When Netta Barzilai was selected to sing for Israel, the first question that Team Insight had was “Will she be able to use the looper?” We needn’t have worried. Sources close to the Israeli delegation have informed ESC Insight that before the final of ‘The Next Star‘, the EBU confirmed that Barzilai’s looper would be allowed on stage in Lisbon if she won through to represent Israel.
Now that we know that the answer is yes and a live instrument will be returning to the Eurovision Song Contest stage, we can explore the importance of ‘Toy‘ in the evolution of the live vocals rule and what potential rule clarifications could await us in the future.
The First Era: Orchestral Manoeuvres
To begin, let’s take a look at how we got to where we are. Before 1973, back in the first era (the Orchestral Era) of the Song Contest, there was no question about how you would perform your song. You would supply your song arrangement and conductor to the provided orchestra, and you would sing into the provided microphone. I spoke to Gordon Roxburgh, author of Songs For Europe, about the way this was achieved:
The host broadcaster, along with the Musical Director (MD) would send all participants the proposed composition of the orchestra, for example the number of violins, oboes, trumpets, keyboards in the ensemble. This would help the various musical arrangers to score the songs accordingly.
This process would also give the participants an opportunity to request any non-standard instruments they wished to include in their compositions:
The host broadcaster and MD would then come back and say we have a guitarist who can double up on the ‘zither’ you want, (so allow one less guitarist in your score) but we can’t help you with a Tibetan nose flautist. If several participants had come back and requested the Tibetan nose flute, then the host broadcaster had the option of deciding whether it was worth including in the orchestra. But if one participant wanted one unique instrument for 12 seconds in their song, then the host broadcaster may decide that isn’t a viable option.
The Metropole Orchestra, 1970
If a delegation decided that it couldn’t possibly do justice to its song without the Tibetan nose flute, then they could choose to have the instrument played live on stage, using up one of their allotted six performers.
The Second Era: Wired For Sound
From 1973 onwards, pre-recorded backing tracks were allowed by the EBU, with Cliff Richard’s ‘Power To All Our Friends’ being the first song to use a partial backing track.
This added an extra complication to the ‘Tibetan nose flute’ problem. If you wanted to use the instrument on the backing track, then you still had to use an extra performer to represent the backing track on stage. The onstage performer could then play live or mime to a backing track, but according to the Musicians’ Union conventions of the time, the person miming on stage had to be the same person whose performance was captured on the backing track. Gordon Roxburgh:
In practice this wasn’t always the case, and the Contest has a few examples where the person on on stage wasn’t the same musician who performed what the audience were listening to. (But of course they are not going to openly admit it). ”
The rule that specified that non-orchestral instruments used in the backing track must be represented on stage is perhaps the origin of the trope of bringing one of your nation’s traditional instruments on stage, which of course became sufficiently common to be given an affectionate mention in ‘Love Love Peace Peace’.
Below, you can see an example of a non-standard instrument being included. Yugoslavia decided an accordion was needed in its 1983 song ‘Dzuli’ by Daniel, which can be seen to be mic’d up and being actively played.
In order to accommodate the wider repertoire of sounds required as the Song Contest and the popular music represented by it matured, a change in the rules was eventually required. This rule change came when Eurovision tracks began to incorporate significant quantities of programmed synthesisers. It is widely agreed that the challenge to the backing track rule came in 1996 when Gina G was ably supported on stage by two synths and two chunky putty-coloured CRT monitors during the Grammy nominated ‘Ooh Aah Just A Little Bit’, to represent the extensive synth programming of composer Steve Rodway. Gordon Roxburgh adds:
The big transition started in 1996 with the likes of the Gina G song where the boundaries were being blurred, and then by 1999 the orchestra has gone, and then ultimately live instruments were gone altogether.
We’re still trying to pinpoint the very last live instrument to appear on the Eurovision stage, but 1997 certainly marks a sea change in the way that Eurovision presentations are constructed. Let’s call that the end of the second era of Eurovision performance.
The Third Era: Dance Alone
The 3rd era of Eurovision performance from 1997 begins with various changes in quick succession.
From 1999 onwards the orchestra is no longer a compulsory aspect of hosting the Song Contest and it quickly disappears. Televoting pushes the musical selections to more electronic, dance-oriented music; further emphasising the use of dancers instead of on-stage musicians. The audience no longer expects to see instruments represented on stage, except if it adds to the aesthetics of the performance.
However, the key rule remains: no vocal or vocal imitation sounds may be included on the backing track. This rule sensibly bans recorded backing vocals and recorded vocals supporting the main singer, but perhaps less sensibly it bans the use of synthesisers and electronic instruments using choir imitation settings.
In the popular music landscape of 1956 when the Eurovision Song Contest began, it was unimaginable that the exotic new musical instruments that were developing at the intersection of modern classical music, horror film soundtracks and garage electronic tinkering would become a core part of the chart sound. The first UK Number 1 single to feature a synthesiser was ‘Runaway‘ by Del Shannon in 1961, but it wasn’t until the end of the sixties that synthesisers became common stage and studio instruments amongst pop and rock musicians.
