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What is AutoTune? – A Production Trick!

If you have been producing your own music for a while, you must have heard of this term. However, do you know the origin and the purpose of this production tool? If you are looking to improve the quality of your music projects, then you might want to learn more about it. Hence, for today’s discussion we will be asking – What is AutoTune?

Many professional and amateur audio engineers alike, have mixed reactions when it comes to using this increasingly popular production tool. Some may like it, others may not. So, in this article, we shall look at the positive as well as the negative impacts that AutoTune has made on the music industry. Ready to get into it? Then let us begin!

Introduction – How Does It Work?

Developed by Antares Audio Technologies, Auto-Tune is essentially an audio processor which uses a proprietary device in order to measure and alter pitch in vocal and instrument recordings. The primary purpose of this processor is to conceal or correct pitching inaccuracies, allowing vocal tracks that are initially slightly “off-key”, to be perfectly tuned during mixing.

Auto-Tune Evo

Auto-Tune Evo plugin by Antares Audio Technologies / Photo by Kevin / CC BY 2.0

Auto-Tune functions by allowing pitches to be slightly shifted to the nearest true semitone (to the exact pitch of the nearest tone in traditional equal temperament). It can also be used creatively, as it can distort the human voice when pitches are set to be raised or lowered significantly. This causes the voice to be heard as leaping from note to note stepwise, like a synthesizer.

You can find Auto-Tune as a plug-in, that is designed for professional audio editing software used in studios. There are also outboard, rack-mounted units for live performances. Today, Auto-Tune can commonly be found in many professional recording studios. Even instruments like the Peavey AT-200 guitar, have integrated the Auto-Tune technology for real time pitch correction.

AVP-1 Processor

Antares Vocal Processor AVP-1 (the one with a green LCD display) / Photo by Georges Seguin / CC BY-SA 3.0

The original creator of Auto-Tune is actually Andy Hildebrand, who is an engineer working for Exxon. Hildebrand was in the process of developing methods for interpreting seismic data and thereafter realized that the same technology could be used to detect, analyze, and modify the pitch in audio files.

Here are the topics that we’ll be looking at:

  • Commercial Uses
  • Negative Reception
  • Positive Reception

Commercial Uses

Commercially, Auto-Tune was first used as a vocal effect in a popular song “Only God Knows Why” by Kid Rock in 1998 and later on in Cher’s “Believe” and Daft Punk’s “One More Time”. Do not confuse this effect with a vocoder or the talk box, as these devices are referenced by producers of these songs, in order to keep their use of Auto-Tune a secret from music audiences.

Electro-Harmonix Vocoder

An Electro-Harmonix “Voice Box” which includes a vocoder / Photo by Fernando Martinez / CC BY 2.0

For instance, the producers of “Believe” had initially claimed (in an earlier interview) that they had used a DigiTech Talker FX pedal. However, Sound on Sound editors suspected that this was just an attempt to preserve a trade secret. After the song “Believe” became successful, the technique became known as the “Cher Effect”.

Although Auto-Tune was engineered to seamlessly correct imprecise intonations, Cher’s producers have chosen to use it creatively by exaggerating the artificiality of abrupt pitch correction. This new method of using Auto-Tune soon became prominent in many live performances and in pop recordings throughout the first ten years of the 21st century.

Negative Reception

The band Death Cab for Cutie wore blue ribbons during the 51st Grammy Awards to protest the use of Auto-Tune. Later that year, Jay-Z named the lead single of his album The Blueprint 3 as “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”. Jay-Z explained that he wrote the song with the opinion that far too many artists are now using Auto-Tune, and that the trend had become a gimmick.

Auto-Tune Pitch Shift

The original vocal recording (in red) is shifted to the note D3 (in black) using Auto-Tune / Photo by Tóth Péter / CC BY-SA 3.0

Critics of Auto-Tune have argued that it affects society’s perception and consumption of music negatively. In 2004, Neil McCormick (The Daily Telegraph music critic) called Auto-Tune a “particularly sinister invention that has been putting extra shine on pop vocals since the 1990s” by taking “a poorly sung note and transpos[ing] it, placing it dead centre of where it was meant to be”.

