The Autotune Myth

It’s the new buzzword amongst pop music’s critics: Autotune. Run a quick Google search and you can find a plethora of complaints: “Everything on the radio is ‘autotuned'”; an artist’s voice has been “autotuned to death”; “Autotune is killing music.” Some hack in the comments section said that “Hold It Against Me” was marred by “Britney’s autotuned voice.”

Please. This stupid cliche is debasing music criticism — and people don’t even understand what Autotune actually is.

Myth: Autotune can make a bad singer sound good

Although the term carries connotations of magically transforming awful singers into divas, “Autotune” is nothing more than simple pitch correction. If an artist is somewhat off on a note — if that A-sharp just didn’t ring unequivocally — it can be tweaked to make it clear and consistent. If a producer wants to play around with the melody of a song, he can alter the pitch even further. The most ‘autotuned’ song I’ve listened to in a while is “Animal (Billboard Remix)” by Ke$ha. Compare the original with the remix.

If you want to make a bad singer sound tolerable, then adding reverb, echo effect, vocal layering, and endless harmonies is your best bet. Terrible tone will still be terrible, regardless of whether that note is an F or a G. (Witness Heidi Montag’s “Superficial”: nothing can cover the fact that she simply is not a very good singer.)

Myth: Autotune is only found in Top 40 music

Autotune is used by rock singers, metal bands, soul divas, and gospel artists. It’s meant — like other vocal effects — to add gloss to a professional, studio-quality recording. It didn’t start with Cher, Daft Punk, or T-Pain — they simply found that they could play around with pitch-correction to create a futuristic effect. But autotune on its own is very common and is hardly limited to Top-40 music.

Myth: Autotune is harming music

Who wants to listen to a second-rate rendition of a quality song? When I hear a song, I want it to come through crisp, clean, and clear: just as the songwriters and singers idealize it. “Animal” is not merely a verdict on Ke$ha as the vocalist, but on Greg Kurstin, Dr. Luke, Pebe Sebert, and the small army of producers and engineers behind it. It’s meant to be a finished product: our judgment of Ke$ha’s vocal abilities, in a vacuum, is an entirely separate matter. I want to hear that song as it was meant to be heard — and so do all of the short-sighted critics, whether they want to admit it or not. If purity of recording is what you want, that can be found in black metal and the Juno soundtrack — they sure ain’t usin’ pitch correction there. But few people actually prefer that music to a good pop or rock song.

So stop complaining.

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15 Comments

  1. Jayden James
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink | Reply

    You’re right, they’re going crazy with that autotune witchhunt.
    It has become what the ignorant lessors use to make their point against someone they don’t like.
    In a way I understand them, we’ve been overfed with that shit since 2008 and we need a break from it.
    Moreover you can still search for demo versions and make your own opinions about what the singer really sounds like but haters rarely do that (I wonder why ? LMAO).

    Case in point:

    • Alex Knepper
      Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink | Reply

      “Autotuned” increasingly means “Music I don’t like.”

      • Posted February 19, 2015 at 4:00 am | Permalink | Reply

        Auto tune is to music as photoshop is to photography’s.

  2. Jayden James
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Yet they all had the time of their life dancing to Ke$ha’s Tik Tok.
    Express yourself, don’t repress yourself ! LMAO

  3. Ducky
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Well I think it depends. I think there is a difference between pitch correction and then sounding slightly robotic. But you can’t deny it has been over used in top 40 music.

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Only because of that hack T-Pain. Thankfully, that fad has passed. The ‘robotic effect,’ yes, was overdone. But I think it’s stabilized again to its normal, proper use.

  4. LadyBritBrit
    Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I think people say Auto Tune because it sounds more incriminating then Vocoder and most of the time people say Auto Tune when they mean vocoder (And it fucking pisses me off) (They are basically the same effect, except Vocoder’s actually cause the robotic sound.
    Also it can’t add Timbre or emotion to a voice, it’s pitch correction basically.
    You can’t make a lifeless voice full of life.
    and if anything’s ruining music it’s the criticizers by critiquing growth, eventually vocodering will become old and it will be down graded it’s usage ALOT

    • Posted January 20, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Yup! Exactly. It’s nothing more than pitch-correction, and it cannot turn a bad singer into a good one.

  5. Posted June 20, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I think you’ve missed the point. You say that ‘autotune is nothing more than simple pitch correction’ and this is true. However what you fail to mention is that pitch is not simply a matter of correct or incorrect (in tune or out of tune).

    The truth is that music that is ‘pitch perfect’ is mechanical and soulless. The feel, the soul, the personality and the meaning of an instrument or vocal melody are all expressed in the pitch and variations in the intonation and ‘slurring’ of that pitch are all part of that information.

    Just as handwriting can tell you much about someone’s personality (or their precise mood when they were writing something) intonation and playing around with pitch can also express so much too.

    What autotune is guilty of doing so much these days is the equivalent of converting a ‘hand written’ (like with a pen) melody into standard, uniform (typed) text and font like what you are reading now. With typed text or autotuned vocal lines every letter is the same, just as every note is the same. Boring and unexpressive. Singers sound very much the same as each other, just as text looks very much the same (like with all of these comments). Imagine if they were all hand written instead – how much more expressive and individualistic they would be.

    Of course autotune can be used artfully and sparingly, just to tweak the odd wonky note leaving the ‘handwriting’ basically intact (like using tipex). But this supposes the singer can sing properly in the first place. Singing is more than just belting out a song (in tune or not). What autotune allows the music industry to do is employ singers who can’t sing at all, or can sing but have little control, or style and or personality in their voice. Either way the industry can now standardize their vocals to be ‘correct’.

