Why do Musicians Use Auto-Tune? Does Auto-Tune Help?

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Auto-Tune has been around for a long time and whether we know it or not, it’s used both on radio and in live performances. In some cases, the use of Auto-Tune is iconic! Yet, most people don’t know what Auto-Tune does or how it works.

Auto-Tune is an audio processor or type of plug-in for music production software that corrects pitch by adjusting sharp or flat notes to a preset musical scale. It can correct minor imperfections or be used to make purposeful vocal effects and can improve live performances.

A lot of people judge the use of Auto-Tune without understanding it. I challenge you to read this article about the origins of Auto-Tune, its utility, and both the positive and negative aspects of using it. Then, decide.  

So, what is Auto-Tune and where did it come from?

Auto-Tune is actually the brand name of a plug-in made originally for Pro Tools (a music production software). It’s owned by Antares, a company based near the Silicon Valley in California. For the article, I’ll continue to use the brand name when applicable or “autotune” otherwise. Just keep in mind that there are plenty of competing products out there in the music industry. 

Auto-Tune was launched in 1997 by Andy Hildebrand, a Ph.D. research engineer specialized in stochastic estimation theory and digital signal processing. Hildebrand became a professional studio musician, specializing in symphonic music. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in digital signal processing, a branch of electrical engineering. He even worked as a geophysicist for Exxon Mobil, using sound waves to search for fossil fuels. Eventually, he returned to music. He was asked by a colleague about helping keep her voice in tune. It seemed to him that the math used in one field might be applicable to another. He implemented the algorithm on a custom computer and presented the result at the NAMM Show later that year.  

Using pitch correction via computer was thought of as impractical before this. Achieving this took massive computational effort, but Hildebrand found a “simplification” using a “mathematical trick”. 

Hildebrand had come up with the idea for a vocal pitch correction technology at the suggestion of a colleague’s wife, who had joked that she could benefit from a device to help her sing in tune. 

The fundamental principle behind auto-tuned music is always “pitch correction”.

The software determines the key of the song and can detect any out-of-tune vocals by comparing them against a reference note in that key (usually A440).

Autotuning will adjust the vocal recording so that it matches the desired tuning point. It allows singers who don’t have perfect pitch to stay on key and not get lost when using studio software while recording or performing live.

And that’s what it was originally about – the technology was designed to correct imprecise tonal issues. According to the patent: “When voices or instruments are out of tune, the emotional qualities of the performance are lost.”

However, when sound engineers got hold of it, things changed dramatically!  Enter Cher. 

Cher’s 1998 song “Believe” is iconic not only for the video’s visual and audio beauty but for putting Auto-Tune on the map. They used autotune to exaggerate abrupt pitch corrections that would normally not be wanted in music to great auditory effect. The modulations added to the song instead of taking away from it. The use of auto-tuning as a vocal effect was bolstered in the late 2000s by hip hop/R&B recording artist T-Pain who elaborated on the effect and made active use of autotune in his songs. The early 2000s saw a boom in the use of this technology by many popular artists. It saw a resurgence in the mid-2010s, especially in rai and trap music. 

But these are people who use the technology for obvious vocal effects. Other artists use autotune to give them a safety net for their performances by adjusting the mistakes they make in pitch. Popular singers use it a lot. Does this mean that they can’t sing? No. However, they have definitely benefited from the use of the plug-in and their fans may or may not know at all. 

On the other hand, many artists are against the use of autotune in their music. Some believe using autotune is wrong and takes away from showcasing hard work and talent. Others are fine with other artists using it, but feel it’s not right for them. Some agree to use pitch correction on recorded music, but will not use it during live performances. It can be a controversial issue. Let’s dive in, shall we? 

Why do musicians use Auto-Tune?

Musicians use autotune for one simple reason: TO SOUND GOOD 

Autotuning can make vocals sound more pleasant to listen to. It can correct errors in timing, pitch, and volume that occur naturally when singing. Musicians who may not have a great singing voice use pitch correction to sound better than they would without it. This is generally seen as an advantage. Listeners are more likely to enjoy their music if it’s easier on the ears. Autotuned vocals seem smoother and follow chords more closely which makes them catchier or more singable for some people’s tastes. It helps singers to produce pitches consistently even if they are off-key.

Some artists use autotune so that they can sing live while still sounding perfect as their audio recordings. This is called “live pitch correction”. Yes, Auto-Tune Live is a thing. Sound engineers are very talented and their technology is often cutting edge. They are there to make the performers sound as great as possible, even if the performer isn’t able to be. They pitch-correct as the music flows from the stage through their system and then out through the speaker system. 

Autotuning can also be used as a creative effect in some types of music – such as with rap vocals which are typically recorded over beats or percussion instruments and need to sound smoother than just the natural voice without the software.

