By Mike Doughty, Slate
A Marine spokesperson said this week that she couldn’t confirm or deny that Beyoncé wasn’t lip-syncing, and pretty much every media outlet assumed that was an admission. On NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams said that Beyoncé wasn’t lip-syncing, but, “in effect, lip-syncing”; Jon Stewart’s jokes took it as a given that she faked it; NPR is wringing its hands NPR-ily.
Kelly Clarkson performed to a prerecorded track, too. So did the choir.
I’ve done a bunch of lip-syncing, in music videos, and it’s very easy to spot. Anyone who performs in, shoots or edits music videos can see the tiny, observable latency endemic to lip-syncing. Beyoncé either sang live, or she’s the most gifted lip-syncer in the history of humanity.
A soldier can differentiate one type of gun from another by the sound of it; a bird-watcher can hear the difference between warblers. If your job is predicated on microphones — as an engineer or a singer — it’s not that hard to tell the difference between a live vocal and a prerecorded one. The easiest way to say it would be that a recorded vocal sounds perfect, in the way that a live vocal can’t, and, to those who spend time meticulously mixing imperfect vocals to bring them closer to perfection, it’s as plain as day.
In a recording studio, troublesome variables can be smoothed out. The reverb on the vocal can be exactingly calibrated. You can use a much more expensive, sophisticated, delicate microphone; a hand-held, onstage mic needs to be rugged. You can put a “pop screen” in front of the mic — in a live vocal you’ll hear Bs and Ps go pmpp!; you’ll hear a little more breath; Fs and Ss will make a slight whssh! sound.
The national anthem is tough to sing — it’s the K2 of national anthems. The low notes are really low; the high notes are super high. The tune was an 18th-century drinking song, and I’m sure that half the fun of it was that it turned a room of drunks into blissful Biz Markies.
Even Beyoncé seemingly had to decide which notes were worth the risk of flubbing, when choosing a key to sing it in. She chose the lows, at the beginning of the tune. “Oh say can you see” is barely audible; that’s probably because if the sound engineer mixed the vocal expressly to make her shakier, lower range louder, the big dramatic notes at the end would shriek. A prerecorded vocal would be mixed such that those low notes would be just as audible as the high notes.
A singer with a big voice learns to pull the mic slightly further from her mouth on big notes, because it gets louder, and she doesn’t want to kill people. Rewind a video of Beyoncé’s performance, and note the words “twilight” and “ramparts.” They vary slightly in volume — the low notes are louder than the high notes.
Most dramatically, sound waves actually blow around in the wind.
Beyoncé, being a samurai, compensates: She sings the word “bursting” a little too close to the mic, causing a little bit of discernible distortion.
When she pulls out her left earpiece, she’s adjusting how she sounds to herself, and she subsequently pulls the mic further from her face. Notice how the echo suddenly gets more obvious — for a split second, the vocal sounds like it’s going through a tin can.
Right after that, you can tell that the sound person is scrambling to adjust the sound, because she’s adjusted her mic position. It sounds noticeably different until “Oh say does that star-spangled banner still wave,” when the sound is dialed in again.
For me, the most compelling evidence that Beyoncé was doing it for real is the HELL YES smile on Joe Biden’s face. Now, that is, clearly, a dude standing two feet from an electrifying singer.
Doughty is a singer-songwriter; his most recent albums are “Yes and Also Yes” (2011) and “The Flip Is Another Honey” (2012). His memoir, “The Book of Drugs,” was released last year.