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I’ve often recorded a vocal part where the performance was great, apart from just a couple of notes that are not quite in tune. In this situation, using an autotune tool to correct those wavering notes would seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. So why do so many people consider autotune to be bad?
Autotune is considered bad as it can make vocals sound unnatural. As it uses software algorithms to reduce natural human pitch variations, it can suppress emotions in a vocal. Autotune also adds the temptation to settle for a subpar vocal performance, and rely on it to correct pitch post-recording.
It’s important to note that not everyone considers autotune to be bad. There are actually several ways to use it, and there are many opinions about these and when they are appropriate. This article takes a look at the reasons why autotune is considered bad by some, and goes on to examine its different applications and how they are perceived.
Remember, if you want to get the best vocal recording you will need to use a pop filter. Check out this guide on when you do and when you don’t need to use a pop filter. You will get the lowdown on exactly what they do, when you need to use one, and best practice for using one correctly.
If you are interested in checking out the best recording gear such as audio interfaces, studio monitor speakers, microphones, etc., you can find them at Amazon by clicking here.
What is autotune?
First things first; what exactly are we talking about when we refer to autotune?
In general, autotune or pitch correction is software that can process a recorded melody to adjust the pitch of the notes in the melody. This could be used to “fix” out-of-tune notes, or to change a note to a different pitch entirely. The pitch can be corrected automatically, or by manually specifying the desired pitches in the software’s user interface.
There is further confusion in that the product Auto-Tune® is a pitch correction software product made by a company called Antares. This was the first auto-tune product available, first released back in 1997, and is still the most well-known.
The term “autotune” has come to mean auto-tuning or pitch correction software in general. That is how I use the term in this article. The software product Auto-Tune® is one example of an autotune software application. There are many more available, both paid and free. Here are a few examples…
Why is autotune bad?
Getting notes to be in-tune is a good thing, isn’t it?
Well yes, it is, in general terms. The problem is with exactly how those notes are made to be in tune, and the associated consequences with those methods. Here are the reasons why the use of autotune can be considered bad…
Auto-tuned vocals can sound unnatural
Autotune uses software algorithms to quickly change the current pitch of a note to the desired pitch. This is not something a human being can do, therefore it tends to sound quite unnatural, even robotic.
For a more detailed look at why you get the “robotic” effect with autotune, I highly recommend reading my why autotune sounds robotic article.
This may actually be the style you are going for. A lot of modern pop music uses this style as a creative choice. Some people hate that sound, which is one reason autotune is considered to be a bad thing.
This sound tends to lend itself to some genres more than others. Modern pop and EDM immediately spring to mind, where the very compressed and processed nature of the productions mean the unnatural robotic sound does not sound out of place.
In other genres, it can sound out-of-place and quite grating. In rock for example, where a lot of the passion comes from the vocal, it can sound very flat, sterile and disconcerting when the robotic autotune sound is used.
There are other things you can do to help reduce pitching errors. One obvious one is to record multiple takes, then take the best bits of each take. You could replace an out-of-tune note from a different take. Check out my article entitled should you record vocals in one take to learn about the different approaches to multiple vocal takes, and to help find a method that works for you.
Minor pitch variations give vocals their character
Minor variations or “errors” in musical performances are what gives them their human quality, their emotion and feeling. Small errors in timing, phrasing and indeed pitch all contribute to this character. This is the difference between a computer playing the part, and a human.
Human beings are not supposed to be 100% in-tune all the time. That is actually physically impossible; we are not androids. Therefore, anytime we hear a human being 100% in-tune, it can sound quite sterile, devoid of emotion and un-human.
If we listen to some 70s rock; Bon Scott from AC/DC or Freddie Mercury of Queen for example, both fantastic singers in their own right. They were never 100% in-tune all the time, and you can find examples where their pitching was all over the place. But they sound fantastic; full of character, with very memorable vocal performances. It is this character that we risk losing by tuning every note to be spot-on.
Whatever style of vocal you are going for, you will need a good microphone. Fortunately, you do not have to spend a lot of money to get a high-quality mic. Check out my article on why the good old Shure SM58 is a great recording microphone. I’ve been using one to record vocals in my home studio for years, with great results.
Autotune encourages laziness and poor performances
The use of autotune can increase the temptation to settle for a subpar performance from your singer, whether that is you or someone else. If a take has significant tuning issues, it is tempting to resort to your autotune plugin to correct the pitch, rather than get your singer to perform another take.
This is not the way to record a great track, containing a memorable vocal performance. If you start to get lazy with pitching, then you are probably going to get lazy with other things. You might settle for a less passionate performance, a lack of emotion, dynamics or expression.
