The Wrath of Autotune

A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine who had a recording studio in Nashville was telling me a story about an experience he’d recently had in the studio. Every year, all of the smaller recording studios used to hold open houses on the same day, where artists and managers were invited to come and check out the facilities so they would potentially record their next project there. This guy told me that at one point during the day, several well-known country artists were sitting in a room in his recording facility, jamming together as a couple of them played guitar. What struck my friend at the time was that some of them could sing, and some of them really couldn’t! He made a quip about how you could tell which ones needed Auto-Tune when they were recording and performing :-).

Some of you may have heard the word “Auto-Tune” before, but most, if not all of you have heard its effects if you listen to music. For those of you who don’t recognize the word, Auto-Tune is a digital technology that corrects musical pitch. To simplify that, music producers use the software to “fix” the pitch of vocals or instruments so that they are perfect. Even the best singers can be slightly off pitch when they are recording or performing, so the software could save lots of time and effort by simply correcting it either while it is being sung, or afterwards in post-production.

The first time you might have heard Auto-Tune in its extreme was in Cher’s hit song “Believe”, recorded in 1998. It was used as an effect to make her voice sound robotic in a few places in the song’s chorus, particularly on the line “do you believe in life after love?” If you remember that song, then you’ve heard Auto-Tune. But the fact is that Auto-Tune is used in pretty much every single pop song these days. Everything you hear in this genre has been “fixed” with Auto-Tune. In fact, if you go to a live performance, particularly pop or rock, rap or hip hop, Auto-Tune is used as part of the performance. At music awards shows, many “live” performances of songs are run through Auto-Tune. You don’t hear the actual, raw, live voice of a performer.

You might think, well, what’s wrong with perfect?

A few years back, there was a music awards show broadcast live on television where Taylor Swift did a live performance. She appeared to be one of the only performers who DIDN’T use Auto-Tune that evening. As a result, her voice was raw and real, and it was not pitch perfect. Immediately afterwards, social media came alive with comments like “Taylor Swift can’t sing!” and other, more critical responses to her performance. At the time, I remember applauding her for her guts, but I think since then she has probably given in to the use of Auto-Tune in her performances.  The pressure to be perfect these days, has become too great.

From a performer viewpoint, anyone and their dog can “sing” now, and YouTube has had many, many videos with animals or public figures “singing” songs that they actually aren’t, the creators using Auto-Tune and some fancy editing to create these videos.

But what has happened to listeners, particularly younger people, is that their ears are now conditioned to desire “perfect” sounds, and when they hear something that isn’t, it’s aurally offensive to them. Anything that is real and imperfect sounds like a mistake.  Not only that, but it becomes impossible to tell real talent from manufactured, certainly when it comes to recording.  And performers become so reliant on the software, they can’t live without it.

There are, however, artists who refuse to use it and a campaign against Auto-Tune that is growing.  In a 2009 performance on the Grammy Awards, for example, Deathcab For Cutie wore blue ribbons to protest the use of Auto-Tune in the music industry.  Even some recording engineers and producers are now trying to wean artists off the thing in an attempt to bring “real” back into recordings and performances.

So what’s wrong with perfect?  It makes everything sound the same.  Perfect pitch, perfect timing, perfect everything, creates perfect garbage.  And who needs more of that?  Let’s keep it real!

IJ

One thoughtful comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

11 − five =