How Auto-Tune Destroyed Western Civilization

How Auto-Tune Destroyed Western Civilization

Auto-tune is a pitch correction program for music production. It’s not the thing itself (cf. Kleenex, Band-Aids, or Coke in the southern climes). Many companies have software (or hardware) to accommodate the buyer, and although AutoTune is just one option available, it has become the generic name by which many refer to pitch correction.

So whether it’s Auto-tune or Melodyne or a lesser known competitor, we’ll call it Auto-tune. It lives in most recording studios, both project and larger commercial facilities, and is employed in live situations by various artists. The most notable historical uses were by Cher on “Believe” (the ‘Cher’ effect, vintage 1998) and T-Pain, who to some degree re-popularized it in the mid 2000′s.

I love/hate auto-tune. Love it as a tool to polish, fix, adjust, perfect, and generally improve performances. And I’m personally fine with it when it’s stylistically correct: rap, hip-hop, some pop, and so forth.

HATE/UNLIKE IT on so many levels. I unlike that the average listener doesn’t understand that what is perceived as a typical vocal on a pop, country, or gospel tune is often a heavily altered version of the artist’s actual performance. So a perfectly tuned vocal is the new normal, and real people singing tend to sound kind of pathetic unless they’re quite good, or being run through auto-tune live.

I hate that it sucks the life out of  many vocal performances because the producer/engineer, either by choice or out of ignorance, force the singer to get to the note they’re going for before their voice has finished the natural pitch “ramp up” to the note in question.

Even nastier is the removal of pitch variation in the vibrato. Seriously. Vibrato is comprised of variation in the amplitude (loudness) of the voice (or instrument) and an up and down movement in the pitch. When you use auto-tune to remove that pitch variation, the result is unnatural and musically inferior. Sadly, some producers and engineers don’t have the ears to hear, the skill to carefully tune, or the budget to do it right.

The most painful use of auto-tune in my experience is Alison Krauss. I wanted to cry the first time I heard a PBS (I think) performance where her vocals had been flat-lined. Come on people, it’s bluegrass, and Alison has a great voice and excellent pitch. But what was done to her voice was simply criminal. Now, the word on the street is that Alison is quite obsessive about her pitch, and wants it to be finely tuned. But somebody in the room should have pointed out that it was destroying the natural beauty of her voice.

In the CCM realm, Mac Powell (Third Day) has had producers/engineers completely mutilate and suck the life out of his vocals. They’ve ruined his voice on a bunch of records, and it really angers me, literally. Makes me want to weep openly.

A kissing cousin to the increasing tendency in some styles to use auto-tune is the Milli-Vanilli lip synching that pervades many live performances, as well as the use of instruments and vocals from recorded sources along with live elements. Adding extra instruments is interesting and debatable, but when there is a wall of perfect background vocals figuring prominently in the “live” mix, I  start to squirm. Yeah, I know that’s not the same as auto-tune, but it’s a part of the same culture of expected perfection and glossy wonderfulness.

I do have a glimmer of hope, as there are perhaps more artists today than a few years ago who reject the whole technology driven concert thing and sing live without the aid of pitch correction or stacked back vocals. Kudos to you. And an encouragement to those who fake it simply to sell more records or to look and sound better to consider carefully the choices you’ve made. Because if more of us were weary enough of this big polished thing, eventually we might replace the new normal with something a couple notches closer to the old normal (reality).

Hey, cool idea, artists could learn to sing and play better, and perhaps in rare cases we could actually promote artists for their artistry and honest communication and not because they look/sound like plastic replicas of idealized models (Stepford Wives anybody?). But that’s another rant for anther day.

Update – Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” is a great example of a contemporary tune that doesn’t employ auto-tune, and it’s much stronger without it, even though you hear notes out of tune all over the place.

FURTHER UPDATE: Just heard a Paul McCartney and band live concert in New York from this year (2011). Badly auto-tuned in places, and heavily auto-tuned throughout. Wish I could get my hands on the guy who convinced McCartney to have his vocals run through auto-tune ALL THE TIME. And on a setting that was too fast to boot. It was such a vibe killer. And it was the whole band – all singers were tuned all the time, at least from the time I tuned it to the concert.

5 years ago I would have scoffed if you said McCartney would do this. Hey Paul McCartney, it sounds like absolute crap when you let them do this to your voice. Nothing could sound more unlike the art you and some other guys created a few decades ago. This sounded cheap, prefab, plastic, assembly line, pre-packaged, fake, lacking authenticity, and so forth.

