I’m not a good singer. I’ve accepted this unfortunate fact and chosen not to subject anyone to my singing, except my cat when he chooses to lurk in the bathroom while I shower (his fault, not mine). If only I could have some help from a tool that corrects my voice…
You probably guessed that this is where Auto-Tune comes in. Though many believe Auto-Tune is a recent phenomena, the pitch-correction software actually first showed up in Cher’s chart-topper “Believe” in 1998. However, Auto-Tune is not even close to being the first voice effect used in music. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, many bands used voice synthesizer effects. Funk and hip-hop groups used the Vocoder, while rock stars embraced the talk box. If musicians have been editing their voices for over 40 years, why is Auto-Tune such a big deal, and what does the future hold for voice-correction tools?
Joe Albana, in his article “From Auto-Tune to Flex Pitch: The Highs & Lows of Pitch Correction Plug-Ins in the Modern Studio”, explains in his Ask Audio article how pitch correction software like Auto-Tune work. “All modern Pitch Processors have the ability to auto-correct the intonation of out-of-tune notes. Auto-correction plug-ins implement this as a real time, non-destructive operation. You simply insert the pitch correction plug-in on the audio track, make a couple of quick settings, and hit play,” he explains. Pitch Processors are neat pieces of tech, but have caused quite the controversy in the music world.
One of the main concerns with Auto-Tune is that not every song is tuned to T-Pain’s liking, so determining whether a song you’re listening to is “authentic” or Auto-Tuned can be challenging. Auto-Tune can be used in much subtler ways, like for pitch correction and smoothing. Drew Waters of Capitol Records remarks, “I’ll be in a studio and hear a singer down the hall and she’s clearly out of tune, and she’ll do one take… That’s all she needs. Because they can fix it later in Auto-Tune.” Auto-Tune therefore has the potential to allow less talented singers to be successful in the industry, and to allow talented singers to be lazy and sneak by with one lousy take.
Fine-tuning with Auto-Tune to save time and talent is not necessarily a bad thing. Filip Nikolic, singer and music producer, tells The Verge writer Lessley Anderson, “Everybody uses it.” Is Auto-Tune so widespread because it helps with harmony? Perhaps. But Nikolic also claims that it “saves a ton of time.” Artists also use Auto-Tune because they feel insecure about their natural voices and using Auto-Tune allows a song to sound like the best version it can be. Who are we to resent someone for correcting their insecurities?
Using Auto-Tune to fine-tune notes here and there may not seem too dishonest, though the same might not be said about Auto-Tuning a song so obviously that the singer sounds like a Martian. However, Lessley Anderson points out, “Between those two extremes, you have the synthetic middle, where Auto-Tune is used to correct nearly every note… From Justin Bieber to One Direction, from The Weeknd to Chris Brown, most pop music produced today has a slick, synth-y tone that’s partly a result of pitch correction.” Unarguably, Auto-Tune has the ability to make a less-than-stellar voice sound good enough to be heard on the radio, so what role does actual talent play in making music?
Auto-Tune, or any voice effect, can’t replace the wit and creativity that is pertinent to writing a good song. Ryan Bassill, writer for Vice’s music website Noisey, writes, “Auto-Tune is hi-tech, sincere yet impersonal, and expresses vast emotion through digital filters – kinda like a guitar pedal for your voice. But it can’t just be used by anyone. Unless you’re talented enough to write songs, I guarantee you’ll sound like an oxygen-deprived robot, rather than a radio-friendly single.”
Bassill makes a compelling point; clearly, Auto-Tune is not a replacement for talent. This still ignores the fact that many successful singers hire songwriters to aid them in their so-called talent. As a result, it is indeed possible, through vocal editing and money, to create a hit single with minimal effort, creativity, and talent.
Nevertheless, the fact is most famous singers—Auto-Tuned or not—have some talent. They needed a producer or agent to hear their voice, think they have talent (and looks, of course), and take a chance on them in order to for them to become famous in the first place. Even the Auto-Tuned singers. Take T-Pain’s live, no Auto-Tune edition of his hit song, “Buy U a Drank” – a prime example of a song and an artist that sounds good with no Auto-Tune, but perhaps more radio-friendly with it. The man loves his Auto-Tune, but undoubtedly has talent.
Currently, Auto-Tune isn’t limited to celebrity singers. Your cell phone could be your very own recording booth; several Auto-Tune apps are available for download. One of notable mention is the LaDiDa app. Chloe Veltman explains how the app works on ArtsJournal: “LaDiDa allows users to sing in as off-key a fashion as they like into their device, and at the touch of a button, the app will convert the raw vocal into a produced song complete with harmonies and instrumental backing.” There is also Soundhound, iPitchPipe, and several other Auto-Tune apps to choose from.
Maybe a singer’s voice doesn’t really matter nowadays. Maybe they hire someone to write all their songs or haven’t had an original thought in their life. Yes, with Auto-Tune and money, your favorite singer could actually be talentless. What should really matter, though, is whether or not you enjoy getting into your car and turning on the radio – no matter the level of Auto-Tune. Music being partially made by technology doesn’t mean that it’s not real music. Your enjoyment of a song isn’t any less valid if that song happens to be Auto-Tuned – but perhaps that singer’s talent is.