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The Pros And Cons of Auto-Tune

Artist in recording studio utilizing auto-tune

To some music creators and fans, Auto-Tune is destroying American popular music. To others, it’s just a studio tool that makes people sound better.

Before we weigh in on other side, let’s be specific about what Auto-Tune is. As you probably already know, Auto-Tune is an app that corrects pitch. Engineers use it subtly during live shows to keep the vocals clear and in key. And it’s used as an obvious effect, creating a kind of computerized vocal sound. A famous example of the latter is actually the song that brought Auto-Tune to a massive audience — Cher’s 1998 monster hit Believe.

(Don’t confuse Auto-Tune with the vocoder, another effect that creates robotic-sounding vocals—compare Cher’s track with another late 90s hit, Daft Punk’s Around the World.)

Since the 90s there has been an incredibly long list of artists who use Auto-Tune. In hip-hop, you can hear it on songs by Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg and Drake. T-Pain used Auto-Tune so much that Jay-Z criticized him in his song D.O.A. — or “Death of Auto-Tune.”

Art rockers Radiohead used it on their seminal 2001 album Amnesiac. It’s all over the albums of pop singers like Britney Spears and Keisha. Crooner Michael Bublé criticized it, but then in the same interview admitted that he uses “as a means to get onto Top 40 radio.”

So is it a good thing or a bad thing?

On the “con” side, Auto-Tune has taken pop music away from the beauty of the human voice. T-Pain’s signature sound gets annoying pretty quickly. And one critic said that when Black Eyed Peas use it, which is a lot, it sounds like “music robots make when they’re trying to sell products to other robots.”

But is it so terrible when it isn’t noticeable? After all, engineers have been using technology to improve vocal tracks for about as long as there have been vocal tracks.

Is Auto-Tune “Cheating” for Artists?

People may be right when they think of it as a kind of cheating. Then again, it was an open secret in the industry that 80s recording artists like Madonna and Paula Abdul needed help — a lot of help — with their vocals. Auto-Tune is just the latest kind of fakery.

Auto-Tune is everywhere for three reasons: it makes singers sound better, some people like that robotic sound, and it helps make hits. And since the music business is a business, that third reason is probably the biggest.

There is a lot to be said for the unadorned human voice. But we have to admit that anytime we amplify or record music, we’re always trying to make it sound better — with the best equipment and yes, the best effects.

So Auto-Tune is really like any another effect. There is nothing wrong with using it judiciously. In fact, it can save a lot of time and money in the studio. Rely on it too much, and you risk sounding kind of ridiculous.

Either way, Auto-Tune is here to stay. That is, until the next big game-changing piece of technology comes along.

Want to Learn More?

Located in the heart of Minneapolis’ arts and entertainment district, the Institute of Production and Recording programs provides hands-on training in media, video, sound, music and live show production.  Learn more about our programs by contacting IPR.