 

Too much pitch correction here.
And here. Having heard this clip, I’m guessing it was being pitch corrected live; at 4:00 the word “I’m” just doesn’t sound like the way a human being would sing it, nor the way a studio engineer or producer of the caliber that work with artists like Alison would approve.
Philips Craig and Dean’s recording of Wonderful Merciful Savior – a lovely worship song – was hurt pretty bad in places by auto-tune. This is a case where the machine sees a vibrato and thinks the singer meant to go to the note 1/2 step lower, so the pitch has this unnatural warble for a fraction of a second early and often during held vibrato notes, especially when the tonic is held, because it’s only 1/2 step down to a note that is in the key of the song.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WEDDING MUSIC SAMPLES here
BRIDAL CHORUS VARIATIONS album
WEDDING MUSIC SAMPLES HERE also
CLASSIC LOVE SONGS for weddings

 

 

 

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no, here

 

 

 

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24 Responses to How Auto-Tune Destroyed Western Civilization

  1. Anne says:

    Hi, Steve,

    I believe that perfect production is making it very difficult for worship leaders everywhere. Instead of worshipping with a song, people are subconsciously comparing the song to the CD version. How is one supposed to come into the presence of a Holy God when your focus is on how much better (after months in the studio and all the studio corrections) the CD is than what they are hearing. Worse, worship directors are feeling the pressure to do every song ‘just like the CD’. So much for leaving room for the Holy Spirit to move.

    Blessings to you.

    • admin says:

      Anne,

      I’m fortunate to be part of a church that has excellent musicians but no pressure to necessarily do songs just like the original versions. It is unlike any church I’ve attended. We meet in an old church building; the worship band is on the floor, quite close to the congregation, but there is never any sense of the band performing, and none of that “need to make uncomfortable eye contact with the worshipers” vibe. But the various members are quite good on their instruments, and part of the success of the music is a reaction against the performance/distracting elements that can sabotage worship.

  2. Chad Evans says:

    Like so many useful innovations Auto-tune has been taken into the wrong hands and used for evil purposes. I find myself using less and less correction, conversely, I find it hard not to crack open the “Tone Healer” in many cases as well. Catch 22?

  3. Anne says:

    Hi, Again, Steve,

    It’s Anne from the above comment.

    You did a wonderful project for me many years ago called Child of Liberty. Thanks, over and again for working with an unknown…you have blessed untold people in the kingdom. During recording, we had numerous talks about Russia and Ukraine and I ended up moving to Moscow to serve for 6 mos with Jews for Jesus. I took the recording and had it translated into Russian and gave away as many copies as I could since people were hungry for the Lord! Heaven only knows how many were pirated as that is completely uncontrolled over there! So much the better for the gospel, I say!

    I have since moved from LA to Milwaukee, still leading worship(with Connie Boerner) and married a ROCKIN bass player. The Lord continues to POUR OUT songs to me and we are currently recording some of them – kind of a Christian smooth jazz/alternative/funk…who the heck knows. I’d love to send you a copy when I finish, in thanks for working with me ‘back in the day’!

    Take care,

    Anne Kellogg Ciepluch

    • admin says:

      Anne! How geat to hear from you again. Yes, I would love to have a copy of your new project. I’d also like to get a copy of Child of Liberty if one exists…I have thought about it from time to time and wondered what it sounded like – can’t remember!

      I’m developing a wedding music website with my son and nephew, weddingmusicproject.com I did a blog awhile back listing all the artists I’ve worked with that came to mind, but you didn’t make the list – I believe I couldn’t come up with your last name, and saying that I worked with “Anne” wouldn’t be a lot of information! So now I need to go back and edit that post to include you. There were actually a bunch of artists from years gone by whose names were nebulous or incomplete, as you might imagine.

      Say hello to Connie for me. I ran across of couple of her LP’s not too many years ago – she had a pretty fun cover for her “Letting Go” project.

      Steve

  4. Christine says:

    Dear Mr. Millikan,

    As a young singer-songwriter who is into acoustic and pop-rock songs, I wholly agree with what you’re saying. I don’t like how some young artists today have to rely on computerizing their voice and such to sound perfect. I would like to have pure instruments and me singing, that’s it. Singing is not about perfection, it’s about evoking a passion to do it. I hope when I am ready to record tracks for my debut CD next year that I can work with someone with as much passion as you.

    Hope to keep in touch!

    • admin says:

      Christine,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I am somewhere in the middle when it comes to AT. As I mentioned, I do use the technology that’s available, and I typically like vocals to be rather in tune. I just wish we would stop steamrolling over the natural beauty of the human voice. If the tuning is transparent – almost invisible, I don’t find it offensive – that is to say, if I can tell it’s tuned, but I know 99% of the general populace would not hear anything unnatural, then the engineer/producer were using their craft wisely and in a musical way.

      What part of the country are you from? Who knows what might work out when you’re ready to cut some tunes…

      • Christine says:

        I agree with you on the point that if AT is used in modesty or hardly noticeable then it’s good. I’m from Maryland!

