Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Arts

March 12, 2008

Is Auto-Tuning Cheating?

The pitch-correction program is changing the landscape of music production and creating a robo-genre of its own.

Adam Conner-Simons

"Snap yo' fingers!" sings T-Pain as plucky synths punctuate the rhythm of his hit single "Buy U A Drank." "You can do it all by yourself—"

T-Pain might want to consider changing that last line about self-sufficiency. He, of all people, should recognize that even a multi-platinum R&B star needs a little help from his friends. His best buddy these days is the Auto-Tune program, a plug-in created by Antares Audio Technologies that cleans up any out-of-tune vocals on the track so that no bad note ever has to make it out of the recording studio.

Photo of Auto-Tune user T-Pain courtesy of Wikipedia
"Auto-Tuned music is like fake boobs: once you realize they are fake, it kind of diminishes the joy of seeing them."—Randall Roberts, music editor at LA Weekly

Photo of Auto-Tune user T-Pain courtesy of Wikipedia

Many artists are following in T-Pain's footsteps, including fellow R&B singer Sean Kingston, Snoop Dogg, and even Green Day.

The Auto-Tune catapulted to the forefront of pop music with Cher's robotized 1998 single "Believe," thereby christening its use as "The Cher Effect." (The song's producers, eager to keep their technological secret safe, initially told the press that the effect was created by a vocoder pedal.) Since "Believe," pitch-correction programs have been the rule rather than the exception, although they are usually used subtly enough for the average listener not to notice.

The origins of pitch modification predate the Auto-Tune: As producer Joe Chiccarelli (U2, The White Stripes) points out, devices like the variable-speed tape recorder and the harmonizer have allowed producers to manipulate pitch since the 1960s (see "Alvin & the Chipmunks"). What the Auto-Tune has changed, however, is how easy and sophisticated the process can be. Its growing use as an outright effect reflects the reality that the program has "gone from something you did under the cover of night to something you flaunt," according to music writer Dan Daley.

When taken to extremes, pitch-correction technology can mask a lack of musical talent, turning off-key yodels into smoothed-out robo-melodies. Many artists have formidable video-vaults of evidence supporting this theory (see live versions of T-Pain and Kingston). On the other side of the scale, a handful of tone-deaf, Auto-Tune-assisted YouTubers have posted videos of themselves doing their best T-Pain impressions, often with frighteningly impressive results. One user begins by warbling off-kilter for a few seconds before flipping on the Auto-Tune switch and delivering a stunning R&B tune that wouldn't be out of place in a Def Jam album. Some people in the music industry find such examples of pitch correction disheartening: "[Auto-Tuned music] is like fake boobs: once you realize they are fake, it kind of diminishes the joy of seeing them," says Randall Roberts, music editor at LA Weekly.

As a result, some critics and producers lament the program's sterilizing effect on the human qualities of the vocals. "When you take [the imperfections] out of the music, you are in a way bleaching out that emotional engagement," says Robert Everett-Green, a music journalist for Canada's Globe and Mail who has written about Auto-Tune in the past. Adds producer Rob Jaczko (Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow), who serves as chair of the music production department at the Berklee School of Music, "Real humans perform music with some kind of inconsistency. Artists like Aretha [Franklin] miss notes sometimes, too."

Most of the producers Gelf talked with shrug off the theory that Auto-Tune allows tuneless wannabe singers to slip through the cracks. "I don't think a whole lot of artists who are utterly devoid of talent are having careers as a result of having what little talent they have digitally manipulated," Daley says. "The process is still pretty brutal." Chiccarelli agrees, saying that a singer's phrasing and lyrical interpretation are as important as simply hitting the right notes.

But when their singers miss notes, it's no longer much of a problem. "The recording studio joke is, 'Oh, that sucked. Come on in!'" says Jaczko. "As in, we'll fix it in ProTools [and] make something of this garbage you gave us."

As for the program's supposed deceptiveness, though, many in the music business laugh off the idealistic notion that the Auto-Tune is any worse than other music-production techniques. Wallace points to vocal compression and making composite vocals (combining the best parts of half a dozen takes) as other examples elsewhere on the spectrum of musical "cheating." "Short of setting up one microphone in the middle of the room and letting a band play in real time, every record is an artificial construct.," says Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot "We've gotten to the point where the producer is the artist, and the performer is just a tool in the broader spectrum of the record."

Related on the web

̺Ten examples of auto-tune abuse in pop music.

̺Auto-Tune for Dummies: a clear video explanation of how to download the program and sound like T-Pain in a matter of minutes.

Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.







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Comments

- Arts
- posted on Sep 27, 10
Alex

Wow, this is so idiotic. You obviously don't even know Green Day, because they don't auto-tune. The song is about his father's passing for goodness sake! And that was, like, what? 6 years ago? They've been making music for over 20 years. They don't auto-tune, and this whole site is a joke. Go rot in hell.

- Arts
- posted on Apr 27, 11
d00mduck101

soo true, it eliminates the emotion in the music! now all it takes to be a music star is a good auto-tune program and friend up top.

- Arts
- posted on May 02, 11
Chuck

You don't even have the time listed right for "Wake me up when september ends" Billie Joe Armstrong has sung like that for YEARS, I don't think he would have to use autotune now when he's been able to do that sort of singing for a long time. Sounds almost the same live, and I doubt he's using auto tune live.

- Arts
- posted on Dec 28, 11
Maccy

There are people with real talent out there and they can't be famous because talentless auto tune users are getting their jobs.

- Arts
- posted on Jul 22, 12
Aarif Nappyboy

what the... Damn! i really don't even know about this `Auto Tune` crap! i thought that was T-Pains real voice. ****

- Arts
- posted on Jul 22, 12
Aarif Nappyboy

what the... Damn! i really don't even know about this `Auto Tune` crap! i thought that was T-Pains real voice. ****

- Arts
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Article by Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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