Real Musicians Know: Beyoncé Was Singing Live

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 23 2013 5:52 PM

Beyoncé Wasn’t Lip-Syncing

A professional musician goes deep on the inaugural non-scandal.

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Beyonce performs the National Anthem during the inauguration ceremony on Monday

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

I'm hoping for a flurry of retractions. A Marine spokesperson said yesterday 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.

It's bunk. That lady was singing live. She sang to a prerecorded track—a canned band—and perhaps there was a guide vocal in her earpiece, audible only to her, but that was absolutely a genuine performance.

Kelly Clarkson performed to a prerecorded track, too. So did the choir.

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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.

Below is the video for my cover of "Take Me Home, Country Roads." My lips lag pitifully behind the words. It's because—and this is extremely common—the way I sing a song changes very slightly every time, and, six months later, the phrasing can be significantly different. Video directors have asked me to spend three hours listening to my own song, lip-syncing all the while, but I've never done it. The result is an eminently mediocre lip-sync. Ignore the mountaineer in Cazals, and watch my mouth:

Now here's Beyoncé at the inauguration. Again, don't look at anything but her mouth:

For comparison, here's Beyoncé's video for "Work It Out," in which she's lip-syncing. It's difficult to ignore her thighs, but, please, focus solely on the lips:

If she was indeed lip-syncing at the inauguration, give her the Nobel Prize in mime.

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 a bitch 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 that video, 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. Sometimes, when I do a big outdoor festival, I sound-check in calm weather, but the wind picks up when the actual show begins, taking my voice and throwing it someplace other than where I’m expecting it. It's easy to get confused. A politician might choke, like, "I'm not speaking right! Or the sound's not right! I better be super loud! Or use the mic differently!" That would be a Howard Dean moment. If you're the sound engineer at the inauguration, a big part of your gig is preventing Howard Dean moments.

Beyoncé, being a samurai, clearly came expecting that possibility. So she compensates: She sings the word "bursting" a little too close to the mic, causing a little bit of discernible distortion—it's like a subtler version of when you're talking into the mic on your phone, and you suddenly get loud, or too close, and for a moment the voice gets kind of larger and fuzzier.

When she pulls out her left earpiece—more on that in a moment—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.

So: about the in-ear monitors. The sight of her earpiece begat the conspiracy theories, but an earpiece is not, by any means, a sign of lip-syncing. In-ears are worn by almost all singers who can afford them. Everybody who sings in arenas does. It may sound surprising, but, even for fantastic singers, it can be difficult to sing in tune if you're only hearing yourself on an enormous sound system—overhead, flanking you, and facing not you but the audience. Anybody who would sing outdoors, in the wind, in front of hundreds of thousands of people (and millions on TV), without in-ears would be gambling absurdly. The choir was probably too large for everybody to have in-ears, but I bet the soloist did; if Kelly Clarkson didn't use them, I'd be stunned.

Probably she popped it out because the sound was weird—see above. Possibly, she usually performs with just one in, and used both at the inauguration to be extremely cautious—upon beginning to sing, she might've thought, Oh, wait, I don't need this. (When I use in-ears on longer tours, when I can afford to bring along a sound engineer, I always keep one popped out so I don't feel insulated.)

Look, lip-syncing irritates me. It's everywhere. I was stunned that, after the Ashlee Simpson debacle, SNL continued to have musical guests who lip-sync.

And even more grating to me is the use of canned backing tracks when you could just put a real band there. Every single performance at the inauguration was done to prerecorded tracks—as was every performance in 2009, including Yo-Yo Ma’s. (He actually did fake playing his cello, because cold weather makes the wood and the strings of delicate instruments freak out.) I wasn't an enthused viewer of the Bush inaugurations, and I was high during Clinton's, but I'd bet you any sum that performances on those occasions were largely to canned music.

That sucks! America, the richest country in the world, can’t afford to hire an orchestra and put microphones on them? Is it, like, hard, or something? What is this, pregame at the Gator Bowl? But that’s not the scandal—supposed lip-syncing is. It’s weird that nobody in a TV news department, where remote reporters are always wearing an earpiece to hear the anchor back in New York, would explain why singers would use them.

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 lady singing like a motherfucker.

Mike 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. He DJs junk-store-electro-large-beat music as Dubious Luxury.

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