Autotune

June 1, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

One of the more famous plugins available to recording artists is called autotune. Autotune allows a singer or instrumentalist’s pitch to be adjusted to perfection.

Is it cheating?

Many would say it is. They want the singer to hit the right note and if they can’t then either try harder, get a singing lesson, or leave it in.

I wonder about that.

What about visual manipulation? Is it cheating to crank up the color saturation of a photo?

In my days as a photographer, I went through a number of phases. One of those phases was what I called my Ansel Adam’s purist’s period. From what I knew about Adams he was a purist. He lugged around a big view camera and waited for the light to be just right. Only then did he shoot his picture. I did the same thing for years.

What he captured was pure. Until I learned it wasn’t.

Turned out Adams was also a master in the darkroom. There are books written about his techniques to save images or enhance what he had captured.

In the same vein, I wonder if I wouldn’t be happier to hear the perfect note even if it took a little manipulation to get there.

If the music carries enough emotion to connect with me I really don’t care how it got there.

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49 comments on “Autotune”

  1. Shouldn’t you stop comparing apples with oranges, Paul, when permanently comparing still photography with “highly dynamic” music (varying in time)? Not to mention the different types of data reduction schemes used for both, digital photography and recording of music, but comparing the sound (aural) images of stereo with (visual) images you should at least focus on a video system for stereoscopy where you have as many video beamers as you have individual drivers in a loudspeaker. Everybody will doubt that there will ever be a perfect result. And now explain the analogy of multi-miking for capturing a 3D- video! 🙂

  2. I’m conflicted on this one.
    I also don’t care what process(‘s) is (are) used to get a recording to sound brilliant
    to my ears, however to my mind ‘Autotune’ is a loaded word, & not in a good way.
    If you are not accomplished enough to hit the right notes when you sing, then may-
    be you should go & sell used cars instead…that means you ‘Ye’ aka Kanye West.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwT5bofyyNg

  3. Paul’s post today makes me think about the older days of recording where by digital manipulation wasn’t even a thing. I think of the song “Have a Cigar” by Pink Floyd.
    Roger Waters tried like hell to sing the way he envisioned the vocals lyrics to sound, but in the end he just couldn’t reach that pitch and the song vocally just sounded flat to him and of course the rest of the band.
    At the time of Recording WYWH at Abbey Road, a solid vocalists happened to be just a few recording booths down. His name was Roy Harper and Pink Floyd nabbed him to sing Have a Cigar and the guy bloody well nailed it in one take!!
    The song, Have a Cigar, to me is an absolute classic and to be in line with Paul’s post, Pink Floyd got the real thing when they needed help. No auto tune. No nothing. Just another guy who happened to have the right pitch and range in his voice to Nail a song. 🙂

    Now if WYWH was recorded today, A song like Have a Cigar wouldn’t have sounded the way it ultimately does. It is just a pure recording. No digital MIDI /pro tools. Nothing. Just the raw beauty and you can’t overtake that. 🙂

    1. The Rolling Stones did something similar with the song “Gimme Shelter” and Merry Clayton. The found the right singer for the notes that were needed.

      1. And that is a timeless, wonderfully well recorded song. Terrific example, Tony.
        I’m a guy who loves everything, but I really do favor the purest approach to recording music. To my ears, it sounds the best. Take for example pretty much the entire discography of The Alan Parsons Project. It sounds incredible. The mixes were never doctored up too much. Sounds great. 🙂

    2. Thanks for that behind the scenes for “Have a Cigar”. David Gilmour also teamed up with Roy Harper on his first solo record for the cut “Short and Sweet”. Roy has some amazing lyrical and song writing talent on his own material as well.

      I’m with you. If you can’t sing properly find another job and autotune usually sounds so obviously wrong to me I say “no thanks”.

      1. Exactly. 🙂

        For those who have been critically listening for long enough with decent, somewhat revealing equipment are usually not auto tune fans.
        Kinda makes me think of fast food burger advertisements. The pictures look so great, but when you actually order the burger it looks like a fat guy sat on it. I honestly feel it is that drastic of a difference, especially since with a lot of modern music auto tune is not used liberally. Sadly.

