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Auto-Tune

Many would argue that, if Jay has inspired bad writing, then T-Pain and Kanye West will inspire a generation of bad singers to step into the studio, as both artists have become famous for using a computer software feature called “auto-tune” to fix their bad vocals. This program allows a producer to map out the notes of a performance, and then “snap” the bad notes or chords into the right pitch.  The only downside: the vocals come out with a metallic tint if it’s over-used.

It was Cher who first had an auto-tuned hit (and first admitted to using auto-tune live), but T-Pain is almost solely responsible slathering the FM dial with the distinct sound, which many music fans complained about up until last month. But when Kanye West’s   808’s & Heartbreak dropped (90% sung and then auto-tuned), popular opinion split.  The songs were well written, intensely personal and showed a good bit of artistic growth.  After all, Bob Dylan spent the first 10 years of his career croaking like a bullfrog—it was the songwriting that mattered. 

The other side of the coin is that Bob Dylan had the courage to let the world hear his true voice-flaws and all.  Kanye, T-Pain, the other auto-tuned popsters of our day are hiding behind computer software that fixes anything that may be wrong with the vocals.

Personally, I believe that trying to “perfect” art takes away from the artistry.  Artists, whether their medium is recording, film, writing, or visual art, are supposed to make some mistakes.  Great art isn’t accounting, you can’t add it all up at the end of the day; it’s a reflection of humanity—flaws and all.  For instance, did Natascha Bedingfield’s producer do her any favors when he auto-tuned “Love Like This” to “perfect” the vocal?  Couldn’t Billy Joel, one of the most accomplished entertainers of our time, sing the National Anthem at the Superbowl without help from pitch-correcting software? (Note how his voice changes after the first line of the song). 

The saddest part of this new trend is that the abuse of auto-tune has become what steroids are to baseball, and blood doping is to cycling: a reason for fans to doubt  every single great human accomplishment. 

To get a better picture of what auto-tune is, and how much it’s used, I asked a cross section of my friends in different roles in the music creation process to share their thoughts were on using pitch-correcting software.    

Sarah Kelly (2x Grammy-nominated vocalist): I personally hate it when auto-tune is used so strongly that an artist cannot reproduce the album in a live setting. Recording is a completely different game than live. It’s hard to explain until you have sat in that hot seat. I believe the purpose of recording is to capture a sound–not to create one. I know many would disagree with that statement. But that is why we have a bunch of producers doing the art, instead of artists/singer songwriters doing the art. I can say that "Where The Past Meets Today" was recorded without any fixes from auto-tune, thanks to the amazing Mike Clink (producer, who did the first 5 Guns ‘N Roses albums, which sold more than 90 million copies worldwide). Bottom line–use whatever makes the artist sound like he or she sounds live. And if you can’t do it live–GO HOME!.

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Tyler Pittman (Columbia Records): As a music industry professional I recognize the prevalence of technology in today’s recording, such as auto-tune and Pro Tools, doing what it does best, which is to help facilitate the recording process. However, auto-tune is an enabler to what we are becoming, a Karaoke industry.  The overwhelming success of platforms like Rock Band and Guitar Hero finds all of this accepted in today’s music world.  This unfairly cheapens the professional singer, as every recording will now forever be suspect. During a recent in-store performance with Mike Farris, one of my artists, a store clerk came up to me and expressed his amazement that Mike could actually sing like that—the clerk assumed that the “vocals” had been auto-tuned in a studio to be that good.  That brought this whole issue back home to me. For his upcoming live record we are purposely leaving the few little vocal flubs in to keep it real and to prove that good singers do exist and should be respected for their talent. 

Josh Reedy (Grammy-nominated vocalist, Decemberadio): Autotune…..aahhh, this little program always has a negative nostalgia attached to it.  Auto-tune is ok, in the right application.  Has auto-tune ever been used on my voice?  The answer is yes–but not actually autotuning my voice.  The program has a graphical mode that tracks and analyzes every note that’s hit or not hit and then the user CHOOSES how much to correct a note.  So it is possible for auto-tune to be used on a vocal track with only a few notes that have been pitch corrected.  Now, some producers/artists use the program as an effect/cop-out for not being able to carry a tune in a wheelbarrow—and I can’t stand that.  Where I do like it, for example is on a tune like "California Love" by 2Pac and Dr. Dre.   The auto-tuned hook sounds cool, but isn’t used throughout the entire song.  There is also a good bit of harmony on that chorus, so the dude that sang it, stacked the harmonies, therefore providing evidence of his vocal talent.  But generally, the Kanye & T-Pain thing is not my cup of tea.  As far as pop/rock music goes, you ask the question, "is auto-tune overused in some situations"? Yes.  But no one’s perfect and believe it or not, I do hit a bad note here and there.  So if the performance is killer but there’s one sour note, just fix her baby.  

Luke Bushias (Guitarist for the currently unsigned/self financed Chicago band Made Avail): Right now, it’s trendy to say that technology in recording is bad. But if it weren’t for advancing technology, albums would still sound sonically the same as the early Beatles material. Just like almost every artist records on Pro Tools, almost every artist uses auto-tune at some point, it’s an industry standard. It’s a tool, just like you’d tune a guitar or eq a vocal.  I have used auto-tune in on my guitar parts, but only to change a single chord out of the entire song.  That being said, however, it’s sad to see people who haven’t mastered their craft being “fixed” by software.  If you can’t hold a beat, you shouldn’t play drums in a band.  If you can’t sing well, you shouldn’t sing in a band. In my opinion, a “raw” sound is just better anyway. I’d rather hear passion than perfect pitch

-Seth "tower" Hurd can be heard on Chicago’s 89.7 Shine.FM, and 101.7 FUSE FM in Saginaw, Michigan.

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