Nowadays, it seems as if there’s nothing, we can’t do to make music electronically. We can use machines to imitate the sound of any instrument or genre. Some people use tools to create entire albums without ever learning how to play a real instrument.
There are a variety of opinions on generating music electronically. Some think it’s great while others think of it as artificial. Some love the sound and others hate it.
One type of electronic tool that’s coming under the gun a lot lately is auto-tune. This is a type of electronic manipulation that adjusts the singer’s voices so it’s in pitch even if it was originally sung out of pitch.
Some think autotune is cheating while others find it to be a useful device. Still others turn up the effect so it’s very prominent in the music. This is a strategy often used by today’s hip hop artists.
Auto-tuning has become very controversial with people weighing in on both sides of the coin. This article will explore the medium and attempt to answer the question, is auto-tuning cheating?
What is Auto-Tune?
Most of us know what auto-tune is in theory, but how exactly does it work?
Auto-tune is a tool that smooths out flat and sharp notes in a singer’s voice. You program it so it knows what key the singer should be singing in. Then it identifies notes that are out of pitch and shifts them, so they are in pitch.
The software was first introduced by Andy Hildebrand in 1997. Hildebrand was a Ph.D. researching digital signal processing while exploring electrical engineering when he came across the autotune concept. He premiered it at a NAMM convention, and it was an instant hit.
The tool was first used as a plug-in for PowerTools but today, it’s used with a variety of digital software. Many find it as commonplace as reverb, compression, and EQ.
Criticism of Auto-Tune
Nobody’s perfect. If you’re having trouble hitting notes in the recording studio, what’s the harm in using autotune? In addition to assisting you in getting a spot-on recording, it also helps out listeners who’d rather not cringe when they hear your vocals.
Well, the main criticism is that the autotune takes something away from the music. Steve Albini who is most famously known for recording Nirvana, called it ‘mind-numbing’ and said it would become cliché soon enough.
Even Jay-Z who comes from the world of hip hop where auto-tune is commonly used said that it was gimmicky and that artists who used it were jumping on a bandwagon. However, it’s unclear whether he was referring to auto-tune in general or the overused type of autotune which sounds more like an effect.
An anonymous recording engineer who worked with the Grammy organization noted that every track today has perfect pitch making it harder to differentiate between songs.
Time Magazine named autotune as one of the “50 Worst Inventions” in a 2010 article. Some have referred to it as Photoshop for the voice.
But is it All Bad?
Sure, autotune has gotten a lot of negative criticism, but not everyone has bad things to say about it. For example, one article puts forth the theory that autotune is no substitute for good singing.
If we look at the recording process, we can see how electronics have long been used to make recordings sound better. Drummer a little off on that fill? Guitarist not hitting that note cleanly enough? Software is available to fix those minor errors.
In fact, if enough software is used, you can make a terrible musician sound like a good musician.
Now let’s look at vocalists. Sure, a vocalist may hit a few wrong notes that require autotune. But if they are just a terrible vocalist, autotune won’t work. So, unlike other types of musicians that can use tools to go from meh to wow, singers will still have to sing well to make autotune work for them.
Auto-tuning also saves musicians money in the studio.
The recording process is expensive. Not every mistake is caught in the studio. Sometimes the producer catches a sharp or flat note during the mixing process.
So what can be done at this point? Bringing the singer back in to rerecord can be costly. A simple autotuned shift in pitch, on the other hand, can be easily performed during the mixing process making the recording sound flawless.
I’m sure most people would not consider this type of correction cheating. In fact, if you were a musician, you would probably be grateful that you have the tool at your disposal.
Another scenario involves the singer spending hours in the studio trying to get a track perfect. With studios charging by the hour, this can rack up a considerable bill. Not to mention the stress and frustration the singer feels that can further hinder the performance.
The solution? Autotune to the rescue once again.
How to Use Autotune So It Doesn’t Sound Overly Artificial
The difference between autotune receiving negative criticism and positive criticism could come down to how it’s used. For example, if you use it to correct a few off-key notes, it’s likely that only an expert will notice it. If you slather your entire recording with it, on the other hand, it may get to be overkill.
If you are using autotune as an effect to make vocals sound robotic, it will be down to a matter of taste.
If you want to use autotune tastefully, you will need to consider the three key settings involved. These include:
- Input Type: The autotune tool will allow you to select whether you’re making adjustments for vocals that are tenor, alto, soprano, bass, and more. Choosing the right input type will make the autotune sound more natural.
- Musical Key: It’s important to set the autotune for the key the song is in.
- Retune Speed: The retune speed refers to how quickly the autotune will catch a missed note. If you are set at a high retune speed of around 2.0, the autotune will sound more natural. If it’s set for a low retune speed of around 0, the effect will sound more robotic. A fast retune speed is recommended for inexperienced singers while a slower speed works for those who are more likely to nail a performance.
Here are some other helpful hints that will make autotune sound more natural:
- Use autotune only on the sections that need it rather than the entire track.
- Humanize the sound- using a faster retune speed will help.
- Use Flex-Tune- Whereas autotune pulls each note to the closest note in the scale, Flex-Tune corrects it as the singer approaches it making for a more subtle effect.
What Artists Use Autotune?
You might not be surprised to hear that many hip hop artists use autotune. In fact, some use it to the extent that it’s obvious. But the truth is, the tool is used by a variety of artists across a wide range of genres. They include:
- Alice Cooper: This shock rock icon admits to using autotune on his more recent albums.
- Black Eyed Peas: Will I. Am does not try to hide the fact that he uses autotune. It appears on Black Eyed Peas hits such as “Boom Boom Pow” and “Rock That Body”.
- Chris Cornell: Chris Cornell was known for having one of the greatest voices in rock n’ roll. Yet he used autotune for some of the faster parts on his Timbaland produced album.
