Pitcher Perfect Vocals: The Perks and Perils of Auto-Tune
Whether it gives you the tingles or makes you want to hurl your radio out the window, Auto-Tune has established itself as powerful studio tool for vocalists. LOUDER explores the perils and perks of pitch correction.
You must have been living under a rock if you haven’t yet heard a song with Auto-Tune in it. From Cher to T-Pain, Bon Iver to Ke$ha, to every fresh rap banger on your algorithm-fueled playlist, its robotic warble has become a defining hallmark of music made over the past two decades.
Heading into the vocal booth, how should singers think about – and use – this studio sorcery? Is Auto-Tune really a godsend of modern audio technology or the work of some sonic antichrist? Can we embrace this thing with a clear conscience, or should we give it a wide berth?
Origins of the beast
Launched in the late 1990s by Antares Audio Technologies, Auto-Tune is a pitch-correcting audio processor built for digital audio workstations (DAWs) which, like Coke, Hoover and Kleenex, has since became a product-defining brand name.
Cher’s 1998’s dance hit, “Believe” was a breakthrough moment for the then still fresh technology: The diva’s warbly futuristic vocal treatment transformed the song into a global sensation that quickly popularized Auto-Tune throughout the pop mainstream.
The gist of Auto-Tune is pretty straightforward. You pick the song key so your DAW plug-in can analyze a recorded instrumental or vocal line before shifting any “incorrect” notes either up or down to the desired pitch.
That’s the light version, anyway. If you happen to dial the settings all the way up, you’ll get a far more exaggerated vocal distortion – the Cher Effect, if you will – something the Ke$has, T-Pains and Lil’ Waynes of the world have embraced with giddy abandon. For better or worse, this crew of artists have championed Auto-Tune as a calculated aesthetic choice; the bulk of artists, on the other hand, use the plug-in for subtler, more corrective means: essentially to smooth over the occasional off pitch in a vocal take.
Whether distortive or corrective, the results tend to vary somewhere in the gulf between tasteful and ear-searingly punishing. Like even T-Pain himself once said: “There’s a lot of stuff you gotta know about Auto-Tune before you can start using it.”
Making singers lazy?
As France-based Australian producer Chris Vallejo (Passenger, INXS, John Spencer Blues Explosion) will tell you, Auto-Tune can be a powerful and useful addition to the studio arsenal, but it can be just as easily misused.
“I think the biggest negative is that it’s quite a complex tool, and used incorrectly it yields agonizingly bad results,” says Vallejo. “It also has the capacity to make singers lazy, where instead of listening back and judging the performance objectively, they just focus on what can be ‘fixed’ with Auto-Tune.”
But what if only a couple of bits need fixing? Say you’ve got a take full of vibe and emotion, but the last note in the verse is off – instead of getting bogged down re-tracking the whole line, a swift Auto-Tune tweak can make that near-perfect take totally salvageable.
In this context, Auto-Tune is a real boon. It gives the artist leeway to focus on performance rather than pitch perfection, helping alleviate stress and over-exertion while keeping the studio vibe high. By logical extension, this can streamline an otherwise drawn-out and potentially arduous recording session.
“In a DAW, comping multiple takes allows the engineer or producer to use a preferred take – maybe the timing is better or emotionally it gets a better response – knowing that you’re not just choosing takes based on which ones have acceptable pitch,” says Vallejo.
This, in turn, means recording fewer takes overall, which can be crucial for singers in a session. He pegs the difference between taking three days to do album vocals versus two weeks.
Like any studio tool, the end result of Auto-Tune boils down to the engineer’s chops and skill level: “Used properly,” says Vallejo, “it should basically be invisible.”
Emotion for the win
This is all well and good for the plug-in’s corrective function, but what about the distortive aspect – is there an acceptable place for that Cher-style robo-warbling, or should it be relegated to the sonic dustbin?
For Berlin-based sound pro Luke Hueppauff, the only time extreme Auto-Tune is a positive thing is when it’s used to reiterate emotion. “Bon Iver’s most recent album is a great example,” says Hueppauff. “Imogen Heap too. There are passages that benefit completely from the plug-in: putting a mood into the song that’s unique and hits me in a spot that only acoustic instruments usually do.”
That aside, Hueppauff generally isn’t a fan due to the software’s tendency to breed a quantity-over-quality streaming game, where “Soundcloud rappers” churn out song after song in the hope that one will catch. “If you can’t sing the part, the song is not finished and never sees the light of day. Add in Auto-Tune and you can smash out 20 crap songs a day with no quality filters necessary.”
On the other hand, reflects Hueppauff, “At least when someone doesn’t use Auto-Tune, it kind of filters the crap out before it even hits the streaming platforms.”
Considering its virtues
Though we might exist in an increasingly digitized world, raw performance still rates higher than a digitally manipulated one, and that’s generally why scoffing at the artificial bastardry of Auto-Tune remains a popular stance. It’s an easy plug-in to knock, though perhaps we’re not being totally fair about its virtues, especially considering almost every professional studio uses it in some shape or form.
“I used to not like Auto-Tune purely on principle,” admits Vallejo. “I felt like if somebody wasn’t singing in tune, then really they needed to work a little harder at achieving the desired result.”
Vallejo agrees that this is a purely ideological argument: one that tends to recede once you accept the realities of modern recording.
Love it or loathe it, many vocalists would agree that Auto-Tune is a worthy addition to the studio toolbox. It has its place. With the right engineer or producer at the helm, it can alleviate performance pressure, streamline a session, and in the appropriate context, deliver a tasty artistic statement.
Used poorly, however, and you risk a potentially lifeless performance: technically perfect but with zero vibe or emotion. Used even worse, you’re in for an Antoine Dodson YouTube-style remix, which again, depending on what floats your boat, is a good or bad thing.
In the end, a question worth asking is: Will using Auto-Tune serve your recording? Does it serve the song? If so, use it wisely and sparingly. If not, ditch the itch for perfect pitch and embrace the beauty of organic human imperfection – in the long run, it’s the one thing that’ll rarely disappoint.
Words: Cam Hassard
Images: Viktoria Byt