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What is Auto-Tune & How to Use 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. What is Auto-Tune? How do you use Auto-Tune properly? There are two sides to the argument. Which side are you on? But first, lets look at what Auto-Tune is and how it is used.

What is Auto-Tune?

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.”

How to Use Auto-Tune

Auto-Tune uses a set reference point, a scale or note, and everything outside of this reference will be digitally corrected with autotune.

The most common and reasonable time to use Auto-Tune is when a vocalist delivers an emotional performance but has a few problems with pitch. The overall track is great and there is no need to re-record the song, but there are a few pitch problems that autotune can correct. You would be surprised but Auto-Tune happens on a large number of songs. Instead of a vocalist having to sing take after take ruining their voice, minor pitch problems can be corrected. This is similar to how audio software works when an instrument is played. If the instrument misses one or two notes, there is no need to re-record the whole track. Long gone are the days of re-recording tracks in full until they are meticulously perfect, playing late into the night and then into the next day.

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.” Also, it was the imperfections that made a song, some favoring live performances because of the inconsistency in the vocals. Historically, it was an art to sing every note on tune and those out of tune actually made it unique.

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.

Final Thoughts

Is Auto-Tune a useful tool? Is it an effect? It can be all of these things. Auto-Tune can correct the pitch of a singer’s voice or it can make the singer sound like a robot. It is to be used by the audio engineer, and it is up to the listener whether they accept the use of Auto-Tune as a parlor trick or amazing effect. Auto-Tune has become mainstream, and maybe in the future, artists and audio engineers will advertise that it was not used. Dr Seuss told a story about the Sneetches and how when one Sneetch got a star on their belly, they were unique. Then every Sneetch followed suit and got a star on their belly. The reverse happened and those not adding a star to their belly became the unique ones. The same can be said about Auto-Tune.

Want to Learn More?

Did learning about what is Auto-Tune and how to use it interest you? The audio production and engineering program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production and engineering program and starting a rewarding career in the music industry.