Opinion opinion

Published on October 1st, 2012 | by Hugh Hession


Auto-Tune: The good, the bad and the ugly

So, this marks my very first post in my opinion section for Making it in Music! Figure I’d pull something out the hat that would be controversial to some, but to others, just a typical tool used in the studio. As a producer, songwriter and musician, here are my thoughts…and only a day after T-Pains birthday!

I started tracking in the 80’s, so I came up in a different time where you had to nail the lead vocal performance if you wanted it to be in pitch. I was taught early on – clocking hundreds of hours of vocal takes – what being in tune was all about. As a producer, I am thankful for that experience, which has made me quite the pain in the ass when it comes to tracking vocals! I’m the guy who instead of recording the same (out of tune) vocal track in loop mode, stops 2 seconds in and says “the lead-in was flat, dude.”

So yes, I am a fanatic when it comes to vocal tracking. Anyone that reads my Vocalist Corner category knows my passion for singing.

Let’s look at Rick Rubin’s thoughts on the subject:

Sometimes a singer will do lots of takes when they’re recording a song, and you really can hear the emotional difference when someone does a great performance vs. an average one. If you’re pitch-correcting, you might not bother to make the effort. You might just get it done and put it through the machine so it’s all in tune…I encourage artists to embrace a natural process. (Source: Time, Feb 5, 2009)

Like Rubin, I feel that vocalists should not become dependent on Auto-Tune if they don’t need it. I’ve worked with artists who automatically want me to run their voice through no matter what, and to me, that just doesn’t make sense. If you become dependent upon it, you get lazy and the vocal take loses a good deal of emotion and style.

That being said, I’m not solely against it.

There is no doubt Auto-Tune is widely used and it’s an industry standard to keep vocal performances in perfect pitch. From Maroon Five and Rascal Flatts to more obvious artists like Akon and T-Pain, it has a distinctive sound that is synonymous with many recording artists, particularly in the hip hop, dance and R&B genres. I found this list with 90 artists who have used Auto-Tune on their songs.

You haul out Auto-Tune to make one thing better, but then it’s very hard to resist the temptation to spruce up the whole vocal, give everything a little nip-tuck.” Like plastic surgery, more people have had it than you think. Let’s just say I’ve had Auto-Tune save vocals on everything from Britney Spears to Bollywood cast albums. And every singer now presumes that you’ll just run their voice through the box.” – Anonymous Grammy Award Winning Engineer

Auto-Tune can be a great application to use in the studio as one of many tools – however I am selective on how I use it. For a pure dance track (where you want a certain hook to pop), if you let the retune speed go to 0, you get the typical “robotic” sound that many people associate Auto-Tune with. Conversely, you can use it sparingly to correct a few notes, or even a vocal line. In some genres like country or rock, you have to watch how strong the settings are so it won’t sound fake. I don’t like using it much in rock, because it really can diminish the overall delivery. However, with pop, it’s a standard and depending how you set it, it can really enhance the vocals and make them stand out. It’s typical for a record that you hear in the Top 100.

I draw the line, however when it comes to live performance. If you have to lean on Auto-Tune for that (with the exception of what I call “stylistic vocal lines and hooks” that are part of the identity of a song) – then it’s time to take some vocal lessons!

There was something to be said about the greats – Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and rockers Freddie Mercury, Paul Rodgers and others. It’s all organic and natural. These singers just ooze with emotion.

A video that really made me cringe was Billy Joel singing the National Anthem a few years ago and Auto-Tune was running real-time throughout his performance. It really sounded like crap. Thing is, I’ve seen Billy Joel before and know full well, that he never used any of that throughout his career – he never needed to.  I can only imagine how pissed he was when he found out someone probably just threw it on there!

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About the Author

owns and operates Emerging Artists Entertainment Marketing & Consulting, LLC - a company devoted to cultivating aspiring music artists, He is also the head of Hession Entertainment Group, LLC (artist management) and the Music Industry Liaison for the artist discovery site, TalentWatch (www.talentwatch.net). He has over 25 years experience in the music business as a performer, composer, producer and artist manager. Hugh holds a BA in Marketing and is a professional member of NARIP and a voting member of The Recording Academy. He often speaks at seminars and workshops on artist development.

2 Responses to Auto-Tune: The good, the bad and the ugly

  1. Morad Muslimany says:

    Back in my first songs I used to use Auto-Tune out of insecurity about my voice. Until one song came and I decided I’m not going to use it at all, I challenged myself. Although there are some notes that just didn’t sound right, I am very happy now, because this decision really made me improve my vocals. It was either to improve my natural tune or be finished with it. I am grateful that now, I can say, I have improved alot.
    I agree with you mostly, that Auto-Tune is really okay to give a song its’ identity (if needed.) But shouldn’t be set to ON on the whole track and on every single song, that is just wrong.

    • Hugh Hession says:

      Personally, I agree with you Morad. As I mentioned, I’m a hardcore vocalist and it’s my opinion that Auto-Tune shouldn’t be used as a crutch in regard to vocal tracking. If a vocalist goes sharp or flat on a note, time for another take! Often, particularly in rock, it can better to have a more organic feel. I use AT mostly on dance tracks to get that polished sound that is so prevalent in that genre, or if I want a bit of “wobble” going on!

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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