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recording studio sessionLip Synching: Look Who’s Really Talking!
by Marjorie Dorfman

What is this thing called lip-synching and why is it causing such an uproar among the fans of some of the biggest super stars of our day? Read on for some answers, even if you don’t know exactly who is talking.

One of the biggest secrets of the music industry has been uncomfortably let out of the bag. The proverbial cat is lip-synching, and it is far from new. The practice of synthesizing voices is as old as recorded music itself. On American Bandstand and most variety shows of the 50s and 60s, vocals and instrumentals were all faked and obviously so. It wasn’t until the 1980s however, when MTV began its mission of style over musical substance, that pop performers began doing it in concert. Today’s audiences are more sophisticated and aware, and since the cost of a concert ticket can be as high as almost one hundred bucks per seat, they are also more annoyed at this new twist to the term "live concert."

Lip-synching became one of the worst kept secrets in pop music in 1990, after the vocal duo Milli Vanilli became the subjects of a lawsuit. A New Jersey assemblyman introduced a bill requiring concert promoters to warn fans when singers use vocal tapes onstage and many predicted that within a few years singers would stop doing it or at least stop lying about it. But the bill came to naught and the issue is no closer to being resolved today than it was a decade ago. Many young concert-goers who go to see N’Sync, The Back Street Boys and Britney Spears today couldn’t care less about the issue of integrity that separates live singing from lip-synching. They just want to see the same non-stop, glitzy and perfect dance moves they’ve seen on the videos.
recording karaoke
According to Chris Nelson in his recent New York Times article, Lip Synching Gets Real, a survey conducted by Inside Edition among sound engineers revealed that 59% of the 44 participants had replaced a singer’s live voice at a concert with a recording. Horace Ward, who has mixed sounds at live performances for twenty years, and does not mix for lip-synched shows at all, says: "I know the guys that mix those sort of things don’t like…perpetrating that sort of lie." He went on to say that even though only about 5% of the acts out there lip-synch, the ones that do are some of the biggest names in the business.

And so they are. Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Janet Jackson and a host of top notch others have been accused of faking it at one time or another. Part of the problem, once again according to Chris Nelson, is that the spectacular effects of today’s live concerts take their toll on a singer’s vocal abilities, no matter how good or strong they may be. Elaborate costuming, pyrotechnics and athletic dancing have all become integral components of today’s live concert performances. I defy in all fairness, for any of us non-performers to even speak clearly and effectively while balanced upside down or dancing while somersaulting or streaming down a pole or…well, you get the picture. The torch singers in sultry dresses of past eras are still around, but they sing differently to different crowds. They move slowly as well, straining their voices above the smoke, clatter and chatter of smoky lounges and nightclubs. Today, almost all live concerts involve the energetic movement of strenuous and intricate dance routines that require skill and extreme concentration.

Although Britney Spears has always denied that she lip-syncs, even her own manager, Larry Rudolph, concedes that she does. Nelson’s article speaks of a phone interview in which he said: "Ms Spear’s tour will feature a mix of live and lip-synched vocals and…past tours have included the same." Professor Doug Mitchell, who teaches the recording arts at Middle Tennessee State University, which boasts the largest program of its kind, analyzed a tape of Britney Spear’s recent concert special, which aired last November. In his view, many of the vocals were not live. On a number of songs, he said, "her microphone wasn’t even on…What was playing over the loud speaker was the pre-produced tracks."
recording artist
The star herself, speaking before her show at the Smirnoff Music Center in Dallas claimed she was singing even though people were "thinking I’m lip-synching." Well, according to The Dallas Morning News, maybe she was vocalizing, but her microphone was not picking up her singing, a fact that became obvious when her tape broke during the concert, leaving nothing to speculate about except the quality of the dead air.

Inside Edition’s report also questioned whether super star Janet Jackson uses pre-recorded lead vocals at her live performances. One "anonymous" former record executive claimed that while sitting in the front row for one of her concerts, he watched her count dance steps with her lips while her singing voice played over the public address system. She herself conceded in 1998 that she used some taped vocals to augment her live ones. But she refused to say what percentage of her concert voice is taped and how much is live. No spokesperson for Janet Jackson had any comment to Inside Edition’s inquiries. No one seems to be talking, or at least mouthing the words through the truthful, non-synthesized side of their mouths.

Not every singer accused of faking it actually is. On her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour, Madonna developed a lip-synching reputation. She drastically changed her act, however, on her subsequent tours. A recent HBO concert found her singing throughout the show. She compromised by standing mostly still during her toughest singing parts and left the dancing to her back-up troupe. When she did dance, her singing was at a minimum and her back up vocalists filled in the gap. Many younger stars should, but don’t follow her example.

"Watching a canned show has become totally acceptable behavior and it’s bull," says John Mellencamp in a statement from The Dallas Morning News. "It’s…the difference between watching a drama and a cartoon."

lip sync action The entire matter reeks of the responsibility for truth in advertising. Professor Richard Barnett, who recently wrote a book on ethics in the music industry, says that "…fans should be let in on lip synching, so they can decide for themselves if they want to buy a ticket to those…shows….If I go to a concert, I want to know in advance…that it’s not going to be totally live."

The process of synthesized sound does not only involve lips that pretend to sing. Canned laughter was always a part of the background on many of the old television comedy shows of the 50s and 60s, including I Love Lucy, Here Come The Nelsons and Leave It to Beaver. Beyond the world of television and pop music however, sound synthesis is reaching new heights (or should we call them lows?). Inside Edition also discovered that the highly synchronized tap sounds echoing through the concert hall during the spectacular Irish step-dance show, Riverdance, are not live at all, but a recording. A spokesperson for Riverdance claims that the real sound of all those feet tapping is too hard to capture live. She added that the practice has been used on Broadway for years.
recording trio
So what is the answer and why won’t anyone speak? Not owning up to the issue seems to be the only indication of some shame being attached to it. Have fans sacrificed authenticity for perfection? If so, is it worth the price? In this dazzling age of pop, the question Is it live or is it Memorex? may remain unanswered. In some cases, not even their hairdresser can say for sure!

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"Technology has enabled man to gain control over everything except technology."

"Never trust a computer that you can't throw out the window."
Steve Wozniak

Don't miss this excellent book:

Singing for Dummies

by Pamelia S. Phillips

Singing for Dummies

Whether you enjoy singing in the shower or on the stage, this how-to guide will help. Expert advice on keeping your voice healthy, choosing a voice teacher, selecting the right material, and giving a stellar performance. With an audio CD that gives a lot of help and puts your singing skills to the test with a song.

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