'X Factor': Vocal Sweetening? Lip Syncing? The Lowdown on the Show’s Sound

X Factor top 12 group number
Ray Mickshaw / FOX

If there is one aspect of X Factor that may take some getting used to, it’s how the contestants’ vocals sometimes sound a little too perfect. Who can forget the episodes shot at the judges’ homes, where a distracting running water fountain was miraculously muted as soon as Paula Abdul’s groups hit their first notes? And during Thusday’s show, internet chatter went ballistic when LeRoy Bell’s vocals kicked in before he had a chance to actually mouth a word.

So what’s the story? It’s a fairly well-known fact that during group numbers on singing shows -- like American Idol, which all but admitted to the practice in season 9, at least where the choruses was concerned -- contestants will sing to a backing track and that sometimes their individual microphones cannot be heard above the pre-recorded music. This is what happened on Thursday’s elimination show as X Factor’s Top 12 performed “Without You” by David Guetta (see video below). 

Says Fox in its show's defense: “All survival songs are performed live, with just a backing track. For the group ensemble performance, the vocals are pre-recorded to allow acts to concentrate on preparing for their own live competitive performances on Wednesdays -- this is also no different to what other competition shows do for ensemble performances." (Meaning: the contestants are in fact lip-syncing.)

The show has had vocal controversies before. After public outcry that X Factor UK contestants were being auto-tuned, Cowell admitted the practice then banned it. When The Hollywood Reporter asked show judge and creator Simon Cowell about vocal sweetening on US X Factor, he said, “We have to mix the show just like you mix the tracks as you mix my voice, but nothing like auto-tuning or, how do you call it, ‘sweetening?’ No one’s got an unfair advantage.”

Not feeling quite satisfied with that answer, we asked an independent expert and X Factor viewer, producer Tricky Stewart (Beyonce's "Single Ladies," Justin Bieber's "Baby") to comment on the show’s vocals. “I don't think they're tweaking vocals in that they're messing or manipulating them,” he told THR. “But I do think the people on X Factor are so competitive with other shows on television that they're paying attention to every detail about how it actually sounds -- every microphone and every reverb. They're going hard, trying to get a step up and you can see it.”

Actually, you can hear it.

What do you think? Does a lip-synched group number rub you the wrong way? Should singing show producers be more transparent about this practice? And if so, how?

Update: A spokesperson for American Idol tells THR, "American Idol does not lip-sync. All of our solo performances, both during competition and after the contestant has been eliminated, are sung live with no vocal background tracks. Our ensemble performances are sung live with a background chorus track. During ALL solo and ensemble performances, our band is live.”