In praise of Auto-tune

My experience with Auto-tune has felt like stepping out the door of a rocket ship to explore a whole new sonic planet.

Autotune

Auto-tune entered my musical life mainly from my work with Barbara Singer, who I met in 2003. She posted in the Craigslist Musicians section about this gig she had at the now-defunct Korova Milk Bar in the East Village, and how she was looking for a guitarist or some other instrumentalist. The idea was this: she would mix beats on a Roland MC-909 groovebox and sing, and I would improvise textural guitar sounds on top. Her repertoire was a set of pop songs in a variety of genres, sung in a flat, affectless voice thickly coated in digital abstraction: delay, harmonizer, distortion, peculiar reverbs.

We tried several different iterations of the band over the next few years, playing and recording, experimenting in open-ended ways. Then a few things happened in my musical life. Guitar gigs dried up. Laptop DJ gigs appeared slowly in their place. I got deeply into Reason, then Recycle, and the production possibilities of Pro Tools. I wrote and recorded a lot of spacy R&B with Nicole Bishop that got increasingly posthuman and electronic as we went along. Nicole is a legit singer with good chops, but we still did some pitch correction on her using Melodyne, for instance to organize her melismas into definite melodies. Melodyne is designed to make the singer still sound human at the end, and it doesn’t do that perfectly quantized, hard right angled robot sound we were hearing on the radio. So I shelled out for Auto-tune. I tried it on Nicole and it was rad. Then I tried it on Barbara and it was even more rad. Filtered through Auto-tune, her voice took on a keyboard-like quality that we realized was the missing ingredient in the sound we’d been after for five years. We’ve used it on everything we’ve recorded since.

To give you an idea how Auto-tune works, check out this image from wikipedia. It illustrates a different digital audio concept, but it’s a useful visualization of Auto-tune as well.

Imagine that the red line shows a singer’s actual pitch, swooping up, then down, then back up. The horizontal grey lines are different piano-keyboard pitches. Auto-tune snaps the red line to the closest grey line to produce the stairstepped black line,  the robo-vocal sound on so many recent hip-hop songs.

A lot of singers I know don’t like Auto-tune. They grumble that they shouldn’t have bothered to do all that practicing and studying. Auto-tune makes things easier in the studio, and increasingly on stage, no doubt about it. This bothers people who care about how difficult music is to make. Auto-tune threatens some of the myths we have about musicality: that it’s a special talent possessed only by an exceptional few, and that there’s something noble and admirable in the lifetime of discipline it requires. When Lil Wayne goes into a recording studio, smokes a blunt or three and freestyles an Auto-tuned melody off the top of his head, it calls our European-descended assumptions about romantic musical heroism into question.

In my opinion, this is all for the best. Music isn’t fundamentally about technique. It’s a transmission medium for emotions. A confident and definite performance comes across, accurate pitch or no. When you have a singer do take after take after take in search of technical perfection, you often end up with the sound of a bored and annoyed singer. Bored and annoyed singers are a drag to listen to, no matter how accurate a their pitch is. First takes are very often the best ones because of their freshness and immediacy. Cee-Lo Green’s spine-tingling lead vocal on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” was a first take. I don’t know how much postprocessing they did on Cee-Lo. Maybe it was none, maybe it was a lot. Who, aside from the people in the recording studio that day, cares?

A lot of people care, apparently. The music world is doing a lot of hand-wringing over Auto-tune right now. There’s a sense that it’s cheating somehow, and a few singers make a point to brag about not using it. I found this Neko Case quote from the Wikipedia article on pitch correction:

I’m not a perfect note hitter either but I’m not going to cover it up with auto tune. Everybody uses it, too. I once asked a studio guy in Toronto, “How many people don’t use auto tune?” and he said, “You and Nelly Furtado are the only two people who’ve never used it in here.” Even though I’m not into Nelly Furtado, it kind of made me respect her. It’s cool that she has some integrity.

Really? This makes Nelly Furtado cool? Personally, I find her music to be pretty lame, her strong pitch notwithstanding. Neko Case and Nelly Furtado might be “better” singers than Britney Spears when you hear them alone and unaccompanied in a room, but when are you ever likely to hear that? In their actual context of lavishly expensive production, Britney is by far my favorite singer of the three, because her style is suited to the realities of her musical context.