  4. Hi – as a photographer I get analogy wery well. Problem of any modification is amount – how much is too much? Lot of auto-tuned voices are like robot voices. Except where it is a goal of the mod to sound like a Cher. Too much out of tune is also bad. I am sensitive to out of tune a lot but lately I found I like late records of Adele or Lana del Rey because of some out of tune places, which soud to me more authentical. Like not perfecly tuned piano makes atmosphere of some small smoky bar for me 😀
    // no spell control or translation helper, sorry 🙂

  5. “You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish”

    Recording manipulation. You either like it, are indifferent to it, or hate it. Manipulation happens quite often in the recording process.

    I guess your feelings about any given recording, mixing, & mastering technique depends on where you stand and how much you want to nit pick and point out differences / faults.

    Then again isn’t the audiophile credo something like… “Always Judge… Always Find Something Incorrect”

      1. Thanks FR 😉

        It would be interesting to know where you put “autotune” in the process. I would assume it happens somewhere in the mixing / mastering process. Maybe not initially in one of the many tracks when they were initially recorded?

  6. There is a gentleman named Fil who posts YouTube videos under “Wings of Pegasus”. He recently compared an original Queen studio song with a newly re-issued version of the same song where the label had chosen to autotune Freddie Mercury’s voice, title “I can’t BELIEVE Queen’s record label AUTO TUNED Freddie Mercury!?!” I know what I think about the difference, but I suggest that you take a listen and judge for yourself.

    And, as a photographer I get the comparison as I get to make a decision about how I edit my photos. Do I make a color more saturated; do I remove an errant branch from a tree, etc. I also was privledged to attend a lecture by Ansel Adams in 1972 where he explained his approach to printing his photos and how he manipulated the light from the enlarger in order to achieve his vision of the scene.

    As always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder or listener…

    Cheers,
    Bob

    1. I do a lot of work with LED’s. I have found that some eyes accentuate certain colors like yellow and diminish ability between red and orange (color spectral wavelength). Indeed it is in the eyes of the beholder.

  7. If you’re going out of your way to capture the “perfect sound” through the optimum choice of microphones, preamplifiers, cables, recording medium, and so forth, if you then put it through a crude bit of DSP like autotune (I don’t mean technically crude … autotune is technically highly sophisticated) you are pretty much throwing away all the benefits you went to so much trouble to obtain.

  8. Yes, it is cheating…
    It is however a tool that “fixes errors”. I am not against tools that fix things and agree with others here that we want to be entertained. Its hard to be entertained when pitch is flat or sharp. I cringe when I hear it. Might as well scrape your nails on a chalk board.

  9. I’m reminded of Cbristopher Burkett.
    In our motorcycle rides through Oregon, and Jil’s contacts with a small gallery in Canon Beach, WA, we came to know this artist.
    His artistry happened well before the current state of digital photography’swild tools.

    We have a larger, signed piece called “Resplendent Leaves”. His individual and personal handling of each piece is a great story. He was a light master in the field and the darkroom.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Burkett

    https://www.christopherburkett.com/

    Re: auto-tune… a mixed bag. I like some pop stuff, but would I purchase it?
    And with any tool, the judicious use is the key. Any effect – be it a guitar effect or studio ‘manipulation’ – has a saturation control, and it may be fun to experiment with, should usually be used sparingly.

    I “inherited” some CDs and vinyl years ago… I literally just disposed of some CDs, and the Boy George one acts as a shade where the sun hits a part of the storage 😉

  10. I love the Beach Boys “That’s Why God Made The Radio” album. Over on the Steve Hoffman forum someone pointed out that there was a lot of Autotune on it and if you listen for it, you can hear it. Now that I go back and listen I think I can hear it, and you can’t “unhear” it — So is it spoiled for me? I’m not sure….

  11. My experience has been that headphones and stage monitors are the biggest cause of intonation problems. You merely need to cup your hands over your ears to hear the pitch go up! As the volume goes up, the perceived intervals shrink compounding the problem while playing the recording back at normal levels.

    We screw up intonation and then try to fix it with signal processing and editing. I’ve been rolling my eyes about the utter stupidity of this issue for 50 years!

    As for AutoTune (which I usually refer to as Out-A-Tuna,) it often screws up the vowel placement and phrasing. The test is to watch your breath as you sing along.

  12. This reminds me of the song Laugh Laugh by the Beau Brummels. The harmonica player clearly hit a wrong note at the end of a phrase. It’s what I heard everytime the song was played. I just listened to it on YouTube and the mistake has magically been “fixed”. Honestly, I miss the error that happened way back then during a most likely rushed recording session.

