminem to rap Tumblr military poems. At the same time, rumors have spread about artificial intelligence composing and performing popular songs — exaggerated rumors, but terrifying rumors all the same.
This makes us want to take stock and look back at an earlier tech trick that people used on songs. It involved playing the recording back at a slightly faster speed. Yes, that’s all it was, and yet, it transformed songs in surprising ways. Songs like...
When you speed up an audio recording, the pitch rises. For many people reading this, that’s an obvious bit of common knowledge. Such readers, however, may be surprised to learn new generations are growing up somewhat ignorant of that fact thanks to tech advances.
Until just a few years ago, if you had an audio recording and played it back extra fast, it sounded higher. That’s a direct result of how sound works — pitch is frequency, and frequency is speed — and it happened whether you used a tape player, an MP3 on your computer, whatever. Today, though, if you set a YouTuber to speak at 2.25x speed to fool yourself into thinking they’re smart, that bass voice stays a bass. This is because complex tech is working in the background to raise the tempo without altering the pitch.
The idea of speeding musical vocal tracks slightly to sound a little higher is said to have been invented by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Bruce Springsteen tried it in 1980’s “Hungry Heart,” his then-biggest hit. Here’s what the released song sounds like:
That’s different from what Springsteen’s voice otherwise ever sounds like, and it’s different from how he sings it live. Here’s a pitch-adjusted version, to simulate how the song would sound in his normal voice:
The George Michael song “Careless Whisper” is famous for its saxophone riff. Often, this riff starts blaring spontaneously when a couple makes love, even when no music player is plugged in, and this can be quite alarming if you’re not used to it.
Getting that sax perfect was not easy. It worked out all right in the first demo, with some unknown friend of Michael’s just casually blowing it out. But then the time came to record it formally, and they hired some big-time L.A. saxophonist for the solo. He just couldn’t do it. They spent two hours trying and failing. Later, they tried again, with another acclaimed saxophonist, this time from New York. Still, the guy couldn’t get it right, and George’s instructions (“Twitch upwards there! But not too much”) weren’t especially helpful.
They went through six more saxophonists, who all failed. Then came Steve Gregory, who was surely doomed even more than any of the others. He had the wrong kind of instrument, one incapable of playing the right notes. He’d have to use a technique called alternate fingering to simulate the sounds. When this proved too artificial, Gregory suggested playing the whole thing at a lower key that his sax could handle and letting them speed it up in the studio to make it sound right.
This worked — not just at simulating what the other guys had played, but at doing it better than any of them.
Let that be a lesson to all of you: If you’re fumbling with fingering and scared the sax isn’t good, just try slowing down. You can always quicken the pace later.
‘When I’m 64’
Paul McCartney wrote “When I’m 64” when he was just 14. That’s pretty nuts, but it’s slightly less nuts when you learn that he only wrote the melody at 14. The lyrics came slightly later, helped along the way by a little input from other Beatles.
That voice there sounds higher than McCartney’s usual one. They sped it up for the released version, for a very specific reason: to make McCartney sound younger, to suit the themes of the song. The silly thing is, McCartney wasn’t exactly geriatric when he first recorded those vocals. He was 24. That’s still very young by most standards and especially by McCartney standards.
As he got older (and as he sang the song to older people), McCartney considered changing the words to “When I’m 84.” Today, even that title doesn’t promise a very lasting romance, as McCartney turns 81 later this year.
Everything by The Chipmunks
Of course, if you know that sped-up recordings sound high, you know that’s how the Chipmunks originally got their voices. But consider how difficult this made the original performance. With most of these examples, the released audio is only slightly higher than the sung audio, so the necessary difference in speed is small. To make chipmunk voices, however — and to make them sing at what sounds like a normal speed — creator Ross Bagdasarian had to sing really slowly using his normal voice. He sang into a variable-speed tape recorder that he bought personally, for $2,000 in today’s money.
That Chipmunk Christmas song was a hit, and not because it starred famous cartoon characters Alvin and the Chipmunks. The cartoon characters didn’t exist yet. Bagdasarian (now calling himself David Seville) credited this song, sung entirely by him, to “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” a group no one had heard of, and everyone still liked it, buying millions of copies of the song. Only afterward did we get a comic book and TV show starring the singers of that song.
This idea, that ultra-fast playback sounds like a chipmunk, also gives us a chance to share what happens when that goes wrong. When Billy Joel made his first album, 1972’s Cold Spring Harbor, someone screwed up the recording process. His voice on the record sounded squeaky like a chipmunk when played at a standard speed. Joel put it on for some friends, discovered the production error, then picked up the record and smashed it against the wall.
‘I Got A Man’
The 1992 classic “I Got a Man” was seemingly designed for you and a friend to memorize so you can duet together. It’s the tale of rapper Positive K propositioning a lady, who cuts him short by saying she’s already got a man. Why she volunteers this is a mystery to him; he never asked for this irrelevant information.
In the music video, he talks to multiple women over the course of the several verses:
However, it’s just one female voice, so just one female singer must be behind the vocals. It wasn’t unheard of in the 1990s to have different women from the actual singer lip sync the words in a rap video (think to those actresses instead of SWV doing the chorus in the video of “Men in Black”). So, who’s this mystery woman, uncredited on “I Got a Man” despite singing half of it? Is it MC Lyte, like in the last rap duet Positive K released about him failing to pick up a woman?
Nope. It’s Positive K himself. He rapped both parts of “I Got a Man,” raising the pitch in the studio on half the lines to make those lines sound like a woman’s singing them.
With this recording, he actually raised the pitch through techniques other than raising the track’s speed. We wanted to mention that sort of thing too, because that’s how songs change their pitch nowadays. Remember that “la-la-la-la” song “Breaking Me” from a couple years back, sung by Sweden’s A7S?
No, the singer’s voice isn’t really that low. No Swedish voice is. They manipulated it to make it sound that way.
But that’s no reason to get angry. Altering the pitch is a technique, not a cheat. It makes no more sense to call these recordings lies than to do so when you learn someone’s performing with one of those “electric” guitars.
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