When you auto-tune a blue note, what color does it become?
Auto. Tune. These two simple words, whenever used together and in succession, make my skin crawl.
It’s everywhere. If you listen to anything that’s been recorded in the last 10-15 years, it cannot be escaped.
It has become so ubiquitous that it is now commonly used as a verb in the vocabulary of music production, as in: “We gonna autotune that, right?”
So, how did we get here?
I remember when Antares first introduced Auto-Tune and, at the time, I was a bit suspicious of their marketing angle, which went something like this:
Let the singer worry more about the inflection and the emotion of their performance, and fix all of the bad notes afterward. Don’t impede their creativity by allowing them to get bogged down by singing in tune…
This seemed like a bad idea to me even back then, but I never could have imagined that this technical marvel (and it really is some amazing technology) would become so intertwined in the process of making recorded music.
What used to be: Basic Tracking —> Overdubs —> Mixing —> Mas
Has morphed into: Basic Tracks —> Editing —> Overdubs—> Edi
Admittedly, the way we ordinarily record the rest of the band has changed as well—and not necessarily for the better. But we still take the time to tune guitars and basses in advance of playing them, and we still make a reasonable effort to play those instruments in tune and in time. (Usually.) And we still recognize that subtle choices and variations in pitch are part of the performance.
Anyone who has played a musical instrument or has been a singer, whether professionally or as a hobbyist, knows that gaining proficiency on your chosen instrument takes practice, dedication, and time.
There are no shortcuts. The “10,000 hour rule”, studied by K. Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, is considered by many to be a good measuring stick—the bare minimum of what it takes to reach expert level at a particular skill. You may possess talent, but without putting in your 10,000 hours, you will never gain true mastery of your instrument.
The last time I checked, the definition of “mastery”, when it comes to music, includes that pesky “tuning” part of the process, too. Just because you can sing in time with a lot of emotion or attitude does not make you a complete singer.
More and more, young would-be singers think about their emotion and inflection rather than about singing in tune, as if that part was meant to be left for later. If digital tuning is a rote part of the process anyway, why bother with advancing your skills in an important (and potentially expressive) part of your craft? It’s sad.
But what’s even sadder still is that Auto Tuning is still applied to perfectly acceptable, if not exceptional vocal tracks.
Your Tuning Is Part of Your Performance
An engineer I know who works at one of the top studios in LA (and in the world for that matter) once told me about a Pro Tools specialist at his studio being given vocal tracks recorded by a very high-profile artist.
He listened to the tracks and he was floored: They were wonderful. They were in tune, with lots of emotion, great timing and inflection. These takes really had it all. Yet he received them with the words “Here are the vocal tracks. Can you tune them up?”
He couldn’t understand why he was being asked to do this. There was nothing wrong with the tracks. They were amazing, some of the best he had heard in recent memory. And he was told to do it anyway.
Recently, I found myself watching a music documentary about a very famous legacy artist who was in the studio making a new record. It was a bluesy, rootsy kind of record with minimal overdubs—Basically a band playing together in a room. The artist and producer were emphasizing how stripped down and “real” the record was throughout. And yet even his vocal was autotuned.
This was a blues recording, mind you. I couldn’t help but wonder: When you auto-tune a “blue note”, what color does it become?
When Fixing Vocals Makes Them Worse
If a vocal take is so out of tune that it needs to be “fixed”, then why would a producer or artist decide to keep it? At what point does an out-of-tune performance become so compelling that tuning is secondary, since it can be fixed later?
Listeners are emotionally moved by vocal performances for many reasons, and bad tuning will diminish this emotional effect in a heartbeat—I get that. But are you telling me that an artist that is capable of delivering a compelling performance is incapable of doing so while singing in tune? And, if it’s just a single note or two that are off beyond acceptability, shouldn’t it be easy for them to go back and fix those with an even more compelling performance?
There’s potentially an even a bigger problem however:
Would the Beatles, or Led Zeppelin, or Aretha Franklin or Marvin Gaye’s vocals have been better had they been Auto Tuned? Could you even imagine how that would sound?
No doubt, if these artists’ had happened to find success within the last decade or so, their vocals would have been tuned, by rote, to sound more in line with what is happening today.
We are left to wonder wonder: Would the addition of this processing have diminished the timelessness that these records have enjoyed?
I can’t speak for others but for me, I would say this absolutely would have made the records worse. The songs would have still been what they are, but the performance would have been watered down, insincere, stripped of its nuance and individuality.
One might guess that The Beatles, who loved technology and used it to its nth degree, might have embraced it wholeheartedly, and to creative effect. But in general, the use of auto tuning software just calls attention to the fact that what you’re hearing is not really a performance at all. It’s phony.
I have recorded a lot of different artists. I have played in several bands and been on the production end of well over a thousand live shows. I know what a vocal sounds like. To me, when auto-tuning software is used on a vocal, it just sounds worse. Period. No question.
I know that it can be applied tastefully and minimally, but it still changes the way the voice sounds, both in shape and harmonic content. It’s not really that subtle of a difference either. At least we’re not distracted by the out-of-tune notes, but the result remains something that is peculiar and inhuman-sounding to my ears.
To this day, I have still never auto tuned anything that I’ve recorded, and I continue to refuse to do so. Some artists or bands do insist on it being done, so I have them take care of that with someone else. I know lots of recording engineers who are quite proficient with Auto Tune or Melodyne and I think it’s better that I leave it to them.
This has nothing to do with wanting to be honest about the recording process, because honestly, much of the recording process is built on smoke and mirrors. I understand that. It really comes down to standing by what I believe to be important: Always make things sound good.