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Life After Autotune - Pop Music Industry

Life After Autotune - Pop Music Industry

Few DAW plug-ins today produce as much debate among audio engineers and fans as Auto-Tune. In a nutshell, Auto-Tune is an audio tool that allows an engineer to “tweak” pitchy performances by subtly (or sometimes blatantly) altering a singer’s performance and fixing out-of-tune notes. How does a simple plug-in like Auto-Tune create such incredible controversy?
            Auto-Tune has very interesting, and decidedly unmusical, beginnings. Musician Andy Hildebrand developed Auto-Tune by “analyzing seismic data” when he worked for the oil industry. Being a musician, he decided to use this technology for music, developed Auto-Tune over a period of a few weeks (Prisco, 2014). Pop music was never the same
            Using Auto-Tune in the music industry has a few competing camps – the purists, the engineers, and the hacks. In one camp, there are professional singers, purists who refuse to use Auto-Tune. For example, in the classical music world, which is rife with talented opera singers who have studied the art of proper singing technique for decades, use of Auto-Tune can be considered sacrilege. When a classical artist like Jackie Evancho or Sarah Brightman cross over to pop music, often they are met with heavy criticism, especially if Auto-Tune is involved. Studied singers will criticize groups like the Pentatonix because of their reliance on Auto-Tune, a distinct sound which might not be obvious to the average listener, but can be somewhat painful for the trained singer. It might be noted that female singers often face stiffer criticism than male singers regarding use of Auto-Tune.
On the other extreme are performers who are incapable of singing live without Auto-Tune to tweak their vocals. For example, the artist KE$HA has been criticized numerous times for sounding like a robot, and her live performances have not done much to squelch rumors that she cannot sing. Brittney Spears has often been embroiled in Auto-Tune controversy, though her much earlier vocal performances show that she does have vocal talent. Some truly talented artists, like Mariah Carey in her recent New Year’s live performance snafu, have become so dependent on engineers to clean up their vocals that when they have to perform live, they no longer can and have to rely on lip-sync. Fans are outraged when their beloved singer is “outed” as someone with weak vocals. When considering the negative aspects of Auto-Tune, fans and musicians alike start to spout out these examples and more of Auto-Tune being used incorrectly. And nearly every music producer has been faced with the project where they are handed a disastrously bad recording with grotesque intonation and are expected to “fix it in post”. Additional criticism for the plug-in arises when its use in Hollywood allows actors to “sing”. For example, Emma Watson’s performance in Disney’s live action “Beauty and the Beast” or the performance of Russell Crowe in “Les Miserables” both demonstrate how good engineers can make passable performances for bad singers. In other words, Auto-Tune cannot, and should not, replace talent.

            But let’s take a third and more balanced look at Auto-Tune as a useful tool to help streamline and perfect the recording process, as well as add interest to a vocal performance. Cher’s 1998 “Do You Believe in Life After Love” is one of the most notable examples of using Auto-Tune as a vocal effect successfully, essentially by removing any subtlety and “cranking it up to 11” (Prisco 2014). Hip hop artist T-Pain also took Auto-Tune to the next level, despite harsh criticism from fellow artists. Despite how tiring these effects may be today, no one can deny that innovative music producers created a new effect using Auto-Tune that has been replicated successfully numerous times, from Grammy-winning pop albums to Hollywood blockbusters and TV.
            Mature music producers know how to use the Auto-Tune plug-in to lightly fix otherwise good vocal performances. When used in this way, the changes are subtle and the listener has a more satisfying sonic experience. This can save time in the production process, and saved time equals saved money. By streamlining recording and allowing engineers to adjust what may be slight imperfections in the vocal recording, Auto-Tune is an invaluable asset for any professional. Personally I have used pitch correction, not just for my own vocals, but when mixing the final soundtrack for my animated film Libertaria, which involved over one thousand vocal takes that ranged from phenomenal to disastrous. By gently adjusting the pitch in the best takes, I was able to save performances that might have been trashed or badly cut in an earlier age. This overall saved me months of potentially lost time in film and music production. Auto-Tune allows audio engineers like myself to save time and create a more satisfying recording for the consumer, our fans.
            In conclusion, Auto-Tune when used correctly is a valuable plug-in that every serious music producer needs to master. Whether using it to perfect a good performance or experimenting with its more notable “robotic” sounds, the music producer can create a memorable sonic experience that is superior both in quality and authenticity.
           
LISTENING LINKS:
Libertaria Motion Picture Soundtrack: https://sabrinapenayoung.bandcamp.com/album/libertaria-the-virtual-opera-soundtrack
Cher "Do you believe in Life after love?" : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Uu3kCEEc98
Ke$ha sings without Autotune: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVjy2zyQ7Oo
Russell Crowe Sings Les Mis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8WSysB5vKM           

RESOURCES:

Anderson, L.. (2013). Seduced by ‘perfect’ pitch: how Auto-Tune conquered pop music. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2013/2/27/3964406/seduced-by-perfect-pitch-how-auto-tune-conquered-pop-music
Independent Music Awards. (2010). THE HISTORY OF AUTO-TUNE. Retrieved from http://independentmusicawards.com/blog/2010/09/08/autotune/
Kramer, K. (2014). The T-Pain Effect: How Auto-Tune Ruined Music... And Saved Hip-Hop. Retrieved from http://www.complex.com/music/2014/04/the-t-pain-efffect-how-auto-tune-ruined-music-and-saved-hip-hop

Prisco, J. (2014). The invention that changed music forever. Soundsstudiesblog.comg. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/26/tech/autotune-inventor-mci/

Soundsstudiesblog.comg. (2014). A Brief History of Auto-Tune. Retrieved from https://soundstudiesblog.com/2014/04/21/its-about-time-auto-tune/

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