Auto-Tune and the etymology of pop

We recently ran an article on the announcement of Antares ATR-6 auto-tuning technology for the guitar. While reading up on this, I was drawn back into the web of arguments about whether this technology was damaging to music…

It seems in every musical generation there exists two opposing sides – one that claims good music is only made by musicians playing real instruments, and  anyone reliant on studio trickery is a charlatan; and the other that claims any means used to realise the musical idea of the artist is valid. The former camp certainly argues most vociferously (but often that’s because the second is busy in the studio), and the usual target for the argument always seems to be the technology that is currently trending in production-heavy pop. And it seems that once again, very unfairly, it’s Auto-Tune. So I want to take this opportunity to present a defence, not just on Auto-Tune’s behalf, but on behalf of music technology in general.

Performance enhancements

Pop music, TV shows and talent contests are the key targets for people who claim that Autotune is ruining music. You’ve all read the complaints – it makes people that can’t sing be tuned to perfection; it’s holding real singers/bands/artists back; it’s all just manufactured music; with enough money anyone can make a hit record, etc. The truth is, performance-enhancing studio tricks occur in all genres, from pop to rock, from country to metal. Anyone who thinks that a record made by a band is a straight capture of a performance by musicians demonstrating their instrumental and vocal chops in the studio is clearly oblivious to the processes that go on: the overdubs, the editing, the click tracks, the drum replacement, quantising, layering of guitar parts, pitch and timing replacements. In the majority of cases, a studio record by a band is about as close to a real performance as a photograph of the Alps is to being in Switzerland.

With perhaps the exception of jazz and classical, making a record isn’t about capturing a musical moment, it is about creating the definition of what that music is – we form our understanding of how instruments sound through the recordings we listen to. The easily-identifiable sound of rock drums bears little resemblance to the sound of a drum kit in a room, instead it is defined by the heavy compression, gating and reverb that characterises the genre. These artificial sounds already define what we expect music to sound like, so they influence the music we create.

Auto-Tune is just one of the tools in this production toolbox and is used in every single popular genre but, for some reason, it seems to draw the fire for every negative comment by those who don’t like modern pop music. Even from those with no experience of music production who feel justified to vilify it with such assertiveness that you’d assume they used it every day. Antares need not necessarily feel singled out though – ten years ago the same sorts of unqualified rantings were being aimed at Pro Tools. It was as if Digidesign’s software were some sort of giant creative mashing machine that any idiot could operate, churning out identikit hits from any old rubbish providing the operator could stay awake long enough to push the ‘GO’ button. The thinking seems to be, “if it is used on records I don’t like, then it must be to blame”

So, let’s have a look at exactly what some people think Auto-Tune is to blame for:

Auto-tune is cheating – a good singer doesn’t need pitch correction. I dare say there’s something of a valid point in there. But even the best singer makes mistakes, and in those situations they simply do it again to get it right. But then, you’re not looking at a single performance, you’re looking at a composite of two takes, edited together to make one good one. Is that cheating? If not, how many takes does a singer get before that process is considered cheating? If a singer does 100 takes of a difficult line of a song, and only gets it right once, how is that less of a cheat than using Auto-tune? Given that they’ve got it wrong 99% of the time, it is unlikely that they’ll be any more able to repeat that performance than someone who used Auto-Tune to nail that line. Throwing a basketball through a hoop, while blindfolded, standing on one leg and using my weaker hand, once out of a hundred attempts isn’t proof that I’m technically adept at doing it – it’s just fluke.

Auto-tune is responsible for sterile pop vocal production. Since most modern pop vocals are double or triple-tracked, cut, edited, quantised, regrooved, compressed to within a micron of its dynamic range and then multiband limited, it’s impossible to ascertain at what point pitch correction comes into the equation. I can’t hear Auto-Tune on a Britney Spears record because the vocal is entirely dominated by breath noise. Production style should never be confused with the technology that it uses.

Auto-tune makes singers out of people that can’t sing. This argument is wrong on almost every level. At its most basic, it assumes that only someone with great pitching can be a singer (and conversely, that all you need to be a great singer is good pitch – forget all that timing, phrasing and emotion stuff). If perfect pitch was a requirement, then you can’t account for the musical legacy of such artists as Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, David Essex, Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry and pretty much any death metal vocalist ever. Essentially the record-buying public have been making singers out of people who ‘can’t sing’ for decades. At a deeper level, perhaps the confusion arises between asinger and a pop star, since most pop stars sing. This is more about the nature of celebrity, not skill, because production can make a pop star out of virtually anyone and since the only requirement to be a pop star is to bepopular, good doesn’t enter the equation. If your argument is that this is wrong, then that argument needs to be aimed at the record-buying public, not at those that fulfil its needs.

Auto-Tune is responsible for that overused Cher effect. OK, so I’m sort of making this one up, but it is the most common misconception. What is responsible for any overused musical cliché is a lack of imagination. If the stepped vocal stylings of T-Pain or will.i.am or a thousand others irritate you, so be it, but the technology in use could well be, among others, Celemony’s Melodyne, Waves Pure Pitch, Apple Logic’s Pitch Corrector, a TC Helicon vocal processor or DigiTech Vocalist. Auto-Tune – the Hoover of pitch-correction technology – is in danger of becoming a scapegoat for myriad production sins.

The case for the defence

All of the complaints levelled at Auto-Tune take the form that somehow, using Autotune makes music worse, that it is cheating and blurring the lines between the skilled and the unskilled, affording unwarranted credibility upon the untalented while the gifted go hungry. But on the whole, it doesn’t make music worse. The most important part of any vocal isn’t the pitch, it’s the performance. Performance and emotion are what connects the audience with the singer, and often one shot is all you get at that, especially if the singer is ad-libbing. If you get a great performance that is slightly pitchy, Auto-Tune allows you to correct the pitching without sacrificing the performance. Or you could ask the singer for another go, and risk getting the notes but not the delivery.

The truth is that this is how Auto-Tune is being used, day in, day out, in sessions of all types in studios around the world. Quietly. Invisibly. But we don’t hear those stories, we just hear about the cast of Glee and X-Factor hopefuls, when the effects of technology become noticeable. Auto-Tune is capable of being a completely invisible technology, but it is also capable of being abused by lazy operators. The producer has full control over the amount of the effect, and it’s their job to decide when a missed note needs correction or when it is adding character. Auto-Tune isn’t responsible for any decline in musical standards, that blame lies with those who use it indiscriminately without listening to the results.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments box below or find us on Twitter – @Jigsaw24Audio.

For more on Antares Auto-Tune, or any pitch correction software, get in touch with the Pro Audio team. We don’t judge! Call 03332 409 306 or email audio@Jigsaw24.com.

Rob H
Rob H
Call us: 03332 409 306