It’s a familiar question and an issue that’s destined to circulate in debate for some time yet – ‘Has Auto Tune Ruined The Music Industry?’
Sure, it has mauled modern music, torn into those with talent (or lack there of), and regurgitated many a robotic hint of what technically skilled voices used to sound like. But it is a tool that ultimately holds vast possibilities of unique sounds and mind-blowing creativity, yet a tool is only as advantageous as the artist using it.
Not many good things can be said about Auto-Tune for the live music lover, where any lip-synching leads to automatic shunning, many going as far to describe Auto Tune as evil.
So, ruined? Not entirely. Not yet at least. But gosh it isn’t far off.
The list of pop artists that use the technology is extensive and can be easily generalised into the large bulk of pop culture, and the teeny-bopper loving artists out there.
Ke$ha. Guilty. Jason Derulo. Guilty. Will.I.Am (and the Black Eyed Peas). Very, very Guilty.
T Pain. Poster boy for Auto Tune.
What arguably defines a mistreated use of Auto Tune technology is as simple as the unoriginality of the tracks. It becomes an unacceptable headache to hear overly pitch-corrected tunes released over and over by artists who are labelled the ‘next biggest thing’.
Admittedly, everyone may have that one song, a real guilty pleasure, that they just love – even if it reeks of auto tune. However when they all sound the same, because key-correction technology has moulded them to all sound alike, it can make your ears hurt.
The unoriginality of modern pop is frustrating enough, with hundreds of different versions of conceivably the same song being churned through our radios each year. This is largely thanks to Auto Tune and its ability to ‘fix’ singing to the correct key, making a ‘perfect’ collection of notes into a formulated song.
Lets back up, how did we even get to this point of debate over such seemingly impressive technology? It is strange to think that Auto Tune is still relatively new, only being invented in 1997. For a time, the technology was a trade secret in the music industry, going unknown to the wider public.
It was also of major benefit to producers, who until that point had used exhaustive, time-consuming labour to get the best vocal results. As Leslie Shapiro of Sound and Vision describes, it was a laborious process for producers to get the ‘perfect take’ pre-Auto Tune:
The singer would come in each day and sing about 8 takes of the song. The producer and I would have a copy of the lyrics and after the singer left, our fun began. We would have 8 different-colored highlight pens – one for each track.
We would go through the song, meticulously listening to each track. If a phrase or even a word was good on a take, we would highlight it in the color that corresponded to that take/track. On to the next track and colour.
At the end of the day, I would bounce all the good phrases down to one master track. Some days we would have a complete song, most days not. This went on for months, until we had a complete album with every note in perfect pitch.”
It’s no wonder that producers and engineers leapt at the chance to leave manual editing behind and flock to a digital processor that cut out menial tasks and hours of laborious editing.
But where once it was a slightly unknown corrective procedure, eventually the cat came out of the bag, with Auto Tune used in a very forthright way in one particular late 90s pop hit.
The first artist known to popularize the technology openly in commercial recording was Cher in 1998, with the release of her hugely popular single ‘Believe’. Auto Tune is still relatively new, only being invented in 1977. For a long time, the technology was a trade secret in the music industry, going unknown to the wider public.
Or as Chris Lee of the Los Angeles Times stated, Cher’s “Believe” is “widely credited with injecting Auto-Tune’s mechanical modulations into pop consciousness.”
The trouble is, that this opened the floodgates for other singers and artists alike to also incorporate the technology in their music without having to ‘hide’ its use any longer. Unfortunately, many simply mimicked the original idea, instead of formulating different patterns and sounds of their own.
One may argue, that although Auto Tune is used to find the perfect notes and collaborate them together to make the perfect track, that this is instead an artificial sound and quite frankly, an imperfect result.
Basically, the end result has no ‘wow’ factor – no confronting emotional power of having just experienced a new awakening in your musical knowledge. No prolonging urge to play the song over and over. No reality that music is raw, and people are in fact not perfect (at least not on their own).
As renowned music blogger Alan Cross puts it: “It gives [artists] talent they don’t have. It’s like giving a student a test that self-corrects when they provide a wrong answer.”
So what distinguishes a ‘bad’ example of Auto Tune from a ‘good’ example?
The popularization of Auto Tune technology, via Cher’s method of putting it all up front, may have turned hundreds of music lovers off of contemporary pop and dance music, but in other circles and genres, there is hope yet.
