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.
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