All the things that draw a listener in with a great vocal could be reduced to the level of it sounding bland or sterile. Which leads nicely on to…
Autotune can kill the emotion in a vocal
We have already mentioned the minor variations, or “errors” if you prefer in a performance give it the human element. It is not desirable to remove these variations, as they are what provides the emotion, the feeling and the passion.
If all these human elements are removed, you might as well get a computer to sing the song. Music, like all art, is all about provoking an emotional response. Take the human element away from the performances, and there will be no emotion left in the song to provoke a response in your listener.
Think of a simple vocal expressive technique such as a glissando. This is where you slide smoothly from one note to another. If you have an autotune plugin altering every note to be exactly on-pitch, the glissando won’t be a smooth slide, but a sequence of steps. The expressive choice of the singer will have been completely destroyed.
Perfect vocals are boring and uninteresting
All the imperfections, the little errors, and the unique timbre of each voice combine to form the character of a singer and their performances. It is these together that let us recognize individual vocalists’ styles, and develop our favorites.
There are many, many incredibly successful singers who do not have so-called “perfect” voices. You would not describe them as having a great voice in the classic sense, but they still sound fantastic and have sold millions of records between them. Their voices are interesting, in part because they are unusual and not classically “great”.
Here are a few examples off the top of my head…
- David Bowie
- Billie Holliday
- Neil Young
- Lou Reed
- Bob Dylan
- Janis Joplin
All of these singers are renowned for passionate, emotion-filled performances that have stood the test of time. Imagine if all their recordings had their lead vocal autotuned. They would sound dull, flat, and devoid of the individual’s character that made them great in the first place.
Perfect is boring! A vocal can hit all the notes spot-on and actually sound quite dull. A strong characterful, emotive performance that is not perfectly hitting every note spot-on, is much more interesting and compelling to listen to.
There are many things that ruin a take when recording vocals, not just pitching errors. One common issue is distortion. That’s why I wrote my article on how to prevent distortion in your vocal recordings. It’s essential reading if you are recording singing in your home studio and want to get the best quality sound possible.
Autotune can make a great performance worse
It sounds counter-intuitive, but auto-tuning a vocal performance so all the notes are perfectly in tune can actually make it sound worse than it did before.
With all the tools we have available in our home studios today, the temptation is to tinker and tinker until there is nothing left of the original recording. Often, the best course of action is to leave well alone, and leave the rawness of the original performance that was captured to disk.
The mentality “Oh I’ll just correct that note slightly” is where this attitude begins. Then you correct another note, then another, then another. Before you know it, you have nothing of the original great performance left. All the rawness, the heart and soul the singer gave you has been edited out, leaving an empty shell.
Another very common cause of sub-par performances is nervousness. It is tempting to try and compensate for nervous tuning errors with auto-tune, which is rarely advisable. That’s why I wrote an article on how to reduce nerves for vocalists. It gives you tips on reducing so-called “red-light fever” and nerves to help singers give the best performance they are capable of.
Can ruin enjoyment of pre-autotune music
Recorded music has been around for almost 150 years. Autotune has only been around for the last 25 of those years. So there is a lot of music recorded with all the vocal pitching imperfections left in there.
Every classic song released up until 1997 managed fine without autotune, including many fantastic vocal recordings. Think Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”, Etta James “At Last” or Freddie Mercury on Queen’s “Somebody to Love”. Most people would agree that these are absolute classic, emotion-filled, passionate, timeless performances.
If you have grown up listening to mainly autotuned pop music released since the late nineties, your ears and brain will have become accustomed to a certain style of vocal presentation. This includes vocals that have had their pitches corrected to the point where every note is exactly in tune.
This can mean that when you listen to some of those classic old recordings, the vocals sound “wrong”. Because you are used to the “perfect” vocal sound, when you hear the natural variations in pitch that a real human voice has, it is disconcerting. It can spoil those classic songs for you.
I would argue that it is actually the autotuned-to-death vocals that sound “wrong”. Listen to a good singer live in a room with no tricks; that is how a vocal should sound.
Autotune can make everyone sound the same
I’m sure, like me, that you have your favorite singers. The tone and timbre of their individual voice, their style, their phrasing, their timing, all contribute to how that singer sounds. And indeed their pitch, where most likely they will be in-tune when they need to be, but their vocals will also be peppered with tuning variations adding character to their performances.
All the singers I have previously mentioned in this article are instantly recognizable, with their own very distinctive styles.
