My thoughts on Auto-tune: Is auto-tune cheating?

When musicians talk about auto-tune, they often do so with great disdain. For guitarists, bassists, drummers, pianists, especially those of a more traditional or even classical persuasion, it can come across as an ENORMOUS cheat to use it.

Personally, I have no issue with auto-tune as a tool, I have an issue with how some people choose to use auto-tune. Let me explain and hopefully it will become clear.

What is auto-tune?

Auto-tune is a category of software used (typically) in music production. Algorithms in the software are able to identify individual sung pitches in a single audio clip.

The vocal line is then typically expressed graphically on-screen, much like a line graph.

The software enables the various portions of this graph to dragged, dropped, and moved around to suit the producer’s desire. This then results in a flexible alteration of the originally sung melody.

Auto-tune is software that enables flexible re-arrangement of already sung melody notes, without additional vocal re-takes.

NOTE: That’s all auto-tune is.

Auto-tune is just a tool.

Like any bit of software, there are various different ways it can be employed.

Example 1:
For example, let’s say a band has recorded a live gig. The gig was incredible, lots of energy, and they decide they want to release it as a live album afterwards.

In the mixing process, they find there are some small errors in the vocal performance. They can’t do an exact vocal re-take as the performance has already occurred. But auto-tune would enable the production engineer to tweak the vocal recording to make it far more useable than left untreated.

Example 2:
Let’s look at another example of an artist fiddling with a melody. Let’s say an artist is still in the writing process of a song. They still haven’t nailed down the melody for (say) the chorus. They can record a single version of the chorus, then re-work the melody using auto-tune to reflect different versions that could be in the final product.

This makes auto-tune a useful way to take one idea and create multiple sketches of alternate ideas, without vast amounts of vocal recording.

Example 3:
One more example, a little more contentious this time: a singer has performed a flawless single take of a song, except for ONE note.

It’s a great take, but it’s just outright flat. Other than that, it’s a great recording. Auto-tune can enable this take to be useable without going back and re-recording.

Now if the singer is still in the studio (or even recording at home) they should probably have a few more takes of that passage to get it right. But let’s say that first take was the best one artistically. Or perhaps this only came to light after the paid-for day at the studio is over.

This is where auto-tune absolutely shines. It can take something that is otherwise 99.9% fit for purpose, and fix that 0.01% problem.

My opinion: Where I take issue with people using auto-tune

1: The Crutch
I see a lot of singers posting videos of themselves online, on Youtube, Instagram, etc, and their use of autotune is JUDICIOUS. Often when you DO hear a raw cut of their vocals or a live recording, you realise – they are rarely in tune or accurate.

In the online world where so many singers live, many singers are able to use auto-tune to cover over a massive lack of actual ability. In one of the examples above, I point out that if there’s 0.01% that need auto-tuning in a song to save a take, that seems like a justifiable reason to use auto-tune.

But when people literally CANNOT do a song take without auto-tune, there’s a problem that needs the singer to take responsibility, go and practice more, and get their voice together.

2: Bad Singing (Yelling)
This also propagates a culture of bad singing, and sets impossible standards I was watching the Andrew Lloyd Webber stageshow of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ the other night – and I was gobsmacked how much auto-tune was on there, for many, many singers, and how poorly so many of them on-stage were singing.

Where I take issue here is that auto-tune takes what would be self-evident as bad singing (it’s very hard to yell consistently in tune) and makes it less obvious to the average listener. This then becomes the standard people are trying to adhere to. This only makes worse the issue of yellers masquerading as singers.

3: They’re taking your money
The final point of where I take issue is this: for many singers, they’ve not just found fame and acclaim through the crutch of autotune, they’ve not just propagated an unsustainable sound through our culture, they’ve actually had financially successful careers despite not being able to sing in tune to any reasonable standard.

It’s one thing to auto-tune yourself to look better than you are, or to devalue good singing through doing so, it’s quite another to take people’s money through those actions.

Auto-tune is just a tool – it’s how you use it that matters

Auto-tune is a fabulous tool that singers and musicians have at their disposal. Don’t think someone is cheating just because they use it at all. But that tool has undoubtedly become a crutch for many.

If one is having to use judicious amounts of auto-tune on their voice, it’s a sign that they are not yet ready to sing the material they are singing the way they are singing it. This can be improved through better key choice, a change in material or approach, or many other artistic avenues.

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