The kind of synthesisers that could have caused a philosophical problem for the live vocals rule were things like the Mellotron. Originally developed in the early sixties, it used tape loops of real instruments or vocals that could be triggered by a keyboard to produce infinite but slightly ghostly notes. A Mellotron using the choir setting (demonstrated in the video of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ below) would therefore have second-hand recorded vocals on the backing track and should theoretically have not been allowed.
Analogue synthesisers work by adding simple waveforms together electronically to create complex sounds. It’s possible to make an analogue synth sound that sounds a little bit like a choir singing ‘ah’. With early synths, these noises weren’t convincing enough to fool anyone, but the rule created the philosophical category of ‘vocal imitations’ that would keep the live vocal rule happy for a while longer. You can hear a sample of an analogue vocal synth below.
Every Modern Vocal Is Modified
One thing that has never been in question is whether it is admissible to treat vocals. Almost everyone who sings down a microphone has some reverb applied. It’s really unpleasant to listen to a totally dry vocal, and large amounts of reverb are often used to reduce the impact of a duff vocal. Yes, especially in karaoke.
The degree and method by which you treat vocals can be controversial. When the Olsen Brothers included a little bit of vocoder in ‘Fly On The Wings Of Love’, this was met by protests from the Russian delegation.
There are two different effects that are generally referred to as vocoders – they both involve the mixing of vocal sounds and instrumental sounds to create special effects, but by different means. See Sound on Sound for technical details.
The effect used by the Olsen Brothers to such great effect is a true vocoder – he’s using a regular microphone. If it was a talk box you would expect to see a tube in his mouth. A vocoder mixes the tune of a live vocal with the imprint of a specific set of frequency envelopes, creating the robotic, low resolution vocal effect.
The main way that a talk box could be deemed to be against the spirit of the rules is that you can be much more lax about hitting a note when the note is supplied to you by an external instrument. This overlooks the fact that the combination of singing and playing when using these devices is a skill in itself, and suggests that a talk box could be used to automatically tune a vocal. The original ones using 1970s technology couldn’t, but the story doesn’t stop there.
First released in 1997, Auto-Tune is a music production tool that takes the idea of mixing a vocal input with a supplied note to the next level. It analyses the waveform of a note and then shifts it to the nearest exact semitone. It can do this harshly and noticeably (Believe by Cher) or subtly and almost invisibly (basically every pop record since the millennium) and it can be used both in studios and live to tidy up vocals to meet public expectations. Because vocal capacity is one of the criteria by which the Eurovision juries are supposed to judge entries, auto-tune is clearly not something we would want at the Contest. But would we also want to ban the creative uses of the Cher effect?
The Fourth Era: Grab The Moment
Last year, we may have seen the start of the fourth era of Eurovision Song Contest performance. Whilst representing Norway, JOWST pushed the envelope on both treated vocals and backing track vocals. The chorus of ‘Grab The Moment’ featured a section of Aleksander Walmann’s vocals which had been treated in a way that turned them into a set of synthetic stabs that critically for the rules couldn’t be performed by the human voice alone. This was definitely a vocal-like sound with recognisable lyrics, and sync’d up to an image of a pixellated Aleks singing the same lyrics. But it was appearing on the backing track? What happened?
After the Song Contest, it became clear that because the vox chop stabs weren’t reproducible live on stage by the human, the EBU had cleared JOWST to include the vox chops on the backing track. JOWST says that they did have a backup plan if the decision had gone the other way, but that it wouldn’t have been as effective. But how did the EBU come to the decision that a manipulated vocal track was acceptable on the backing track? Would it have made a difference if the real Aleks was miming to the vox chop? Did the graphic overlay make a difference? Would it have made a difference if it had been another part of the song?
It appears that there has been no formal change in the Eurovision rules to reflect the JOWST precedent. Any country that selects a song with a similar element will have to seek clearance to perform it, running the risk of the Contest being accused of favouritism and lack of transparency in the event of a negative decision.
For Lisbon 2018, Netta has been allowed to use her looper at the Song Contest. This is different again.
The looper isn’t like autotune or like a pre-recorded vox chop. Through using the looper, Netta’s vocals become an instrument that will be played live. She can apply various filters, harmonic and rhythmic changes and accompany her own live vocals. She can add beatboxing. She could in theory do the whole song with no backing track. She can display tremendous amount of technical and compositional skill at the same time as giving a superb vocal.
However, she will also be playing a musical instrument, which is also against the existing form of the rule. If the EBU were to formally relax the rule as demonstrated by the above examples, we would not have been on tenterhooks to hear whether Netta is allowed to use her looper on ‘Toy’ and we would allow further musical diversity and personal expression into the contest.
We should formally acknowledge the start of a new performance era for Eurovision by creating a full ruling on which vocal treatments are allowed on backing tracks, and which technical effects may be produced live …and also a full investigation on why so many people are hiding their backing singers.
As always, the Eurovision Song Contest has to find a way to keep up with technological progress whilst still retaining the live magic that keeps 200 million people tuning in every year.
In the meantime, ESC Insight is very happy that Netta can start up the looper.