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Auto-Tune, and why we shouldn’t be surprised Britney can’t sing

Britney Spears preforms live … Why are the pundits so incensed by her turning to Auto-Tune in the studio? STR/EPA

Put Britney Spears into a YouTube search and the third auto-fill on the list is “Britney Spears without Autotune”. Auto-Tune has become the music industry equivalent of doping in the Tour de France circa 2005; we know everyone’s doing it, but we still have a sense of surprise and outrage when it becomes public.

In the last week or so a video has surfaced of the pop singer Britney Spears – with examples of her vocal before and after processing. Whether or not the “before” version is actually the raw material for the “after” version is difficult to say.

What’s not difficult to say is that the “before” vocal is distinctly lacking in a demonstrable ability to sing in tune.

Britney - without Auto-Tune.

What is Auto-Tune?

For those of you who have managed to avoid all popular music for the past 15 years or so, Auto-Tune is an audio processor, usually used as a plug-in within a Digital Audio Workstation. It is used to correct pitch inaccuracies in monophonic musical material.

Most commonly this musical material is an out of tune vocal performed by someone very young and very attractive – but often not particularly musically talented. This process is known as pitch-correction, and Auto-Tune is the most well known, though by all means not the only, pitch correction software on the market.

The software analyses the incoming material, looks at whether or not it is below what the analyser believes to be the intended pitch (flat) or above the intended pitch (sharp), and then corrects the audio by moving it by the required amount. This is usually measured in cents, with one cent being a hundredth of a semi-tone, the difference in pitch between two keys on a piano.

There are options to determine how long it takes to move the note to the correct pitch, which notes within the musical scale should be used and which should be ignored, and how much of the process takes place. There is even a mode that allows you to draw in the desired melody, regardless of what the input melody is.

What else do producers use to clean up tracks?

Auto-Tune is just one of many tools within a music producer’s (virtual) toolbox.

There are also software tools that can correct the timing of a drummer’s performance and completely change the sound of their drum kit, or fix a guitar’s tuning and timing and make it sound like it was recorded though an expensive, vintage amplifier.

There is now even a plug-in that allows you to superimpose a modelled version of the acoustics of a world-class studio on your recordings – even if they were actually made in your basement.

We deal in illusions

At heart, the job of the music producer is often the same as that of the illusionist. The music producer’s job is to create the illusion that the piece of music the listener hears was created by real people in a room, all playing together with a sense of energy and excitement that was simply captured before being immediately ready for mass consumption.

This is almost never the case. Hours are spent doing multiple takes of a song, with editing then taking place to cut the best performances into one perfect take. Vocals are doubled to help the singer sound stronger. Instruments are overdubbed multiple times to create larger, wider sounding productions.

All of these examples were possible well before digital audio became the norm, and certainly well before Auto-Tune became available.

This is not just the domain of processed pop music either – if you were to take a radio-friendly rock band and listen to what they sound like live in a room compared to their finished fully-produced record, you would see just how much most rock music also benefits from the tricks of the trade.

There are thankfully exceptions – in many genres, though jazz, folk and alt-country spring to mind – but ultimately, since recorded music began, people have been using the technology available to make people sound better than they actually are, as well as to make productions sound larger than life and fit within the style of the day.

The anti-Auto-Tuners

I believe that out of all these tools Auto-Tune gets singled out because the most basic human emotional response to music is the response we have to singing, and finding out that there was some software robot moving the singer’s notes around make us feel cheated.

It messes with our sense of legitimacy. So much so that artists sometimes feel the need to clarify that no digital trickery took place on their productions.

Brisbane singer Katie Noonan has specified that no Auto-Tune was used on her vocals in the line notes of her records, and American pop star Christina Aguilera has proudly sported an anti Auto-Tune T-Shirt. She since admitted to using Auto-Tune, but only as a creative effect.

Creative tweaks

In this case, and as with many musical tools, Auto-Tune gets interesting when taken out of its normal mode of use. Abusing technology has always given us music types rich rewards. An electric guitar was never meant to sound like Jimi Hendrix decided it should. Tape, vacuum tubes and transformers all start sounding a whole lot more interesting when taken to the edge of distortion, and quite often over that edge too.

In fact, Auto-Tune’s arrival into the public’s consciousness was a result of Believe, the massive Cher hit from 1998, a prime example of the software being used in a manner that was most probably completely unintended by its developers.

Cher’s Believe.

Well-known artists such as Kanye West and T-Pain have also abused Auto-Tune to great success, and more underground indie artists such as Polica are doing it too.

So it’s not all bad, and just like most tools Auto-Tune can be used in interesting, creative ways. It can also be a real time-saver in the studio. While the types of music I tend to work on don’t require it, in the past it has helped save both me and the singer I was working with from hours of extra vocal tracking and editing, along with maintaining stylistic appropriateness.

Why do we listen to Britney?

All that said, Auto-Tune is still frequently used to make marketable, though often musically talentless people, presentable for public consumption. We all knew that anyway.

Nobody ever went to a Britney show to be blown away by vocal pyrotechnics. They went for the actual pyrotechnics, along with the dancing, laser show, costume changes – and the chance to see the pop star from the TV in real life.

The biggest problem with correction tools such Auto-Tune is that they breed mediocrity and laziness in a new generation of singers and musicians.

Young musicians today are well aware of the tools available in the studio to fix their mistakes and, in my experience, are all too happy to use them. This often comes at the expense of practice and dedication to the improvement of their craft.

Ultimately, we need to recognise and acknowledge acts such as Britney Spears as entertainment rather than an expression of musicality. We should just try to make sure that the tools of the trade used in making pop stars pitch perfect don’t interfere with the development of singers who actually want to be able to sing.

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