Yes the majority of Auto Tune users are generic pop artists, using it as a cover for imperfect vocals. However, there is the potential for Auto Tune to delve into the creative side of music, where at least these artists are being original, which could arguably find an acceptable use for the technology.
Indie folk band Bon Iver used Auto Tune in a startling way on 2009 track ‘Woods’. In this track, Justin Vernon used a layering technique of multiple voices to create depth, developing a unique sound.
The track begins with a singular natural voice, only very faintly effected on certain notes to make them sound shakier. This is then followed in the next frame by a second layer, slightly distorted and using higher notes.
Gradually the song builds with more and more layers of auto-tuned vocals. It gives the impression that there are multiple vocalists creating this unique sound.
Soon with the added background vocals, it amounts to an undecipherable number of textures in the piece. The effect of tuning each layered line to a different pitch, one on top of the other, giving birth to the use of a much wider range of notes and provides more depth to the song. The end result sounds incredible.
What distinguishes the use of Auto Tune in Bon Iver’s ‘Woods’ from a ‘bad’ example is that the entirety of the song is created by one vocalist. The technology is used to create numerous keys and pitches, tweaking Justin Vernon’s natural voice into a trembling, thin mystical tone. It takes Auto Tune as a functional device and applies a plentiful dose of pitch shifting to his a capella vocals, but for a desired effect. A mysterious atmosphere that would be near impossible to achieve without using the technology.
Bon Iver used a similar effect when teaming up with electronic singer-songwriter James Blake to create the heavily vocal-filtered track “Fall Creek Boys Choir”. The two artists applied Auto Tune to this track to construct an equally unparalleled sound. Blake also creates a transcendental beauty with the effect in other solo tracks like “I Mind” and “Lindesfarne II”. Most users are abusers, taking short cuts and using the technology to correct their pitch, perfect each note and end up with tidy, clean cut vocals
In an interview with Pitchfork, Blake says: “I think we’ll look back on Auto-Tune as an effect. Sometimes it’s just the only way that you can achieve a certain sound. I can sing, but I like to treat my vocals anyway. I can’t distort my voice without the use of a distortion unit, but that doesn’t mean I’m doing something unnatural.”
Here Blake talks about Auto Tune as just being another musical instrument, and just like any tool – and much like the Brit describes – can be used by an artist to achieve unique sounds; it is not an unnatural method of music-making because it still requires creativity in its application to create something original.
There is a handful of artists who have dabbled in using Auto Tune in this same way and to a similar yet equally popular effect:
Daft Punk’s biggest hit “One More Time” come to mind; Vampire Weekend used it on their latest album Contra; Grimes employs it on Visions, particularly evident in tracks like “Oblivion”. These artists have not been shunned for using the technology, but instead awarded with their huge following and unprecedented sounds.
As in the Bon Iver example above, Auto Tune is acceptable in these instances due to the fact that it adds to the production of the track, rather than diluting the sounds like in a majority of modern pop songs that use the technology.
But it’s not necessarily to ‘erase’ an imperfect performance, after all, it is those imperfect notes that sometimes make a song stay with you. Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out Of My Life” for example – sung almost perfectly, until the last word, which quivers with tears and heartbreak. A relatable human experience that cannot be expressed via tune-corrected technology.
It can then be debated that Auto Tune is a shortcut for talent. To some, a true test of talent is a live performance, where artists are exposed, vulnerable, and subject to judgment if they (god forbid) sing a note out of key.
Many true music lovers prefer a live performance to a recording any day, as it engulfs the listener in the sweat, heart, and thrill that the performer is experiencing on stage. Yes, Auto Tune can be used in live settings too, (so there are ways that artists like Ke$ha can hide their out of pitch notes) – but as Alan Cross says, “I’d rather have a real performance with a few flats and sharps than one shined to perfection by a computer program.”
So what separates ‘good’ use of Auto Tune from ‘bad’? The fact is that not enough artists have bothered to use Auto Tune as a practical tool which can ultimately be the backboard to alternative,new sounds. Most users are abusers, taking short cuts and using the technology to correct their pitch, perfect each note and end up with tidy, clean cut vocals devoid of emotion.
So is Auto Tune ruining the music industry? In a way, but more accurately, it could simply be that Auto Tune is a tool that’s only as good as the artist using it. As the saying goes, guns don’t kill people… but talentless clones wielding tools the wrong way could.