    1. A wrong note can usually be resolved with a right note and the listener thinks it was supposed to be there. Dominate chords (Dominate 7th for example) even though part of the scale sound wrong when “going home” but catch your attention – It sounded wrong – until it was resolved and it sounded right. Heavy Metal Randy Rhoads was a student of classical music. He made mistakes quite often but you would never know it. You thought he was playing an Mixolydian Mode scale. He is one of thousands. I just picked on him because decades ago I copied his mistakes note for note.

  13. Autotune, the performance enhancing plugindrug.

    Autotune is like plastic surgery, when done delicately and strategically it can really correct minor flaws or enhance features. But in both cases they are getting WAY overused until the outcome is a laughable hideous mess. Loose lips sink ships but THOSE monstrous butt-fat injected lips & hips won’t even fit through your state room cabin door! When you get the + 250% lip treatment, does it come with a lifetime supply of involuntary slobber rags? “Smile!!!” “I AM schmiling!”

    What I can’t figure – just when you thought RAP couldn’t get any worse – the gawd-awful RAPPERS even use auotoune. Even the abhorrent mumble rap. Um, you’re NOT EVEN SINGING and you STILL need a vocal bandaid?? RAP… 37 swear words, 4 violent deaths and continual blatant sexual brutality per song is acceptable public broadcast but “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has got to go??? C’mon… Sorry – do NOT like (c)RAP.

    Now I am not poo-pooing autotune altogether, I read that even vocal greats like Celine Dion will have it ready on hand during concerts to delicately revive pitchy notes that MIGHT occur after several grueling shows. And with her amazing performances, I’ll certainly give that a pass.

    All I can say is I bet the great artists out there who sang a thousand concerts and dozens of albums in the past utilizing just their skill who must really dislike autotune….

    1. Well said and I think your take on today’s rap is absolutely bang on.
      It is not even close to the hiphop gods of the 80’s and 90’s. I look at groups like Grand Master Flash, Public Enemy and The D.O.C and the apple has certainly fallen far from the tree. :(. Also it I may say, the fidelity of those artists I mentioned have incredible sounding CDs.

      🙂

  14. Good golly. Nearly everything we see or hear in media is tuned to make it look or sound better. Why not music? In movies streets are sprayed with water to make them photograph better. Food is sprayed with vegetable oil for that fresh, tasty look. Films are hue-adjusted so outdoor scenes can be shot on cloudy days and still look sunny. Commercials are often produced with voiceovers, because the actors’ real voices aren’t right. Fight scenes have added impact sounds that would never be that loud, crunchy and thuddy in real life. Whatever it takes to impress and please your audience. Go for it.

    Speaking of tuned, that chipmunk, groundhog or whatever it is in the photo is HUGE, if the microphone and hat are normal scale. But we don’t care. We love it.

      1. Carlin was a piece of cake.

        Quoting Carlin: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”

        1. Carlin brings a lot of sense to the table. His books are terrific as well. Easily my favorite comedian and can call out stupid people who deserve to be hit over the head with large mining equipment. 😉

  15. I have close to perfect pitch assessment. When someone sings off key it literally makes me cringe. I’ll take tweaking adjustment anyway. When I used to play fiddle along with a record player, it was much easier to adjust the pitch on the turntable than retune my instrument. It was clear that the mastering engineer had already manipulated the music. Tuning forks never lie.

  16. We live in an era of the great fake. Politicians produce “alternative facts”: nations make up outrageous excuses to invade other countries; increasing numbers of women choose to be surgically “enhanced”.

    There’s no reason why music – especially popular music – should lag behind the rest of society.

    Fake on.

    Oh – for those of you who’re deeply committed to the fake – and just can’t get enough – I’ve got something super special for you–> fake money. Just send me your real money, and I’ll respond by delightedly sending you fake money. Lot’s of it. Goes great with Autotune and alternative facts.

    Rock on.

    1. My neighbor sells firewood. He has ~700 acres. He has one price if paid in silver money and another much higher price if paid with paper money. I don’t think he even wants to accept paper money…

  17. Basically, pitching and pocketing music via AutoTune takes all the humanity out of a song.

    So if you’re listening as background or dance music, it really makes no difference.

    If you’re listening because you emotionally connect with the performer, as is the case for many audiophiles, AutoTune destroys the song.

    https://youtu.be/OVOLL–7bSg

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