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Auto Tune: The Elephant in the Tune

I’m sure everyone has their own opinion about auto tune, because it has become such a big part of the music industry. You may agree or you many not agree, but here are my thoughts on the subject.

Ever since Cher’s 1998 hit, “Believe,” played through radios all over the world, auto tune has been written about as notoriously negative. Time magazine called it one of the 50 worst inventions ever created. Everyone from indie rockers to hip hop artists have blasted the software. Even the public has responded; a petition circulated the internet for a primetime television show, Glee, to stop relying on the software so much. A recent Progressive commercial shows a boy band singing poorly in a studio, then cuts to Flo, the Progressive mascot, asking a record producer if they have auto tune. After the record producer says they do have auto tune, Flo exclaims to the boy band, “It’s a hit,” suggesting that the use of auto tune equates to no creative talent. All of these examples portray auto tune as a bad thing, but, despite its sordid past, auto tune has a plethora creative and technical uses in the music industry that can change the effect of songs and help make better music.

Exxon engineer, Andy Hildebrad, invented auto tune in the 1990s. Hildebrad was jokingly challenged by a woman at a party who told him to create something that could make _her sing in tune (Crockett). Little did she know, Hildebrad would take her seriously and after auto tune had been created and gained some traction in recording studios the world over, it would become one of the most polarizing pieces of technology in the music industry.

In an interview with Pitchfork, artists Neco Case, member of a Canadian indie band, had this to say about auto tune:  “When I hear auto tune on someone’s voice, I don’t take them seriously,” but her point seems to largely ignore that some songs aren’t meant to be  taken seriously. For example, Ke$ha, an artist widely criticized for her use of auto tune, largely writes upbeat, party anthems. On her hit tune, “Tik Tok”, Ke$ha sings about “brushing her teeth with a bottle of jack.” Ke$ha probably doesn’t brush her teeth with a bottle of jack, but this line is used to provoke a carefree, silly attitude in the song, and, in the same sense, she uses auto tune to add the same carefree attitude to her records. In the end, a product that is both vocally and lyrically compatible is produced, in the way some artists’ voices break when a particularly emotional lyric is sung. Ke$ha’s use of auto tune does the same thing; she combines, silly unemotional lyrics with a robotic, auto tuned delivery. Another artist who uses auto tune in a similar but also a different way is Kanye West. In his album, 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye uses auto tune to disconnect himself from the listener. Jody Rosen, a writer for Rolling Stone, wrote “Kanye’s digitized vocals are the sound of a man so stupefied by grief, he becomes less than human.”

While auto tune has many creative uses, the technical uses of auto tune can be just as effective. For example, some singers auto tune their original takes of a song in a recording studio, then play back the auto tuned track, while they record a new take of the song without auto tune while listening to the original auto tuned version. This technique not only saves time, but can also save money, as many recording studios charge rates by the hour. In my personal experience with this technique, listening to an auto tuned version of myself while singing the same song yielded a better vocal performance than singing to a piano playing the same music. Many of the musicians who have called out the use of auto tune, like the band, Death Cab for Cutie, have record labels that pay for studio time, so it is not a financial concern. But, for artists like me, this technique can be used to create an authentic performance in a short amount of time.

Another issue that critics are concerned about is the ability of vocalists who rely on auto tune heavily; however, a lot more than just hitting precise notes goes in to a successful vocal performance. Diction, tone, delivery, among many other things contributes to a good vocal performance. Auto tune can’t change any of these things, just alter pitches. So, many people that critique a vocal performance seem to only believe that auto tune was responsible, when pitch precision is actually a fraction of the vocal performance. It should be noted, also, that when auto tune is used in a more clandestine way, not the blatant way that Ke$ha and Kanye use the software, it is impossible to use auto tune on a truly horrible performance and not have it sound like a robot singing. However, it is possible to sing a song well and then make it sound more robotic. When record company, record producers, and artists say that 99.9% of the songs on the radio arc auto tuned, do not assume that the original performances of the songs are horrible (Tyringiel). If they were, even the best auto tune engineer in the industry wouldn’t be able to make the performance sound like a human singing. It is likely that the original takes of the songs have some notes that might be slightly flat or off key, and that auto tune is used to fix the vocal takes.

Another concern critics have is the use of auto tune in live performances. This is perhaps where the debate of auto tune becomes a little more ethical. Most of the same critics that criticize auto tune in a studio setting, also bash the use of it in live performances. With live performance becoming the most lucrative income stream in the music industry, now more than ever has a perfect vocal performance been more valuable.  But, there are many other reasons why people go to see live shows. Just like with a good vocal performance, perfect pitch is not the most important thing in a live show. Stage presence, costume changes, choreography, atmosphere, and an ability to connect with the audience are certainly more important than being able to hit every single note with precision.

However, there are some legitimate concerns that arc thoroughly researched by some critics. One of the concerns is that our ears are accustomed to an idyllic vocal performance, perhaps causing some people to think negatively of people who can’t sing with complete pitch accurateness as having an inability to sing (Anderson). Josh Tyringiel of Time Magazine, writes that auto-tune is “photo shop for the human voice.” Just like how photo shop has changed the standard of beaut y, auto tune has changed the standard of vocalists.

In the end, auto tune is a technology that has been met with a lot of criticism, but still should not be branded as something negative. The scorning of auto tune is similar to how people first equated the radio to some sort of satanic instrument though the radio eventually proved to be very handy. But, I think the most important thing about this debate is how quickly something has been misinterpreted. I think the auto tune argument really represents how easily technology can be misinterpreted by people in even an industry that has benefited from its creation. After knowing more about auto tune, it is easy to see that musicians are much more honest than we give than credit for; it is software that is purely used for creative reasons or to tidy up a vocal performance.