    The implications of this are HUGE. That the industry can now employ hot, young, inexperienced, sexy singers who look good in music videos, on posters and in adverts but can’t sing really sing properly (with little flair or personality).

    This is important because it used to be that a singer had to have real talent and vocal character to get successful – because there were no magic short cuts to a good recording or live performance. And if an artist is really talented that makes them rare and so *valuable*. This means they have a better chance of negotiating a decent deal with a record label and keeping more control over their image, creativity, songwriting AND get paid better. This is good for the singer and the public (who get to hear talented authentic singers – who cares what they look like, it’s MUSIC). The classic example of this in pop music is Bjork who is such a unique and talented singer (thus valuable) she has negotiated her record deals to have total artistic control – and that’s why she is able to do cool stuff and why you don’t just see her on all fours in bondage gear covered in fake sweat singing “oh baby baby, I want you to give it to me baby” and so on.

    But today – because of autotune (and digital production techniques in general) – a record label can sign a young inexperienced wannabe who can’t sing very well (or is sings in a very bland way) but looks sexy. They can give her a rubbish contract (because she is not very talented/ unique and so not valuable) where the label has much more control over image, creativity, songwriting, videos etc. The fact they can’t sing very well can be fixed by autotune and glossed over by other modern production techniques. This is bad news for both genuine aspiring singers and the public because it means genuine talented singers won’t get signed or promoted because they don’t look hot enough (most people look fairly average – that’s why it’s called average) and also because we all end up getting force fed a bunch of wannabe ‘babes’ with more pole dancing talent than actual vocal talent. (this is just totally inappropriate and a bit like watching porn videos only to find they are always full of highly trained opera singers singing Carmen).

    So you could say that autotune plays into the hands of greedy corporations who would rather sell you their easy to manage, dumbed down, manufactured, celebrity babes (and Biebers) than go to all that trouble of finding great singers, negotiating a contract with them and acting as their label.

    Autotune is not ‘evil’ itself, it is a great tool and it’s no surprise everyone loves it (and uses it), but it does make it easier for the corporate music industry to sell the masses more trash than ever before. Just as CGI helps Hollywood make crap movies and still sell them. And what is happening is that people today are starting to not know how genuine, real singing CAN sound (even in production heavy pop music) and SHOULD sound. They don’t even know what they are missing! And this is reflected in people’s apathy towards music generally these days. (that’s MUSIC as opposed to hype – big difference!)

    It’s a cliche ……. but songs of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s still sound great today (even if you don’t like the genres) because you’re hearing the musicianship and artistry and great singing rather than the ‘correct’ and ‘well produced’ bland singers of today which sound dated and boring (and often unlistenable) after about 6 months to year.

    But the industry does not care that it is destroying music because the less we value the actual MUSIC (because it is now just over produced dross) the more we end up looking elsewhere for the excitement and entertainment (forget about art and meaning) that we used to find in the music itself . Now we find it in the gossip, the clothes, the image, the shocking headlines, the publicity stunts, the twitter messages, the videos, the corporate marketing etc ……. these are all things which the industry can manufacture and sell to us over and over and over and over and over again.

    You are no longer an audience – you are just consumers.

    • Dian
      Posted August 3, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink | Reply

      God bless you! totally spot on.

      I just want to add, there’s still musicianship and artistry and great singing out there, but like you said the music industry won’t let the masses hear/know them. they have shamelessly degraded the masses’ musical taste to a sad low. just compare the popular acts of today with those of 60’s and 70’s.

      • AudioShack Studios
        Posted September 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Permalink | Reply

        That’s a very parochial point of view, to state that artists today are of less quality than they were in the 60’s and 70’s is incredibly inaccurate and linear. When you have an argument that you can defend, then you can come back to join this discussion. Oy vey.

        • John
          Posted February 9, 2017 at 1:22 am | Permalink | Reply

          AudioShack Studios, there is nothing to “defend” here. abandonculture states in opinion that which I and many others agree with; i.e. not at all parochial. (by the way – very well said abandonculture!). As Dian subsequently added, “there’s still musicianship and artistry and great singing out there, but like you said the music industry won’t let the masses hear/know them.”, to which I, and again many others, also agree with as well. So, AudioShack Studios, I’d argue that it is your comment that is parochial. Can YOU “defend” that the average “artist” of today, that is published by the music industry, is on par talent-wise with the artists of the decades before auto tune? – I don’t really hear others with that position; really never. Perhaps you can try to “defend” that argument?. Also, would you please refrain from saying such stupid and arogant things like “When you have an argument that you can defend, then you can come back to join this discussion. Oy vey.” – who the hell died and made you controller of this discussion, to which you added nothing by the way.

  6. Joe R.
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink | Reply

    This entire post is akin to someone without peanut allergies saying that peanuts are harmless. No, they’re just harmless to you.

    AutoTune is similar phenomenon. Just because it doesn’t sound tinny, robotic, warbly, and hollow to you doesn’t mean it doesn’t sound that way to anyone.

    You say AutoTune can’t make a bad singer sound good, but its real crime is allowing average singers to sound like average singers with perfect pitch. Cover this up with a dance beat, and you have the makings of much of today’s pop.

    If there is one bright side to AutoTune, it’s that we’ll never have another Milli Vanilli scandal. Why bother? We can make a much larger number of singers sound better than we could then.

  7. Pat
    Posted February 8, 2017 at 7:39 am | Permalink | Reply

    I’m developing an app called “Xpoze!” That will detect if auto tune is being used on a song!. What say you?

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