As soon as the door opened, caught my attention a giant eagle statue in the right corner of the small room filled with books, certificates, and musical posters. Out of curiosity, I asked Douglas Nottingham – our today’s spotlight – about this friend in silk light brown clothes. The birdman, Miron, was later introduced that he was from his Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Musik I’m Bauch performance. “You can actually pull out some music boxes from his stomach,” he shared while unveiling the eagle’s shirt to show them. When asked if he could sing, Nottingham excitedly shook Miron’s tambourine necklace and said yes.
Starting his music career in 1976, Douglas Nottingham is a musical expert with a doctorate degree in performance, including percussion and electronic music, and over 30 years of experience. He is also working as both a teacher at GCC, freelance conductor and producer. Regarding his favorite musical fields which are electronic music and experimental music, Nottingham enjoys creating brand new and original sounds. Despite the challenge of holding an unknown result for his works, he is always willing to take the chance as a part of his learning process. A moment later, the teacher recalled the concert where he performed with iconic musician John Cage in 1990, his favorite influencer, to be the most memorable moment in his career. Saying this, he was delighted to show me the nostalgic after-concert photo placed near Miron. During the performance, he made a bad sound yet it was Cage’s favorite part, a predictable answer from the sound-enthusiast musician.
After the focus on the producer’s profession, we switched to our main subject of today’s conversation – Autotune. As referred by Dr. Nottingham, it was created from a type of synthesizer called Vocoder to correct the vocal’s pitch. He frequently used Antares’ Autotune for his production; he could change the amount of Autotune and add slight adjustments to his works. After that, he took the famous Cher’s song called “Believe” as an example to show what a song using 100 percent Autotune would sound like. The impact of Cher’s “Believe” and their new sound became the inspiration for other artists like T-Pain and Lil Wayne. Regarding the purposes, Nottingham stated that Autotune was used to make the singing perfect and take them to the next level. However, not all artists using this tool had poor vocal skills, he added. Throughout the interview, Nottingham maintained a positive attitude toward this technology. Talking about the rise of Autotune in today’s music, anytime a new sound is used in music-making is not a bad idea, as believed by the professional percussionist. Additionally, he showed respect for the hip-hop culture where he could see the advancement as it widely adopted the Autotune technique.
In the recent decade, Autotune’s popularity has caused several debates and controversies. Josh Tyrangiel, a Time Magazine journalist, referred to Autotune as “Photoshop for human voice” (1). Besides, Yanto Browning, an Associate Lecturer in Music and Sound from the Queensland University of Technology, asserted that Autotune gave musicians and singers more “mediocrity and laziness” (2). In response to these assessments, Nottingham instantly shook his head and informed the good deed of Autotune. As a producer, he had to give the best of his effort to make a perfect piece. “On these albums, we’ve done so much editing, and it doesn’t matter because the recording is forever,” the music educator calmly explained. This technology, based on his opinion, was one of the production tools used to improve the music and the recordings. In fact, the process of making music included selecting the best from many recordings of a particular section, and putting all the best parts together for the impeccable final track was his objective. The producer shared that he learned about the Beatles through their recordings although he had never met them. Eventually, the creators, the painters, and the musicians would no longer stay one day, yet their recordings, their paintings, and their artworks could stay alive against the infinite stream of time.
Contrasting to the earlier criticisms, the innovators of Autotune still hold on to its bright side. The French house duo Daft Punk expressed that they were reminded of the time when their nation was attempting to restrict the synthesizers in the late 1970s (3). Possibly, it is understandable that not everyone is willing to accept new things immediately. For ordinary listeners, the producer noted that Autotune was simply a sound that they would judge based on their “unique aesthetic experience,” varied by knowledge and culture. While respecting the differences in a pool of opinions, Nottingham confidently provided that electronic music was undeniably progressive, accompanied by the rapid, continuous growth of new technologies. Also, the performance expert’s passion for his favorite genre was able to depict his innovative perspective – a very futuristic and “moving forward” genre.
Before the end of the interview, Nottingham made a quick tutorial on how to create the Autotune effect. He started with a short record of his singing and tried different pitch correcting effects in Logic Pro (a professional software used to produce music). He then used a MIDI controller to edit his voice directly by pressing the controller’s keyboards. The effects were truly diverse and fun, showing a glimpse of what technology these days can do to take music production to the next level, even ahead of time.
Many thanks to Dr. Douglas Nottingham for his contribution to this feature article!