In Defense of Autotune (Kind of)

Autotune – the very word conjures images of young pop-stars cavorting around mid dance routine, glitz, glamour and studio magic, and is about as far removed from the ‘authentic’ singer-songwriter image as you can get (by the way, if you’re interested you can see my earlier post for more on authenticity).

But more on that later… first off let’s look at what Autotune actually is, and how it works.

Autotune is designed to correct the pitch of a singer’s voice when a performance is off-key. It does this by ‘pulling’ the recorded note to the designated pitch set by the user. This is similar to a technique used in sampling and recording, which has been around for a while and is essentially playing back the sample at a different speed to change the frequency (or pitch) of the sound. Autotune is a bit (well, a lot) more sophisticated than this, but it does still have limitations. The further you need to pull the note to get it in tune, the more you lose the natural quality of the singing voice.

Auto-tune can be used to make an out of tune performance good, but there are limits to its effectiveness if you want the vocal to sound natural – especially if the original recording is way off-key.

So, this brings me to my main point – Autotune is just another tool. Studio tools such as effects (like reverb and delay) and compression (used to increase loudness and smooth out dynamic range) have been used for years to get a particular vocal sound; yet these are not demonised in the same way that Auto-tune is.

And as with most tools, Auto-tune can be (in my opinion, is) overused. I put this down to fashion – for many years, producers of pop music have been after ‘the sound’. In the 80s, it was fashionable for vocals to be drenched in reverb, in the 90s vocals are generally further forward in the mix and given quite a lot of ‘punch’ with compression. These days, we have become used to hearing tuned vocals because they are everywhere – it is the current fashionable sound.

Autotune can also be used creatively though – for example, there have been many recent YouTube video hits of spoken interviews turned into songs using Autotune. Perhaps it’s not exactly high-brow art, but it has caused people to re-think what the technology can and can’t be used for.

Personally, I don’t use Autotune on my vocals. This is a deliberate choice, and one that I’ve made for a couple of reasons: I want people to hear the natural quality of my voice – the real me, so to speak. I can usually hear the effect of Autotune, and to me it sounds ‘too perfect’ and a little forced. And, as someone who records at home, budget is a big constraint. Why spend extra cash on something that I don’t really like or need for the sake of fashion? I wouldn’t do that with clothes, so I certainly wouldn’t do that with something as important as my music.

At the end of the day, it’s mostly about the sound that you’re going for. If you want your vocals to sound polished, perfect and up-to-date, Autotune is a tool that can help you do that. But, if you want to record vocals that sound natural and ‘real’, I’d steer away from it. The choice is up to you.

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Filed under Music, Music Technology, Opinionated

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