Auto-Tune, helping singers who are out of tune…

Whether you hear it or not, it’s there: the smooth electronic tones of Auto-Tune quietly working away, tidying up the notes that supposedly talented artists just can’t seem to hit. It’s a plague sweeping through music. One industry insider, Daniel Griffiths, says he hears Auto-Tune in 99% of number one hits. On the face of it Auto-Tune is harmless; it’s not causing poverty or spreading disease, but is it ripping off the consumer. Katy Perry, Will.I.am, Ke$ha, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Snoop Dogg, Cher, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj… these are just some of the famous faces who have used Auto-Tune at some point in their career. It’s not unusual to hear of an artist underperforming vocally during live performances, leaving audiences disappointed. So are they just really bad singers, or do we perceive their natural voice to be unacceptable because we are so used to hearing an overproduced version of it?

But before we start judging singers, we must first clear up a few grey areas. The first is, what Auto-Tune is. Auto-Tune is actually a brand name made by a Californian firm called Antares. Whilst there are increasing numbers of competitors, Antares’s software remains the leader in the sector. That sector being, vocal effects software. The first commercial use of Auto-Tune was in 1998 by Cher with her number one hit Believe. She uses it to add a robotic effect during the two verses and an echo effect during the chorus. This is exactly what Auto-Tune was meant for; to add effects to an artist’s voice. However, thirty-five seconds into the song on the words “can’t break through” on the line “You keep pushing me aside and I can’t break through”, you hear a pronounced electronic quiver in her voice. This is intentional – not because she could not sing the notes – but because the changes are too quick to achieve naturally. She would sing only one note; in this case the note of D, and her producer would augment (change) the pitch to whatever she desired. Very soon however this method of bending the pitch to whatever note is desired was being used to change singers’ flat and sharp notes to make them seem “pitch perfect”.

Believe is now over twenty years old, so what has happened since then? Some artists make a point about not needing or not using Auto-Tune very much or not at all, like Adele or Lewis Capaldi. Others exclusively use it, either in an upfront manner like Will.I.am or in an underhand way like Ke$ha or Britney Spears. Most use Auto-Tune just to tidy up a few notes here and there, or to compensate if they are having an off day. Examples of these artists? Well, everyone. From Taylor Swift and Katy Perry to Justin Bieber and Olly Murs, artists love to tweak and perfect their sound. Which is fine… until they come to perform the song live and they are flat the whole way through, or dodge the high notes. It leaves fans with a bad taste in their mouth and an even worse sound in their ears! Sometimes this could be put down to artists becoming distracted or breathless while doing choreography or them just having a bad day. The more likely case is they are simply unable to recreate that crystal clear sound that was produced in the studio. That’s why many choose to lip-sync during part or all of the performance. But now, more than ever, a bad performance or being caught lip-syncing can be a degrading experience, thanks to the Internet. If it’s not being tagged in abusive Tweets it’s hate filled comments being left on their music videos on YouTube.

What about those who avoid using Auto-Tune? Well, most who don’t use it don’t need it, and when they come to perform live even if they don’t sound perfect there is less to complain about, as they sound much more like the studio. The poster child for not using Auto-Tune is Adele. Her debut single Chasing Pavements was released in 2008 and even then people were able to recognise how great her voice is. It spent twenty-five weeks on the charts and peaked at number two. Since then, she has proven that a natural, raw sound is more enjoyable than some over produced nonsense. Her heartfelt lyrics and jaw dropping vocals are a sight, or a sound to behold.

But the effects of auto-tune have wider reaching consequences. Pre Auto-Tune singers and bands are now dealing with a huge problem. People are going back to their songs only to conclude that they can’t sing. Particularly with Blues music, a key element of which is naturally playing with pitch. Blues music is sometimes purposely flat to express emotion in that slow, wailing style, synonymous with the genre. But people simply don’t perceive it in that way anymore.

In my opinion the more “radio friendly” the track is the more likely it is to have overused Auto-Tune. Take Katy Perry’s hit Hot ’n’ Cold, released in 2008. The same year as Chasing Pavements and like Chasing Pavements it did exceptionally well in the British charts. Reaching number four and spending a whopping forty-one weeks in the charts. It along with I Kissed a Girl helped launch Perry straight to superstar status. The mix of her fun vocals, which at the time had more than a hint of punk rock about them, with slightly risqué lyrics and a strong driving beat, it showcased the best of Katy Perry in her early years. But it’s all Auto-Tune. Don’t believe me? Take a listen to her now famous, tone deaf performance on NBC’s Today Show. She is sharp, flat and extremely breathless. It wasn’t a particularly well-received performance but things got worse for Perry after versions of the performance were shared online where her vocals had been isolated. That video has received over 630,000 views on YouTube and it’s fair to say that the comments section isn’t complementary. Yet Perry has given good live performances; in my opinion there are two standouts. The first being on X-Factor UK in 2011 where she sang an ultra stripped back acoustic version of The One That Got Away. It was an excellent performance, her voice was clear, raw and harmonious and a little reminiscent of fellow Californian Karen Carpenter, from the sibling duo The Carpenters. Arguably Katy Perry’s finest moment was during the 2015 Super Bowl Halftime Show, where she performed a flawless 12-minute medley of her biggest hits. As well as these performances Katy Perry is now using less Auto-Tune in the studio. On lots of her most recent tracks like Witness and Never Really Over her voice is crystal clear with very minimal effects. So why the improvement? Well it might be that she calmed herself down on stage. In the Today Show performance Katy dances about like a bee had stung her. Whereas during the X-Factor performance she stood still and played the Guitar and at the Super Bowl her choreography was carefully crafted so she wouldn’t become breathless. But honestly, I think Katy Perry just learnt how to sing properly.

However, despite they’re being a huge list of reasons of why not to use it, for the foreseeable future at least, artists will continue to use Auto-Tune. To me it is the equivalent of an athlete taking performance-enhancing drugs and, like a drug, once you start it’s very hard to stop. Don’t get me wrong Auto-Tune has its place as an effect. But when it is used to correct off notes, and smooth out rough tones I feel it detracts from the song. But such is the consumers’ insatiable appetite for “head-bangers”; “boy bands” and “hooks” it makes sense to use vocal effects software. Especially if it makes you sound better or reduces the amount of time needed to work on a song. I can understand why singers and producers use it and I have a lot of respect for anyone who releases a song, it is not an easy task. But a lot remains to be said for the true vocal greats: Van Morrison, Aretha Franklyn, Tina Turner, Adele, Celine Dion, Frank Sinatra, Susan Boyle, Elton John, and Beyoncé… I could go on and on. Maybe one day their raw and unfiltered voices will once again be fully appreciated and those buzzing electronic sounds will disappear…

Image credit

  1. Cher Believe – Pop til You Puke blog

  2. Adele – Kristopher Harris

  3. Katy Perry –“Katy Perry” by Nadine Miller is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

  4. Feature Image – “Levels” by Vegansoldier is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0