It’s way too late in the history of technology to be worrying about authenticity. What’s so authentic about recorded sound to begin with? Neko Case isn’t in the room singing when you plays an MP3 or CD or cassette or record of her. What’s so authentic about multitrack recording, compression, EQ, pop filters, artificial reverb, or selecting from multiple takes to find the best one? All that matters to me when I listen is how the music makes me feel. No amount of “authenticity” can make up for an untruthful or unimaginative musician. It isn’t Auto-tune that makes Lil Wayne and Kanye West so compelling. Those guys could find a way to do a hot track using a comb and wax paper. Conversely, Auto-tune can make bad singers less irritating, but it can’t make them sound exciting or memorable.

For my tastes, the most musical uses of Auto-tune come from contrasts. The extreme perfection works best when balanced by roughness and rawness elsewhere. One of my favorite tracks is M.I.A.’s otherworldly protest rap “20 Dollar.” Her wordless Cher-effect melismas are balanced by her loosely pitched uncorrected singing on the choruses and her unpitched rapping in the verses. Also, she layers distortion and reverb on top of the melismas to harshen them and remove their bubblegum quality.

Art is all about happy accidents, unintended consequences, serendipitous discoveries. Our feeble minds are nowhere near powerful enough to have good ideas just by wanting them. The first people to feed guitar amps back did it accidentally. It took the wisdom of Jimi Hendrix and his fellow hippie rockers to realize that this technical “mistake” could be the basis of new creativity. When you use Auto-tune’s Cher effect, it produces a clicky warble that sounds “bad” if you’re trying to have the effect be transparent. But the warble has a delightful set of qualities of its own. It introduces new rhythms into previously rhythmless sustained notes. If you add a little digital delay, the warble locks satisfyingly into the beat of the song. By flattening the vertical pitch aspect of a singer’s voice, Auto-tune draws out the horizontal qualities, the vibrato (as opposed to tremolo), the nasalness vs throatiness, the overtones and partials. A quick fillip to a neighboring chord tone that would normally pass unnoticed by singer and listener alike suddenly takes on dramatic musical significance when exaggerated by Auto-tune.

My favorite sound on Barbara is a blend of multiple different Auto-tune settings on the same vocal. We’ll have the same vocal playing on several tracks simultaneously, with one totally dry, one Auto-tuned to the scale of the song, and one Auto-tuned to just the root and fifth of the key for nice wide warbles.

We’ve only just begun to explore the qualites of Auto-tuned whispering, whistling and growling.

My sister Molly was visiting during one of our recent band practices, and she spent some time horsing around with Babsy’s vocal setup. She observed that Auto-tune is the best karaoke device in history. Molly is a terrific singer, but like most of us, she suffers from self-consciousness. By making it impossible for her to sound bad, Auto-tune liberated her playful musicality. Auto-tune inspires fearlessness, which inspires improvisation, which produces fun for everyone in the room. What more could you ask from a music tool?

Update: I wrote a followup post on how Auto-tune helps you understand music theory, and another about Auto-tune The News.

Further update: This post and another of mine are quoted in a Brands Plus Music post about the impact computers are having on music-making.

7 thoughts on “In praise of Auto-tune

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  3. Pingback: I… Like Autotune! | Diary Of A Wannabe Rapstar

  4. i’m ok with autotune if it’s used in an obvious sense. i just hate it when it’s used subtly and then you suddenly hear a little glitch in pitch or when you hear an odd warble that doesn’t sound human. IT’S WEIRD and it’s annoying too when you know the singer is actually good. oh, and i think auto tune should be banned from live music.

  5. I admit I haven’t spent a lot of time informing myself in the auto-tune debate, but I think my objection to its (over)use in commercial music is the expectations that it creates. We used to be a culture that felt free to create imperfect, amateur music in home or community settings. Now, as you mention, most of us suffer from self-consciousness because we don’t sound as perfect as the music on the radio. (N.B. this started long before the invention of auto-tune, of course.) It’s not that it doesn’t make the music better, because it often does. It’s that I’m not sure we need to push music performance that next step closer to perfection.

    • You’re right that Auto-tune contributes to the ratcheting up of expectations around recorded music, and I think you’re even more right that the ratcheting has been underway for a long time. What holds people back from participatory music-making is anxiety about being judged negatively. Having effortless access to recordings of the best of the best musicians has made that anxiety paralyzing for almost everyone I know. Why would I ever want to play mediocre trumpet when I have thirty Miles Davis albums on my hard drive? If anything, I actually think Auto-tune can make the situation better. I’ve worked with a few singers who wouldn’t dream of committing their voice to a recording for widespread scrutiny without the safety of Auto-tune (including myself.) Having that big cushion underneath you encourages tightrope walking that you wouldn’t attempt otherwise. Drum machine software had a similar effect – I have a lot of ideas for drum and percussion parts, but they’d be locked inside my head if I was limited to my ability to physically perform them.

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