By David Perry
Assoc. Prof. Alex Case has long admired the late musician Prince, but his appreciation grew when he traveled to Manchester, England, in May to speak at “Purple Reign – An Interdisciplinary Conference on the Life and Legacy of Prince.”
Case, who teaches sound recording technology, delivered a talk on Prince’s ability to naturally shift the pitch of his voice and its impact on his music. He also learned a lot about the icon’s influence on fashion, art, race, film and gender.
The conference was held at the University of Salford just two days after terror bombings at an Ariana Grande concert killed 23 children and adults and wounded 250 at the nearby Manchester Arena. The tragedy’s aftershocks reverberated throughout the city and the conference, including during Case’s presentation, "Prince Shifting: Transformations of Character through Performance with Vocal Pitch Shifting.”
Case, who is president of the Audio Engineering Society, shared his perspective on Prince’s legacy, his peerless voice and the transformative power of music.
Q. What aspect of Prince’s music did you cover in your presentation?
A. Music fans may be aware of pitch-shifting processes from the studio that automatically adjust the pitch of a vocal performance to make sure it is in tune, or that radically alter the pitch (as happens to Cher’s vocal in that song “Believe” from 1998). Prince did not take that approach. Prince could sing in tune and needed no such processing assistance. And his vast vocal range did not leave him wanting for higher or lower notes than he could sing.
But Prince did make use of vocal pitch shifting, particularly in the early- to mid-period from the album “1999” (1982) through “Sign o’ the Times” (1987). The introduction to the song “1999" – before the synth fanfare announces the song, before the groove kicks in – has the line “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. I only want you to have some fun.” His voice is shifted down, made into a robotic voice soothing us from the future, telling us it will be okay to party like it’s 1999 – in 1982. It’s pitch shifting not as a crutch for poor singing ability, but to create an entirely fictional character for the song. That it counts as an interesting bit of texture and ear candy didn’t diminish the song’s power on the radio or on the dance floor.
Q. What inspired your choice of subject matter?
A. One of my primary research interests follows the use of creative signal processing in the recording studio, studying the technologies used and the creative motivations behind them. Prince is famous, among many unique qualities and achievements, for his particularly musical use of the recording studio. So the conference topic inspired me to make a quick review of some of his signal processing prowess, and pitch shifting caught my ear as a topic worthy of deeper study. It was fun. And as is true with almost all of my research, I found rich stores of information that were exciting and informative, but I also found that there is so much more to know. We in the Music Department tend to love our field, so – luckily – finding another life’s worth of listening and research to do is not a problem; it’s a pleasure.
Q. Did your perspective on Prince’s legacy change as a result of the conference?
A. I very much underestimated Prince’s legacy. This conference included studies and interpretations on Prince and music, music business, film. OK, I expected that. But there was also scholarship on Prince-inspired fashion, gender, race and more.
He seems to have lived a fully creative life. And he did it with such force and innovation that his influence spreads well beyond the music he made in the recording studio. I’ve often charged our SRT students, after reviewing a David Bowie track from 1975, or a Pink Floyd recording from the late '70s, or a Beatles song from 1966, that they should endeavor to make art that is valid four or five decades from now. Make something that we’ll all want to hear again in 2057 or 2067.
Prince showed me my failure of imagination. It shouldn’t just be the music that affects people so strongly. We might as well bring along fashion, gender, race and more. If you are going to inspire your fans for decades, achieve more than a hummable melody. Prince left the world only last year, but the wealth and breadth of content at this conference has me thinking he’ll be influencing future artists across a range of disciplines for decades to come.
Q. What was it like to be in Manchester two days after the bombings?
A. Sadly, Manchester felt eerily familiar to any Bostonian. There was pain and sadness, and some nervous, heightened awareness. There were little things like transportation inconvenience. But there was also resolve, among strangers, that life will go on and we will live life with optimism and joy. We refused fear. It was in the faces of many I saw and spoke with, in town, on the train, at the conference.
The city planned a moment of silence which fell during my presentation. At 11 a.m., on the dot, I was asked to stop my presentation while the entire city of Manchester stopped and observed a moment of silence. I took the moment seriously, and processed the cruelties of the bombing in Manchester, and connected it to my personal experiences of Boston’s marathon bombing and remembrances of 9/11. I was a bit of a mess and had trouble resuming my talk.
It occurred to me during the moment of silence, having been studying Prince and pitch shifting, that there was an audio snippet I did not have prepared to discuss in my talk, because it wasn’t his voice that was processed. But it was apt. He used pitch shifted female vocals in “1999” for the line at the end of the song: “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?”