Auto-Tune, also known as pitch correction, has stirred many passionate debates amongst musicians, engineers, and producers alike. In general it is frowned upon because of the belief that it is a tool for singers to ‘fix’ their vocal performances – and that pro musicians don’t need it, but is that really why it was created? Is cheating your way into sounding good really the only use for Auto-Tune? In this article I will be exploring the history of pitch correction to understand why it was developed, discuss some artists who use it (and why), and how it can benefit me as a studio engineer.
Auto-Tune: Is It Really That Bad? by Alwyn Nienaber
The History of Auto-Tune
The general consensus of Auto-Tune is that it is a modern technique used by new musicians to improve their vocal performances in order for them to sound as good as the generation of musicians before them. This is not the case however, and it is that same previous generation who not only invented Auto-Tune, but also brought it into the spotlight.
Auto-Tune was developed by mathematician Andy Hildebrand in 1997 who retired from his job in geophysics to study music composition. He adapted a technique from the world of geophysics called autocorrelation to the world of audio recording. Autocorrelation is used to map the surface of the earth by sending out sound waves and recording their reflections. By looking at how long a sound wave takes to travel back to the source after reflecting we can determine how far away the point of reflection is, and in some cases even the material which the sound reflected off of as some materials are more dense, and therefore more reflective than others. However, when applied to audio, we can also use it to find the sonic pitch of a sound.
The first instance of Auto-Tune being used in a song was one year later in 1998 when Cher released “Believe”. Being a great vocalist, she naturally did not need help with her performance, but instead used Auto-Tune as an effect to give her voice a sort-of robotic sound. Despite her label requesting her to remove the effect and rather use the natural sound of her voice, Cher refused and released it anyways. A few years later in 2005, T-Pain released his debut album Rappa Ternt Sanga, officially planting the seed for the use of Auto-Tune in pop music. There are very few people who know that T-Pain is actually a brilliant singer, choosing instead to believe that it is all “Studio Magic”, using pitch correction and other such vocal enhancers to make his voice sound good. However, just like Cher in 1998, he too used it as a tool to make his music unique, stating “If I was going to sing, I didn’t want to sound like everybody else. Just wanted something to make me different. Auto-Tune was the one.”
The Use of Auto-Tune in Modern Music
Now known commonly as the “T-Pain Effect”, Auto-Tune has become a very popular tool for pop musicians around the globe. Famous singers who now use Auto-Tune include T-Pain, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Daft Punk, Kesha, Travis Scott, and many many more. It is even believed by some that there are no modern records that do not use Auto-Tune or some sort of pitch correction, and that might very well be correct.
It’s fair to say that Auto-Tune has become accepted as a creative tool in the studio, but there are many people who are still against it as there are a few singers who use it during live performances. Some types of pitch correction (including those found on vocal processing floor / stomp pedals) can be set to a certain key, and depending on the parameters set, will adjust all the different pitches it receives to be in line with that key. The thing that those people don’t realize is how difficult it is to do a perfect performance night after night for weeks on end. Especially for singers with difficult vocal parts such as BTS, who when they have the pitch correction turned off during their performance still does a perfect job (and yes, this has been tested). Another thing to remember is that if you completely miss a note, and that note is corrected by Auto-Tune, then you can immediately hear it… And it does not sound pleasant… Meaning that you still have to hit 99% of the notes spot-on if you want to sound good during your performance. So for the most part, during live performances, pitch correction is used as a sort-of safety net. Personally, being someone who has done plenty of live performances in the past, I have nothing against that.
How Can Auto-Tune Benefit Studio Engineers?
So if it is okay to use Auto-Tune as a creative tool to change the way a person’s voice sounds, and if it is okay to use it as a safety net during live performances, then in what other ways can we benefit from it?
Some studio and recording engineers (including myself) have adapted Auto-Tune as a way to give an artist instant feedback. With softwares such as Melodyne or ReaTune that has visual as well as sonic feedback on each of the recorded notes, it has become extremely easy to identify problem areas in a recording. After doing a recording, I normally apply an instance of Melodyne to the track, and then I ask the vocalist to come and sit with me as we work through the recording piece-by-piece. After using the softwares help to identify areas where the performance can be improved, I ask the vocalist to take mental notes and focus on these areas. This way you can work together to get the perfect take without actually adjusting the pitch of any of the notes.
Is Auto-Tune Right For You?
When it comes to any form of pitch correction, the most important thing to do is to always keep an open mind. Softwares such as these are developed as a tool to help you, and if you don’t want to use it or feel that you don’t need it, then you don’t have to. However, you should always explore and make your own conclusion, whether you want to use it to get the iconic “T-Pain Effect”, as a backup during live performances, or as a way to check your performances in the studio, you have to play around with it and decide for yourself.
Remember the old saying… What goes into the microphone comes out of the speakers… If you start with something bad, then no amount of ‘Studio Magic’ can fix it.