The use of Auto-Tune have become so popular that even the British television reality TV show The X Factor, admitted to using it in order to improve contestant’s voices (in 2010). One of the show’s producers, Simon Cowell, ordered a ban on Auto-Tune for future episodes. Auto-Tune was also listed in Time magazine’s “The 50 Worst Inventions” in the same year.

Positive Reception

Despite Auto-Tune having a negative reputation across the board, some critics actually believe that Auto-Tune opens up new creative possibilities in pop music, especially in hip-hop and R&B. Other than just using it as a solution for poor vocals (what it is originally intended for), some artists have instead chosen to use the technology to enhance their artistic expression.

Daft Punk

French house duo “Daft Punk” / Photo by James Whatley / CC BY 2.0

French house duo Daft Punk, used Auto-Tune in their single “One More Time”, and Thomas Bangalter had this to say, “A lot of people complain about musicians using Auto-Tune. It reminds me of the late ’70s when musicians in France tried to ban the synthesizer… What they didn’t see was that you could use those tools in a new way instead of just for replacing the instruments that came before.”

Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak also used Auto-Tune and has been received well by critics. Jody Rosen (Rolling Stone music critic) writes, “Kanye can’t really sing in the classic sense, but he’s not trying to… Auto-Tune doesn’t just sharpen flat notes: It’s a painterly device for enhancing vocal expressiveness, and upping the pathos… Kanye’s digitized vocals are the sound of a man so stupefied by grief, he’s become less than human.”

There you have it folks! A brief overview of the Auto-Tune’s function and how it is received in the music industry. Will you use it in your own recordings? Or do you think it degrades the quality of your work?

Tell me what you think in the comments section below and don’t forget to share this article!

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Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

6 Comments

  1. Another great sound article Farhan.
    (I just heard a reference to Believe today – apparently Jennifer Lawrence sang it while working on Passengers…)
    Regardless, it’s interesting that it was developed by an engineer at Exxon doing seismic processing.
    And the form of autotune that Cher applied has become ubiquitous – to the point that I remember hearing on The Voice a couple of seasons ago that some of the auditioners the judges had seen were mimicking autotune in their songs.
    Things have come a long way since vibrato was first used to cover up pretty much exactly the same problem for violin players and singers.
    Thanks for the info once again!
    Larry

    • Hi Larry!

      Thanks a lot for your insightful comments. I love responses such as these, as they add so much to the educational value of my articles. Yeah, the advancement in music technology have really changed things and started production trends that lasts for many years!

      Do keep in touch!

  2. This thing is so great I think it’s the one thing that kept our ears from totally bleeding out when Kim Zolziak came out with that horrid pop song that they pushed so hard on that reality show…

    My ex had a band and I managed it, and he could do ANYTHING with it… take a rough vocal and totally t une it up. NOT THAT IT HELPED LIVE LOL but for recordings it was MAD COOL.

    • Hi Alexx!

      Yeah, Auto-Tune can also be used to create really cool effects. In fact, if you just do a little research, you’ll find out that there are so many artists who have been successful in incorporating it into their music. Thanks for your comments!

      Keep in touch!

  3. I have been learning about video recording. Really wonder if I can use this or if I need different audio files to use it. Really informative makes me have even more thoughts on the use of auto tune. I really did not know that it could be used for more than just adjusting your vocal tones to perfect pitch. I wouldn’t mind trying it but I think nothing would help my vocal talent.(hehe) Thanks Farhan for sharing this info and have a great day!

    • Hi Bill!

      I myself rarely see the need to use auto-tune in my music productions. In my opinion, music producers nowadays try to produce the “perfect” mix. I don’t mind having some “inaccuracies” in a vocal performance, as long as it is not too obvious. Sometimes the “imperfections” in music, actually makes it great!

      Have an awesome day, and thanks a lot!

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