Auto-tune, it is everywhere, from its overt use for its distinctive sound by artists like Drake to artists who have used it less obviously to tidy up vocal lines that they sang slightly out of tune. It also sparks hot debates and makes many individuals furious claiming it symbolises everything wrong with the modern music industry. Some hate the sound that the overt use of auto-tune creates, while others find the use of it to correct vocal lines dishonest and believe that it is used to make talentless individuals sound like amazing singers and some musicians even refuse to use the technology on principle. However, many believe it is a useful tool either helping to tidy up great takes or for its use as a creative tool both for transcribing or adjusting the melody of recorded takes after the fact and even for adding a unique sound that other forms of audio processing do not possess. So that leaves the question: Is Auto-tune a useful creative tool or a form of musical cheating?
In the analogue world of music, before the development of auto-tune, you could only use takes that had been produced by the artist, and though takes could be manipulated with certain outboard gear and the pitch of a take could be changed through the speeding up or slowing down of the tape the recording was on, very little could be done to change the pitch of a single note on a vocal or instrument. This meant to get recordings with all the best performances from various takes required the cutting and splicing of multiple-takes to get the desired effect. However, the destructive nature of cutting and splicing tape meant that the technology could not be used excessively without ruining the natural sound of a recording, as such many pre-digital recordings feature vocals and instrumentation that was out of tune. Many argue that the imperfections found in these older recordings adds character and a feel to the music that is often lost in todays world where every second of music is polished to perfection.
Auto-tune, is widely recognised to have first appeared on Cher’s 1998 track ‘Believe’ where it was used to distort the vocals in an interesting and unique way. Though this is truly the first use of actual auto-tune, there is a huge gap between what auto-tune actually is and what what the general public believes auto-tune to be. Auto-tune is a form of what is more broadly known as pitch-correction and there are devices that have been used to correct the pitch of vocals and instrumentation since the 1970s. But much like how brands such as Hoover have become synonymous with vacuum cleaners, the name auto-tune has become synonymous with all types of pitch correction whether done automatically like the actual auto-tune by Antares Audio Technologies or done through a more manual method like the Eventide H910 Harmonizer.
Here in lies the problem, many people hear the name auto-tune and automatically assume that the term is being used to describe the correction of the pitch of a poor vocal performance when in reality auto-tune is used to describe a wide-range of methods and techniques to affect the tuning of audio in numerous ways and for numerous reasons. There are examples of how pitch correction has been used to tidy up vocals in a way that may make sense to many. For example, as a producer there are many elements you are looking for in a performance; tuning and timing are a couple of those elements but there are others; the timbre, emotion, power and dynamics of a performance are just a few examples and if as a producer you have to choose between a performance that is in tune but does not have the power and emotion that the song requires or a performance that is slightly out of tune but carries the weight and emotion that you want from that part of the song, you may forgive the producer for picking out the slightly out of tune vocal and correcting a mild mistake.
Pitch correction can also be used in a creative way that creates a unique sound, instrumentalists utilise systems such as talk-boxes and vocoders to create interesting sounds that you just cannot achieve with any other method, and auto-tune is often used in this way as well. We often hear these uses in a lot of modern pop music from artists like Kanye West who uses it in many tracks including ‘Love Lockdown’ and Bruno Mars who uses a vocoder in the introduction of ‘24k Magic’. But plenty of artists have used these techniques in the past, Kraftwerk used vocoders in a lot of their work including their 1978 song ‘The Robots’ and even the The Beatles manipulated the pitch of their songs by speeding up and slowing down tape; the perfect example of this is ‘Strawberry Fields’ where the speeding up and raising of the pitch of the track can be heard at around the 1 minute mark.
That being said, where does auto-tunes bad reputation come from? As I have just explained, much of it comes down to the difference between peoples’ expectations of what auto-tune is used for and what it is actually used for. With such expectations it is no wonder that people feel auto-tune is being used as a way to cheat talent. This coupled with a number of on stage performers such as Britany Spears and Katy Perry being caught lip synching vocals live and certain talent shows such as the X-Factor admitting to using auto-tune on their contestants then you begin to see why people may feel cheated and mislead when it comes to modern pop music.
So are there plausible uses for this technology? I would say yes, to an extent. Of course I have explained how it can be used in really cool creative ways that have changed how music sounds forever, it has also been used to make the most of the best takes to ensure a track can sound the best it possibly can. And though it may seem that its use in a live setting is cheating, the reality is that auto-tune cannot turn a bad singer into a great one. The technology itself only goes so far when being used live, as it can only be used to bring a note that is within a semi-tone of the desired pitch in tune, and to sing that close in tune consistently requires a strong and confident vocal ability. In such a setting in can be argued that is no difference between auto-tune and other audio-processing that is used in Live performances. No matter who the performer is, auto-tune or no auto-tune, other processes are used to bring the best out of a vocal performance with EQ being a bare minimum and the use of reverb, delay and compression also being perfectly normal processes to improve the sound of a vocal, how is the slight use of auto-tune any different?
Now this is not to say that the technology gets off the hook completely. Many people argue that the music of today has lost much of the feel that music used to gain from its imperfections. What used to be an art-form that relied entirely on imperfect human beings who, no matter how good, would always play slightly out of time and out of pitch when recording themselves to tape, a medium with limited editing ability, has now been replaced by computers and algorithms that can ensure that music recordings can be edited to produce perfectly timed and pitched music in a way no one could have ever imagined. Now it is important to realise that auto-tune is not the only culprit in this problem with modern music as there are loads of different modern recording techniques such as midi and audio-quantisation that helps in the creation of super-clean and super-perfect music of the modern era, but perhaps auto-tune is part of a trend in music that has seen the thing that made music so human disappear: imperfection.
What's is you opinion on auto-tune? Do not hesitate to comment below and start of a discussion on auto-tune and whether it is cheating or a useful creative tool?
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