- Fall Out Boy: Fall Out Boy shows that autotune can even infiltrate the emo scene.
- Faith Hill: Faith Hill is another singer known for her vocal prowess. But even she employs autotune every now and then.
- Billy Joel: This singer/songwriter disappointed fans by revealing his entire Super Bowl national anthem performance was autotuned.
- Kid Rock: Kid Rock is known for his country/rap style. But when he took on the ballad “Only God Knows Why”, he couldn’t do it without autotune.
- Lady Gaga: Even Lady Gaga brings in the autotune when the going gets tough.
- Maroon 5: Apparently there was some subtle autotune in “She Will Be Loved”.
- New Found Glory: New Found Glory proves that autotune is a popular choice, even for a rock band.
What Artists Don’t Use Autotune?
While there are many artists who use autotune, including a few that may surprise you, there are many who refuse to use the tool. These include:
- Pink: Pink is proud of the fact that she doesn’t need autotune. In fact, her producer feels she is better off without it.
- Celine Dion: Celine Dion says singing from the heart keeps her pitch perfect. She doesn’t need any stinking tools!
- Bruno Mars: Mars is as old school as they come. He claims to never hide behind electronics and owes his exceptional performances to a strict work ethic.
- Ariana Grande: Ariana Grande was accused of using autotune by a fan and responded, “Let me shine like damn.”
- Alicia Keys: Keys says she never faked a performance and never will.
- Adam Lambert: Lambert revealed in an interview that, while he doesn’t slam artists that use autotune, it just isn’t for him.
- Shawn Mendes: Shawn was discovered as ‘all-natural’ and that’s a reputation he wants to maintain.
- Kelly Clarkson: Kelly Clarkson admits to using autotune during her early days as an artist but now says she regrets it as she feels it’s not a true representation of her artistry.
- Beyonce: While Beyonce may play around with equipment to get an electronic sound in her music, her voice is all natural.
- Taylor Swift: Swift has used autotune for recordings but promises her fans she will never use it live.
Can Autotune Be Used Live?
If you were reading that last section carefully, you probably saw the bullet points on artists and their use of autotune in live performances. This may have led you to ask the question, can autotune be used live? The answer is yes, it can.
Autotune is typically used live with a foot pedal or rack mount and turned off between songs so the singer can talk to the crowd in their natural voice. It is programmed to stay within a scale or pitch. So, when the singer sings into the microphone, it will morph the vocal, so it isn’t off key.
Just like autotune used in recordings, a fast speed will make the vocal sound more natural while a slow speed will sound more like an effect.
The tool allows singers to improvise vocal lines without having to worry about going off key. This helps them concentrate on their stage presence and not get caught up in their vocals.
Singers may also be singing along to a vocal track in their earpiece. This helps them get as close as possible to the right note so autotune doesn’t have to work too hard to correct their voice.
If their notes are too off-pitch, the autotune will not work. It will only make the vocal sound strange and unnatural.
Autotune can be used in a live setting for many reasons as follows:
- It helps the singer stay on pitch
- It allows the singer to concentrate less on vocals and more on their live performance
- It produces a signature sound (this is the case for artists that like a heavy autotune effect)
- It’s good for harmonies- harmonies can be difficult to get spot-on live. Autotune helps singers get their harmonies right.
However, live autotune also comes with its share of drawbacks as follows:
- It’s not always reliable. It can cut off in the middle of the song throwing off the singer.
- It carries a stigma. It’s one thing to use autotune on a recording, but it’s another thing to use it in a live setting where everything is supposed to be raw and natural.
How Can You Tell if Autotune is Being Used?
Not sure if autotune is being used in a song? Here are some tips that will help you figure out if your favorite, and maybe not so favorite, artists are using the tool.
- Lack of Emotion: Autotune tends to provide a robotic sound that strips the voice of emotion. If you are listening to a heavily emotional track, it’s likely that it was not autotuned.
- Distortion Heavy Tracks: Many rock and metal singers add distortion to their voice to make it sound more aggressive. These tracks are often heavily autotuned to make the distortion sound crisper and the transition between notes seem smoother. Green Day’s “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades” is a good example of a distortion/autotune mix.
- The Song Has a Tight Feel: Songs with a tight feel will have minimal fluctuations in pitch when a note is held and sharp movements between pitches.
- The End of Phrases Sound Robotic: The robotic sound of autotune will be especially detectable at the end of song phrases.
- It’s Being Used as a Stylistic Effect: When autotune is used as a stylistic effect it should be instantly recognizable.
Is Electronic Music Cheating?
The question of whether autotune is cheating can lead to a bigger issue… is electronic music cheating? After all, if you can produce artificial voice sounds, what about producing artificial sounds to represent a keyboard, guitar, drum, bass, and so on.
Obviously, there are a variety of opinions on the matter. But what you must first consider are all the options available to someone creating music electronically.
For example, some people compose music on a computer which involves writing chord changes, a melody, and lyrics. Even though that person didn’t play the instruments, he or she is still the songwriter. They can always get in musicians to perform the tune at a later date.
This varies from someone who can find tracks on the internet, add effects, rap a few lyrics over it, share it on the web and legally put their name on it. So it’s a fine line.
There are also people that incorporate loops into their music. Again, their integrity as an artist depends on how they use the loops.
If they use the loop as the basis for their song and just add some lyrics and effects, some may consider it cheating. But if they use the loop as a basic track for improvisation or conservatively sample it into their music, it’s a more tasteful way to go.
However, this is just my perspective. Others may have different opinions on the matter, and that’s alright too.
Autotune has made waves in the world of music. Some find it to be a useful tune while others are vehemently against it. Which side of the coin do you weigh in on?