  5. Caleb says:

    Steve,

    I likewise lament that AT often takes the humanity out of a recording and offers instead a kind of false perfection, and can sound robotic rather than authentic. In the studio session that I’ve been in for songwriting demos, I was fortunate to have a producer (with whom I think you’ve worked) who used it only to almost imperceptibly touch up the singer’s vocals. It’s interesting too, that you note how this faux perfectionism has impacted live performances as well. Many groups in some Christian music genres use such prominent vocal stacking on background tracks in concert that it’s hardly different from listening to the CD, except that you can do that in your car without paying the price of admission for what you’d hoped would be a genuinely live experience. The fact that some groups travel with tracks instead of live musicians adds to the feeling of it being “canned”. But perhaps this entire issue a is a side effect of the image consciousness in the industry, or maybe a well-intentioned attempt to imitate their mainstream counterpart. Either way, I think that AT is like salt – it’s good only in small amounts; if more is used it’s probably to cover up poor culinary (or in this case, musical) skills.

    All the best!

  6. Anne Kellogg Ciepluch says:

    Hi, Steve,

    When we ‘spoke’ above, I was just in the middle of re-publishing Child of Liberty. I am sending you a copy for your archives.

    Hey, interesting work with New Jersualem–ochen hkarasho, moi droog!

    Anne Kellogg Ciepluch

    • admin says:

      That will be great! Can’t wait to hear it. I think Mark Aspinall would like a copy as well, if you have another.

      It was a lot of fun working with NJ on various project. Really talented guys.

      Steve

  7. Ivan Robredski says:

    Like a lot of people I’d be happier if the pitch correction would go away forever…but tragically, I don’t think that’s in the cards. Maybe the best thing we can all do is to continue to call attention to this by talking about it on forums and blogs like this. I agree with the original poster that if you want to use it in pop music like everybody else does, I can tolerate it.

    But AMEN to the anger and frustration that so many musicians and educated listeners feel at Alison Krauss, Paul McCartney, and others like them who resort to using it on live vocals and live recordings, and to the extent that it is creating a new idea of what the human voice sounds like!

    PREACH IT people. PLEASE keep the ball rolling and keep talking about it so the younger generation is aware of it more than they are now. We need to help the auto-tune thing run it’s course like Paul suggested above. If we all continue to add comments to blogs like this, more people will come across them when they search for various items related to music.

    What if when anybody googled Alison Krauss, one of the top 5 hits was about the misuse of AutoTune on her voice? That would really help educate more people about it. It’s funny – there was a thread on youtube about this – using it on AK – and there were people insisting it was impossible she was using it ever, and they should know because they were professionals that had worked with her. Please…

  8. Pingback: petition to arrest and prosecute the inventors of auto-tune in world court | Steve Millikan

  9. evan w says:

    your crazy to say that about AK. i’ve worked on her records and they would never use autotune on Alison. she’s the best singer out there today, maybe ever, and it’s stupid to say she autotuned. your just like a lot of other people who act like big time producers but don’t know what your talking about. the only way you get away with saying such stupid stuff is you have your own website, but i know better so get your fact straight before shooting off your mouth like you know what your talking about.

    • admin says:

      Oh really. Well said, but I think you are telling untruths, and don’t know squat about the recording industry. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to blindly “protecting Alison’s honor” or the like.

  10. Paul Race says:

    Started out folk-style, then something you might call “singer-songwriter” today, then CCM went through a time when you couldn’t get a hearing as a solo or duo artist without Wall-of-Sound backup tracks. In those days I dabbled with the Digitech Vocalists for my demo tracks and to make my prerecorded harmonies sound richer and more in tune. Plus very few folks I knew, even good singers, could really harmonize in tune. The thing is still in my garage, I think, under an inch of dust – not because it outlived its usefullness, but because I did, or at least I gave up trying to be “contemporary” long ago. Recently I saw a new version for bar bands and soloists that follows the guitar chords and creates harmonies on the fly. Can’t help thinking that would be useful for certain things. Not as “steam punk” as James Taylor having a R2R tape deck on stage coming on by remote control to add harmonies in the chorus, of course. If I ever start doing coffeehouses again, that is . . . . I probably won’t get one but it would be fun to play with. . .

  11. I think that AutoTune is the next invention to give less than average singers the ability to make millions. I’m always amazed at the people who are using it and what they sound like in real life. Even more, I’m disgusted with the people who can really sing that still use it. I’ve never been one to judge out of tune notes. We all hit them. Even as a perfectionist singer I know hit wrong notes on Sunday mornings on at other points when I’m singing. It shows that we aren’t in fact perfect. And that’s okay.

    With that being said, I want to find one for April Fool’s Day (which happens to be Palm Sunday) and run everything through it, including the sermon. I just think that would be hilarious.

    • admin says:

      Sort of an “autotune the news” for preachers, if you’ve heard some of those comical treatments of newscasters and other personalites!

      And yes, we all hit sour notes. I think it’s fantastic when I hear a great singer hit a note that is just a little off and then correct it. It’s human, people. By the way, I don’t know if I already mentioned this somewhere in this thread, but Adele has been a serious breath of fresh air on the pop music scene. I still remember the first time I heard her on the radio – she stopped me in my tracks. It was almost unbelievable – hearing this great singer – and it wasn’t autotuned. I about started crying…

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