It can also be used for creative effects like turning someone’s voice into an animal growl or make it sound almost robotic. There are a LOT of performers who use autotune to produce this style of music. As mentioned before, T-Pain has actually capitalized on the digital effects the plug-in makes to his voice. It’s literally called “The T-Pain Effect” in the industry. Using an autotune program to make a new musical instrument out of your voice is exciting experimentation that a lot of listeners like. These artists parallel this use to scratching records or making beats from other peoples’ music samples. 

When French house duo Daft Punk was questioned about their use of Auto-Tune, Thomas Bangalter replied by saying, “A lot of people complain about musicians using Auto-Tune. It reminds me of the late ’70s when musicians in France tried to ban the synthesizer… What they didn’t see was that you could use those tools in a new way instead of just for replacing the instruments that came before.”

What are the pros and cons of using autotune in music production?

The sound is more consistent and there are fewer mistakes.  This can be especially important for singers with vocal defects, as it allows them to sing better when they might not have the ability otherwise. The con? What if someone who uses autotune consistently is being rewarded with a career that someone else (someone who puts forth hard work, practice, and their own given talent) actually deserves? Well, keep in mind that a vocalist still has to know how to sing before pitch correction can even be used. I’ll get into that later.  

It makes a lot of music production easier because producers don’t need to worry about recording vocals in different ways that may take up time during song-writing or studio sessions. This saves money and time and strain on a singer’s voice. The use of the tool is sometimes just practical. It’s used by most recording studios. The habit began innocuously enough. For example, when an artist has left the studio and has no opportunity to return just to re-sing one or two off notes. It also helps to smooth the transition between different vocal takes that have been “cut and pasted” together in modern music software like ProTools.

Singers often use autotune because it makes them sound better and allows them to become more creative with their vocals, even when they’re not using the machine on every note or phrase. It creates the illusion of a perfect voice. But this has had some negative effects. Pitch correction sets up an unrealistic expectation for someone’s vocal ability. This can result in disappointment when their audience hears them during live performances or without effects. 

For up-and-coming artists, it presents them with a very real dilemma: audiences are so accustomed to hearing “perfect” vocals that hearing real vocals (even if they are excellent) can be off-putting. They lose their possible audience simply because they aren’t good enough, even though they are being compared to people who use autotune. 

Autotune allows for more creativity in music production and vocal performance – such as adding effects that would be difficult without its help. Even though many people dislike how artificial it sounds at times, others think of this software as an instrument in itself that is used creatively. However, when autotune is applied poorly, vocals can become too robotic, annoying, or cartoonish sounding.

Makes vocals crisper and clearer sounding than before potential due to lack of noise distortion from synthesizers. This can be important, especially in the world of EDM and any electronically enhanced music. In these genres, the use of synthesizers is expected, and sometimes so is autotune. 

Charlie Puth has even said that he taught himself how to sing by using the plug-in. The artist told CBC that the tool had been invaluable in his learning process:

“I basically taught myself how to sing through Auto-Tune… I have perfect pitch, and I get so irritated when I can’t feasibly hit the note. So I opened up Pro Tools and downloaded Auto-Tune and highlighted my voice, and just put it to F major – I remember that was the first key I ever used on it. I cried because I could hear my voice in the way that I wanted it to sound. That plug-in has been so important and I am not ashamed to admit it… everybody uses it.”

Why do so many people dislike autotuned music?

One reason some listeners may hate autotune is that they cannot distinguish between what sounds good naturally and what was made artificially. People often assume that anything auto-tuned must be bad by default. If the singer were any good, then they wouldn’t need to use autotune. That’s not necessarily the case, yet people who don’t understand how it works may have that misconception. 

“It’s not as much of a crutch as people think it is,” T-Pain says. “It’s more of a corrective tool, just like reverb or delay or any kind of equalizer or compression… If you want two or three notes up,” T-Pain advises, “you’re going to have to sing that.”

The way in which the pitch is corrected can be at times unpleasant and create an unnatural sound that a lot of listeners find annoying or off-putting. Especially when it’s repetitive and exaggerated. A lot of people prefer hearing natural sounds over artificial ones. Of course, as shown by T-Pain’s success, there are apparently a lot of people out there that also like the sounds produced by people who use autotune in a creative fashion to intentionally distort their voice. 

There are times when pitch and tone are adjusted purposely by a musician to express a certain emotion or effect. This is especially true in Old Rock, Blues, and Country. If that is auto-tuned, it loses value and emotion. Per Victor Coelho, Professor of Music at Boston University to The Verge – 

“When a (blues) singer is ‘flat’ it’s not because he’s doing it because he doesn’t know any better. It’s for inflection! Blues singers have traditionally played with pitch to express feelings like longing or yearning, to punch up a nastier lyric, or make it feel dirty,” he says. “The music is not just about hitting the pitch.”

