By Steve Savage
Originally made famous as a special effect on Cher’s “Believe,” Auto-Tune — the program that can fix the pitch of a singer — has received a lot of bad press. A recent piece in Time magazine blamed it as the central reason “why pop is in a pretty serious lull at the moment” and listed it in its “50 Worst Inventions.” There have been demonstrations at the Grammy’s against Auto-Tune as though it was to blame for the onslaught of formulaic pop (2009, Death Cab for Cutie). Jay-Z had a hit with the anti-Auto-Tune song “D.O.A (Death of Auto-Tune),” despite its widespread use by fellow rap artists from T-Pain to Kanye West.
The same technological determinism has condemned every new music technology from the player piano to multi-track tape recorders to synthesizers and drum machines. Many thought recording itself contained the seeds of destruction for live music.
As a recording professional, I see Auto-Tune primarily is a tool that allows for the occasional pitch fixing of a small part of a vocal performance. Before Auto-Tune I had numerous debates with singers about a particular phrase that I felt was especially emotional and effective but had one slightly sharp or flat element. I’d say “But the performance is great! No one is going to notice that tiny pitch issue.” Often the singer “just can’t live with that line” so we’d record it again. (We’ve been fixing pitch in vocal performances by re-recording for a long time.) However, when we’d re-record the line, invariably it wouldn’t be quite as emotional or expressive, but it would be more in tune. The singer would be satisfied and I’d be disappointed. Now, thanks to Auto-Tune, I can pitch fix the little problem and save that great performance.
Additionally, Auto-Tune is harangued as special effect or as an obvious effect on a vocal. From the robotic vocorder effect to flanged vocals, from “telephone” vocals to vocals with a lot of repeating echoes, we’ve been creating obvious effects on vocals for a long time. Vocal effects are fun. They can be creative and expressive, or they can be overdone and clichéd, but they are hardly new.
Auto-Tune is sometimes used to fix an entire vocal performance, rendering it more accurately in tune than is natural. This may indeed make for a slightly less emotional performance, but it may also make for a slightly more engaging performance. It doesn’t rob the vocal of most of its expressive qualities: dynamics, vibrato, timbre, etc. It’s just a slight refinement and often just a matter of taste — not a wholesale destruction of musical expression.
New technologies allow for new forms of creativity. They are essential to the process of renewal, to the seeds of inspiration. Abused, used poorly, tried as shortcuts rather than creative outlets — these faults lie with user. Nevertheless, McLuhan taught us that “the medium is the message.” If Auto-Tune is inherently bad then you have to argue that recording is inherently bad. One may argue that there have been negative effects of recording — the professionalization of music performance, for example — but I’d say the scale falls heavily in favor of recording as a cultural gift, and Auto-Tune as well.
Steve Savage is an expert in the art of digital audio technology and has been the primary engineer on seven records that received Grammy nominations (including Robert Cray, John Hammond Jr., The Gospel Hummingbirds and Elvin Bishop). He also teaches musicology at San Francisco State University. Savage holds a Ph.D. in music and has two current books that frame his work as a practitioner and as a researcher. The Art of Digital Audio Recording: A Practical Guide for Home and Studio from Oxford University Press is the result of 10 years of teaching music production and 20 years of making records. Bytes & Backbeats: Repurposing Music in the Digital Age from The University of Michigan Press uses his personal recording experiences to comment on the evolution of music in the computer age.