Skip around Spotify today (or the radio, if you‘re old school), and you’ll hear some amazing records, performed by famous artists. In many cases, these artists are genuinely talented musicians.
In more than a few cases, not so much.
If you haven’t been living under a rock, then you’re probably familiar with Auto-Tune. Simply put, Auto-Tune is an amazing software plugin that can correct slightly (or not so slightly) out of tune performances in the studio. (And now in live performances as well.) It’s so magical that it can make mediocre but entertaining performers appear to be competent and entertaining performers.
But Auto-Tune isn’t just for correcting slightly out of tune performances any more. From the contralto warbling of Cher on “Believe” to the purposefully electronic strains of T-Pain to the godawful Meth-Country of Florida Georgia Line, producers and artists are increasingly using Auto-Tune in a deliberately ham-handed way, as if to mechanize the very soul of modern music.
Sadly, many consumers think it’s cool. So producers produce more of it. And more people expect that sound.
Sometimes it’s subtle, but from Country to Pop to Rap, you can hear that metallic whine.
We use Auto-Tune now even when we don’t have to. I could point to a number of male and female stars who are actually great singers. And still they’re autotuned, as best I can tell simply because record labels expect that sound. The mechanical sound of perfection, the sound of a clockwork orange.
Perhaps it’s not so strange, then, to learn that this omnipresent, indispensable but dangerous technology is a byproduct…of the oil industry.
True story: In the 1990s, Exxon engineer Andy Hildebrand was looking for oil. Specifically, he was looking for a way to analyze seismic data to help locate the precious fluid. Somehow, he had the realization that his oil-finding algorithms could also analyze and adjust audio data.
And a movement was born.
Auto-Tune was released in 1997, and was intended to correct minor imperfections in vocal performances. The release of Cher’s “Believe” in 1998, however, alerted producers to what could be done by setting the plugin to its most aggressive setting. (T-Pain, you’re welcome.)
(Auto-Tune® is actually a proprietary technology by Antares. There are other competitors like Celemony’s Melodyne®, but Antares has managed to become the Xerox of music software.)
Most people use “autotune” not only to mean any brand of pitch correction that can turn a horrific howler into a competent crooner, but as a verb as well. Sure it sucks, but let’s just autotune the shit out of it.
Recording artists tacitly acknowledge the plusses and minuses of the technology. In 2009, Christina Aguilera famously sported a t-shirt that said, “Auto-Tune is for Pussies,” only to backtrack later by saying it was okay if used “in a creative way,” and acknowledging that one of her songs uses it. (Just one? Really?)
So even artists who shouldn’t need the Auto-Tune treatment routinely receive it anyway.
Sometimes it’s laziness or hubris. We don’t need to keep fucking around with this line, we can autotune it. Other times it’s the aforementioned sound. (What robot ate Adam Levine?)
I’m no Luddite. On the debut album for Timothy P. Green I used, as usual, whatever tools necessary to achieve the sound I heard in my head. That sound, however, was not the sound of a cyborg singing, but of a human being. A man with a personality.
I totally get that it’s hypocritical to quibble with using these plugins. Like almost every other producer alive, I use all manner of digital wizardry to create and share music. Since Pro Tools et al. brought us digital non-destructive nonlinear editing, the quaint idea of recording a pure, linear well-rehearsed performance has gone the way of the cassette tape and the rotary telephone.
And from a production standpoint, these innovations aren’t all bad. This is the Digital Convergence, after all. We are blessed to live in a time where artists and producers with shallow pockets but great ideas can ignore the traditional gatekeepers and share their wares with the world — instantly.
Where musicians in the past learned to sing, or play the piano or guitar (or, god forbid, drums), a growing number of musicians today are learning to play the studio. In their living rooms and basements, they are experimenting and learning the rudiments and finer points of Pro Tools, Ableton Live and Logic.
And that’s not a bad thing.
Modern records, like movies, are an illusion: A piece of art cobbled together from multiple takes and edited to present a facsimile of a performance or event in a virtual space. Digital tools have indeed given us the ability to play the media, and there are some masterful media artists and producers out there.
Heck, I collect all the gadgetry and plugins I can get my hands on. I actually enjoy electronic music. I make electronic music, among other things. I just don’t like to keep hearing the same gimmick. And I hate to hear the parts that should smell human — like the lead vocal, for example — keep getting the soul sucked right out of them, like a svelte woman with low self esteem getting liposuction anyway.
So I pray to my iLok dongle that this burgeoning movement dies. Before it’s too late. So we can still release recordings of living, breathing performances that somebody gives a shit about.
Popular music, by definition, is about expectations. If producers keep producing munchkin music, listeners will grow accustomed to it and expect more of it.
Auto-Tune is a great tool to help produce and distribute higher quality music more easily and quickly — especially for indie artists. But real performances have a sound.
And it’s not the sound of being autotuned to death.
When two instruments play the same note, there is a slight beating between the two of them, depending on how in tune or out of tune they are. The more out of tune, the faster the beating. The more in tune, the slower the beating — but the beating is always there to some extent because real instruments and voices are never perfect.
I’m not saying this entirely goes away when a track is autotuned — heck, I’m not even saying I understand what’s going on — but some kind of electronic hammering and stretching goes on when tracks are aggressively autotuned.
And it’s horrible.
As human musicians, we struggle to perform as perfectly as possible…but the inability to be mathematically, robotically perfect is what’s beautiful.
At the same time autotuning is strangling popular music, other plugin manufacturers are trying to make virtual instrument plugins with more imperfections, to emulate the divine breath of acoustic instruments, or even the slight imperfections of early analog synthesizers.
So am I recommending everyone give up Auto-Tune and Melodyne and whatever other pitch correction plugins they might be using?
No. I just hope they can be used with more discretion. To help bring high quality but human performances to the public. Otherwise, I shudder to think what popular music will sound like in a decade. I can only hope that the aggressive use of autotuning will turn out to be what it should be — a gimmick — and that more people will demand performers who can actually put out.
But in the age of the Kardashians and Kanye, I don’t hold out much hope.
I’m far from a Folk junkie, but jesus, bring me a mandolin! Or an accordion, or a kalimba. Something with a little imperfection in it. Something that smells human. And for god’s sake, will somebody please pull a Pied Piper on Florida Georgia Line and lead them into an unmapped swamp with a six pack of Budweiser?
Yes, I am one of those guys who “plays” the studio like an instrument.
But some days, I’d rather just be a better singer.
Bradford Rogers is an explorer, entrepreneur, musician, sailor, writer and producer.
You can hear his latest record with Timothy P. Green at www.TimothyPGreen.com