Autotune extracts some of this individuality by eliminating those signature pitching variations. This brings everyone’s sound much closer together, making it more difficult to tell the difference between them and identify their individual styles. Some of the artistic character that gives each singer their distinctive sound and makes each singer unique has been removed.
If I listen to some modern pop tracks where the voice has been very heavily autotuned, I have difficulty telling the difference between some of the singers. You may be saying “ok, boomer!” at this point (actually I’m Generation X), but it is a real concern. You will never persuade me that those modern productions have the character of pre-autotune pop recordings.
There are many ways to change the character of a vocal performance. One of the easiest to do is to change the position of the singer. Check out these articles for more information on how to alter the character of vocal by simply changing where or how the vocalist is positioned…
When is it OK to use pitch correction?
Given all the negativity about using autotune in this article, you may be thinking I am completely against its use. I am not! In fact, I do use autotune plugins myself from time to time. But I am very selective and careful about exactly how and when I use it.
Here are the situations where I think it is ok to use autotune and pitch correction…
To subtly correct pitch in an otherwise great take
Imagine you have recorded a great vocal take, full of passion, emotion and dynamics. Generally the pitching is very good, but there are just one or two notes that stick out as being quite out-of-tune. These notes spoil the otherwise excellent performance.
In this type of situation, I think it’s absolutely fine to use autotune to correct the pitch of the offending notes. You are not autotuning the whole take; just the couple of notes that need it. This way, you retain all the character and feeling of the original performance, but cure the jarring out-of-tune notes.
The alternative is to record another take. This is fine, but every performance is different, and you may never capture the emotion of the original performance. That’s why as long as you are only correcting a small number of pitching errors subtly, I think it’s fine to use autotune in this scenario.
Using autotune is very often part of the mixing process. As a side note, I have also written a beginners guide to mixing in general. I highly recommended you check it out if you are new to mixing. It clears up some of the confusion novice mixers often have, and helps you avoid some common mixing pitfalls.
As a creative tool
Autotune can be used creatively, rather than just to fix pitching errors.
You may remember Cher’s song “Believe“, released in 1998. This was one of the first (if not the first) songs to use autotune in a creative manner. The lead vocal is deliberately made to sound like a robot, which is very distinctive and led in part to the success of the song.
To use autotune creatively in this manner is a great use of the tool. It adds a distinctive touch and hook to the song that would not have been there otherwise.
On instruments other than the human voice
Any melody line can be processed by autotune, not just vocals. Sometimes these lines can benefit from having their tuning fixed.
I’ll use an example from my own recording history. In my song “Filtered” from my Smile! EP, there is a guitar solo. In this solo, one of the string bends I played didn’t quite hit the target note I was going for. I was otherwise very pleased with the solo, and I didn’t want to record it again and risk capturing a worse performance.
So I broke out the autotune plugin, and used it just on that offending note to raise the pitch up to the target note. I will happily justify that use of autotune, as it is improving the part without destroying any of the character of the original performance.
When you want that modern pop vocal sound
If you want that modern pop very precisely tuned, 100% spot-on pitch sound in your vocal, the only way to achieve that is to use an autotune plugin. If you are making a conscious, creative decision that your song requires that type of vocal, then go for it!
Is pitch correction the same as Autotune?
Autotune and pitch correction are the same thing. They both refer to software that can change the pitch of notes, either automatically or by manually editing them in the software’s user interface. Antares Auto-Tune® is an example of a proprietary autotune software plugin.
Is using autotune/pitch correction cheating?
As a general rule, using autotune or pitch correction software is not cheating. It is simply using a tool to improve a recording, much like you might use reverb or compression. It could be interpreted as cheating if you resort to autotuning every note in a very out-of-tune subpar vocal performance.
Here is some of my favorite home studio gear…
Thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful in your home music-making activities. Here are a few of the tools that I personally use in my home studio. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them I’ll earn a small commission.
Audio interface: My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years, and they have always given me great-sounding recordings. For a very reasonable price from Amazon you can buy the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, or if you don’t need MIDI capability the Focusrite Solo is a great choice.
Amp sim: Guitar amplifier simulator software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, such that I record all my electric guitar parts using amp sims these days. One of the very best is the incredible Amplitube from IK Multimedia, which I have used on many of my songs.
Headphones for recording: My favorite headphones for recording are the Sony MDR-7506s, which I use for monitoring during all my recording sessions. They can also be found in many pro recording studios. Get the Sony MDR-7506 headphones from Amazon here.
General-purpose microphone: You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ Shure SM-57, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous microphones around. I’ve been using one in my home studio for as long as I can remember. Amazon offers the Shure SM-57 for a very competitive price.
To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you!