I was totally shocked when I first discovered that there was such a thing as “Autotune” – a vocal pitch corrector that can be used both live and on recordings. Now it has become the norm for pop artists and most professional recording artists to use vocal tuners (aka pitch correctors), where necessary. Sometimes it’s used when it isn’t necessary, perhaps to make a vocal sound more“electronic”. In a way, it’s a trade secret that musicians try to cover up… so I thought I’d do the opposite and actually write about it! Does it need to be a secret? After all, writers have spellcheckers.
I have to say, that at first I was appalled by the fact that software like this was being used by so called “professional” singers. But I’ve realised that there are a couple of points to be made in its favour.
1. Recordings have always had some aspect of pitch correction to them, even back in the days when tape would need to be sped up or slowed down to change the pitch of a vocal. Autotune may be a much more commonly used, because it’s digital, but it’s not a new trick.
2. Major Record labels DO insist that their artists are excellent singers. Autotune isn’t a magic trick for turning a bad singer into a good singer – that is a pop myth. But, it can be used as a safety net to make sure a big name artist sounds consistent live. We also expect more energetic dancing from our singers than we ever have, so how can we expect them to always sing perfectly at the same time? Autotune acts as insurance, although in reality, we don’t exactly know who is using it and who isn’t.
Anyway, the important thing about Autotune is that I’VE NOW GOT IT ON MY COMPUTER.
Up until now, I haven’t used pitch correction on any of my recordings. I condemned it as BAD and FAKE, but I may well be changing my tune (no pun intended). On my new album (to be self released in March 2014) I have been using it. Shock! Horror!
Why am I warming to digital pitch correction? Because who cares what you used, as long as the recording sounds good! It may be a contentious opinion, but it’s the one I’m coming around to.
Musicians have this idea that we must sound “true to ourselves” on recordings, and that it’s fake to edit out mistakes, but I’m starting to think of that as an egotistical viewpoint, born of not wanting to be seen as “cheating”.
When I’ve worked hard on a difficult vocal part, but I haven’t got it perfect on the recording, I might feel pleased with it because it’s an achievement for me. The truth is, I’ll be the only person who feels this way about that vocal part. Everyone else just hears a few out of tune notes and this spoils the recording for them.
And do you want a recording that says “look how good this recording is, considering I didn’t correct the mistakes digitally”, or do you want a recording that’s as sounds as good as you can make it sound, period? My priority has become to make beautiful recordings by any means necessary, and throw out any sense of being too proud to edit or pitch correct. I’ve decided that the quality of the recording is more important than the pride of the musician.
So I’ve started using Autotune on some of my vocal parts,and after only a couple of weeks of using it, I feel I can demystify it somewhat. It’s certainly not a magic fix. There are plenty of vocal mistakes that it will never be able to correct. I’m no expert on the subject, but here’s what I’ve discovered so far:
It’s best to start with a vocal take that’s as near perfect as possible. This is because Autotune must be used sparingly to avoid losing the natural tone of the vocal. It’s not a tool that can be used to make a vocal part that’s 80% in tune 100% perfect. But it can be sparingly used to make a 95% perfect vocal part 98% perfect.
A terrible vocal can’t usually be rescued by Autotune is because singing out of tune is often the result of bad technique, which goes hand in hand with bad tone, so even if a terrible vocal was tuned it would still sound rubbish. Besides, vocal parts can’t generally be altered in pitch by very much before they start to sound digitalised (which is an unwanted effect for acoustic music). Slides are also hard to pitch correct realistically.
Some notes in which speech level expression is used don’t register as a “note” according to the Autotuner, so it can’t correct those either.
You can’t just bung Autotune on a vocal part and hope for the best, because any piano tuner will tell you that being “digitally” in tune doesn’t always sound best. Some vocal phrases sound worse when they are digitally in tune, so if you’re not careful, automatic pitch correction could ruin a track instead of improving it.
Admittedly I might get better at using the software over time and start being able to correct really terrible vocal parts… but I doubt it. The bottom line is that the vocal part has to be pretty damn good in the first place before pitch correction proves helpful.
I did very quickly become able to notice the “unnatural” sound of using too much Autotune. Obviously I ease off when I hear it, because I don’t want that sound on my recordings, but I have to say that listening to the radio after a recording session, I started to notice that exact vocal sound on every record. I guess it’s just become a trend for artists on Major Record Labels to use pitch correctors quite heavily on recordings whether it’s needed or not!
Now that I’m not sure I agree with!
Here’s an amazingly detailed article on the subject if you’re interested, with lots of different opinions