Finally, some people might not like autotune simply because it makes singers too perfect by correcting their errors without any effort on their part. And it has been proven that the more people hear pitch-corrected material, the more they come to expect perfection from audio samples – leading to a never-ending cycle. This cycle has changed the music industry. 

In a 2006 interview, Neko Case told Pitchfork how prevalent pitch-correction is in the industry:

“I’m not a perfect note hitter either but I’m not going to cover it up with Auto-Tune. Everybody uses it, too. I once asked a studio guy in Toronto, ‘How many people don’t use Auto-Tune?’ and he said, ‘You and Nelly Furtado are the only two people who’ve never used it in here.’ Even though I’m not into Nelly Furtado, it kind of made me respect her. It’s cool that she has some integrity.”

However, Furtado’s very next album release was autotuned. 

At the 51st Grammy Awards in early 2009, the band Death Cab for Cutie made an appearance wearing blue ribbons to protest against the use of autotune in the music industry. 

Then, Jay-Z titled the lead single off his album The Blueprint 3 as “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”. Of course, he and Beyonce had a turnaround on that opinion in 2018 when they were featured in autotuned rapping on a track. 

In August of the same year, Christina Aguilera appeared in public, wearing a T-shirt that read “Auto-Tune is for Pussies”. Of course, she has an exception. She said that autotune could be used “in a creative way” and noted her song “Elastic Love” as an example.

In 2009, Time magazine wrote a full article on Auto-Tune and programs/plug-ins like it. The article expressed “hope that pop’s fetish for uniform perfect pitch will fade. The article suggests that pop-music songs, in particular, have become harder to differentiate from one another, as “track after track has perfect pitch.”

Jim Anderson, president of the US Audio Engineering Society, told Time magazine: “People are getting used to hearing things dead-on pitch, and it’s changed their expectations.” 

In 2010, the reality TV show The X Factor admitted to using autotune to improve the voices of contestants. 

Also in 2010, Time magazine included Auto-Tune in their list of “The 50 Worst Inventions”.  Time magazine journalist Josh Tyrangiel called autotune “Photoshop for the human voice”. 

There is even a campaign against the use of autotune called “Live Means Live”. It was launched by songwriter/composer David Mindel. When a band displays the “Live Means Live” logo, the audience knows the show they are hearing and seeing is 100% LIVE and that there is no live pitch correction, no backing tracks, nothing that is not live.

Despite the hate Auto-Tune gets, industry insiders say that the plug-in is used on nearly every record these days. 

How can you tell when autotune has been used? 

In an article for the BBC Entertainment News, Daniel Griffiths, editor of music recording magazine Future Music stated, “It’s pretty much used in 99% of recorded music now. I’ve spoken to engineers who have recorded really big artists – who I won’t name – and they just say it’s there on the mixing desk all the time. If the artist wants to use it, then they just flick the switch.” 

So how do you know? Auto-Tune and plug-ins like it are very subtle. Even an artist’s most rabid fans and other musicians might have a difficult time hearing when someone’s vocals have been tampered with.

You have to know what to listen for. In some cases it’s a bubbling tone or a jagged movement between notes that are the tell-tale signs of pitch-correction. 

Recording engineer Des McKinney pointed out some examples of autotuning that you can judge for yourself: 

  • Avril Lavigne – Complicated. This is more subtle. See if you can hear a bubbling effect when Lavigne sings “way” and “driving”.
  • Maroon 5 – She Will Be Loved. Potentially controversial, as frontman Adam Levine is a critically-acclaimed singer. McKinney suggests you can hear autotune on the words “rain” and “smile”.
  • Rascal Flatts – Life Is A Highway. There is a (possibly deliberate) autotune effect on the word “driving”.

Conclusion

My personal opinion is that autotune (or pitch correction) should be used in the polished form of the music we consume, whether that be on the radio or on the record or download we’re purchasing. It’s just one of many tools used by engineers and producers to make a song exactly what they want and what the audience craves. However, that audience needs to understand that these tools are used and that the finished product is not necessarily what the performer sounds like when accompanied by the bare minimum. 

Truth be told, I would prefer to hear the untouched version of an artist’s music when I go to a concert or live performance. It’s raw, it should just be unfiltered, in my opinion. Untouched by manipulation of any kind would be nice. I prefer the connection to the musician and the emotion in the voice-over perfection. 

Now, I have a friend who doesn’t mind it, especially when it comes to theatre production. Why? Because a lot of concerts or theatre performances will be ‘once in a lifetime’ moments, and my friend would prefer those to be perfect and not marred by someone being a little pitchy.

Whether you like Auto-Tune and plug-ins like it, the fact remains that it has had an industry-shaping effect on audience perception and consumption of music. It is very doubtful that music will simply put this tool down.   

What do you think? 


SOURCES:

Wikipedia

BBC News

Complex.com

The Verge

Pitchfork

Rachel Adams

I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio.