Tuesday, December 17, 2013


In the midst of recording Spencer's first professional studio song in early 2011, we engaged in an interesting dialog with the 25+ year veteran producers and mixing engineers. Should an artist (today) use AUTOTUNE or not?

For those of you older folk like me, Autotune is a nifty plug-in used in software for mixing music at most studios. There are two primary software makers for "fixing" pitch issues vocals: Autotune and Melodyne. In a quick lesson, the basics of these include the software's ability to detect what "note" the singer is trying to hit and it automagically fixes the note. Extreme uses of these software plug-ins can be heard in most pop, hip-hop, or rap music on the radio. One artist has made an entire career out of using Autotune as a special effect on their voice (T-Pain). Once you hear it (very obvious here) you'll immediately know the extreme version of it. However, although T-Pain has made millions from using it, Cher is actually the first to make it mainstream with her song "BELIEVE" in 1998 where the robotic effect on her voice was not yet known as Autotune by the main public. Other artists using this include Will-I-Am, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Lady GaGa, etc.

So now you know the extreme uses of Autotune for effects. The other use, which is how it was intended, is to simply pitch correct a singer's voice. However, even this pitch correction can be easily detected by most music industry people. There's a subtle marker that can be heard when autotune is applied to vocalists.

So why write a blog post about this?

Great question.

Especially with younger artists trying to make their way in the music industry or possibly have a career, it is very important to know when to use autotune and when not to use autotune. Even saying this means that there is an acceptable use of it, which many purists (like me) get cranky about.

Let me just state a fact that is 100% accurate.

Like it or not, Grammy winning artists have all used this. Even country artists use it. When you're in the studio at Sony (as Spencer was this fall) they use Autotune as a standard plug-in. It's not even a question to them. It's regular practice.

So, it's not even a question of using it or not, it's just whether your artist can get by with having very little of it used on their voice.

One phenomenon that actually shocked me about the highest levels of pro-recording at studios is that Autotune is used during live recording "while" the artist is singing into the mic. This is a lot different than I would have guessed because I've only experienced autotune being applied "after" the recording was made and only to fix small spots that may have missed a note or two. What this did for Spencer, as I came to understand, is it created (for him) a sense of confidence to be more focused on vocal expression and dynamics than to worry about hitting the exact notes perfectly each take. Two different engineers told us that countless major recording artists rely on autotune to keep them focused on the other elements of delivering a good lyric in a song, like enunciation, volume, phrasing, etc.


What this also did was create a confidence that couldn't be reproduced live for Spencer on some songs. While he sounded great in the studio monitors and final mix, to hear him try to replicate the exactness of notes on a stage was a whole different issue.

Back to 2011.

These engineers pulled out (for our benefit) a recording from a 1970's vocal heavy song which clearly did not have Autotune, and we were shocked at how our ears had been trained (recently) to assume pitch-perfect vocals. Many of the amazing singers I grew up listening to were far from "on pitch" in their vocals, but we didn't have anything to compare them to at the time and the "NORM" was what it was. Pick your favorite old-school artist and listen to them close enough and you'll hear some missed notes and bended pitches where they slide into notes or out of notes. It was perfectly acceptable before, but now it isn't because of the invention of software like Autotune. They further pointed out to Spencer to give his impression of the vocals he heard from back in the ancient 1970's. He said they didn't sound good. You see, at his age, he has ears that are used to hearing pitch corrected vocals on the radio and CD's. So, even when he records, his natural singing voice (without autotune) sounds bad to him and he gets very conservative.

The opposite can be true with some artists, they don't possess a tone gauge that keeps them in the same key. They may consistently hit note after note, but it may drift 1/2 step up or down from the actual key. Sadly, parents of some younger artists get caught convincing their child how amazing their vocals are and while their skill may be good, their execution of notes is not. Hence, the need for AUTOTUNE.

So, what's the negative for Autotune if it fixes issues... is the common practice today... and is what the trained ear of today's music expects?

Live shows.

While I've not seen him live in concert, Jason Derulo has a huge fan base of his music. Spencer introduced me to his songs and I really like his R&B vibe. When sharing about him with a few friends and acquaintances we've met in the industry, we were told his live show was horrible. He can't sing like he does on his records. There has been so much doctoring of his vocals in the studio that he can't replicate it live.

Another facet is that while the average fan will love recorded music from an artist, music industry executives and professionals tend to be less impressed with software wizardry by a producer and more interested to know what an artist sounds like without all the myriad of takes that go into making one song. In fact, most labels will require an artist to audition live so they can determine if they have a real voice or a studio voice. (think American Idol or X-Factor, etc.)  The "live" voice is the real voice of an artist. Autotune is supposed to help make a commercial product that will be sold, and it is perfectly acceptable in that case to use Autotune to fix vocal miscues.

One thing that consistently annoys me about young artists with their music is when you clearly hear the heavy autotune they've used to fix issues. Sadly, young artists goes through puberty and their voices are not capable of being "on" all the time. So Autotune may be a tool required to provide consistency for them. But it also raises the question of whether they can really sing.

So the best advice I've come to understand from industry execs and my own experience with building a fan base for Spencer is this:

  • Use Autotune on songs which will be sold on iTunes or made for a CD projects
    • Be careful that how it is used won't be an issue for live performances and the artist being able to replicate the vocals on stage without sounding completely foreign to the audience
  • Don't let your artist become dependent on Autotune and be a lazy singer who isn't trying to get better
  • Realize that experienced industry people can spot Autotune "fixed" vocals on a demo and know whether it is an effect cause the song calls for it, or it is fixing pitch issues and may be a red flag to them
  • ALWAYS let an experienced engineer apply the Autotune versus an amateur. If they are professional, even the most trained ears won't be able to hear the plug-in on the vocals and it will still sound natural
  • Have your artist record live songs in front of a video camera and post on Youtube so fans and industry people will have the chance to hear a pure vocal without it being fixed with software. This will increase your credibility as an artist.

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