Dispelling myths about autotune with examples that may surprise you.
For years, vocal processing effects like pitch correction, autotune, and harmonization have been shunned by purists and bastardized by artists and listeners alike. Now, we know this is a controversial topic that seems to bring out the inner idealist in all of us. So before you skip to the next item on your reading list, take a second as we look into pitch correction from both a creative and a technical perspective. In doing this, perhaps we can dispel some of the myths and common misconceptions surrounding the use of these effects.
- Pitch correction software such as Melodyne and Antares Auto-Tune are widely used throughout the music industry to achieve subtle vocal retuning, even on singers that can produce a near impeccable performance.
- The overt use of pitch correction a la Cher’s ‘Believe’ or Kanye West’s 808’s and Heartbreak, didn’t destroy modern music as we know it, instead adding another tool for singers to creatively alter the sound of their voice.
- Modern artists such as Finneas use both subtle and over the top pitch correction and vocal harmonization to achieve added levels of complexity and depth to their music production.
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“Great vocalists never use pitch correction.”
Tool fans might want to leave the room. While generally speaking this may be true, even Maynard James Keenan’s voice is sometimes processed correctively. You can distinctly hear it on The Noose by A Perfect Circle, a song from their recovery-themed sophomore album 13th Step back in 2003. The question is – as one of the most accomplished vocal performers in this style, well-known for his incredible pitching and dynamics – why would he need to?
The key to capturing an amazing vocal performance is about far more than just pitch alone. It’s most likely that the take you’re listening to on the record was the most complete and nuanced performance recorded during a particular session. Doing painstaking corrective rerecording of the individual parts simply doesn’t suit Maynard’s style, as this can reduce the emotional component of the performance to something that is rather contrived.
Instead, Billy Howerdel and Alan Moulder would have simply used the incredible German pitch correction software, Celemony Melodyne. This process allowed them to correct any imperfections on the intro without compromising the recording in any way. Melodyne is one of the most widely used audio software tools in the industry today, and not only for pitch correction. It is also surgical when making adjustments to the gain and timing of recorded passages. Even running the audio through the algorithms of its highly advanced processing engine seems to add clarity and bring vocals further to the front of the mix.
“Auto-tune destroyed modern music.”
Very recently, in fact, one of the greatest and most influential exponents in the use of auto-tune, T-Pain himself, was directly accused by the R&B icon Usher of “destroying music” through his work. Now whether you agree or disagree with that rather callous statement from an artist he regarded as an idol and mentor, let’s look at auto-tune and see what else we can uncover.
For years it was thought, incorrectly I might add, that an artist using auto-tune in any way simply couldn’t sing. We overlooked the similarity between the talk-box/vocoder of the early 1980s, pioneered by Roger Troutman, and the modern-day use of autotune and the relevance of this connection in Hip Hop. Despite how quickly the trend of using auto-tune grew into an established sound behind millions of record sales worldwide, very few artists who used it did so because they lacked ability, talent, or creativity.
The artists were part of a bigger movement and simply wanted the cold, robotic vocal tone as part of their sonic signature. The sounds achieved on seminal albums like Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak wouldn’t have been possible without auto-tune. Although the Antares Auto-Tune software rapidly established itself as the industry standard in the late 90s, it wasn’t being used solely for pitch correction, but rather as a creative tool for manipulating vocals in new ways. What many regarded as a passing phase became one of the longest-standing and distinguishable sounds in recorded music.
“Using pitch correction effects means you lack creativity.”
The art of changing the pitch of a vocal performance has evolved considerably from the days of the vocoder in the 1970s to the world of software plugins and harmonizer pedals we have available today. At first, like most instruments, it may have been called experimental, but before long with the help of pioneering artists like Imogen Heap these effects started to become hallmarks on which they built their signature sound around. With this level of mastery, it became an integral part of the art form itself rather than just a simple tool or instrument. Work of complexity and depth, with a timeless, futurist aesthetic was being created with a haunting and emotive character to it. We moved on from the trend-mongering nature of the entertainment industry and delved into something far deeper.
Making groundbreaking music was never easy in the first place and using harmonizer effects to create well-structured chord progressions with vocals alone certainly requires a level of skill, understanding, and creative vision that might not be apparent from the artificial tone of the final product. Only once we look past the seemingly manufactured exterior, can we begin to interact with the organic and human nature beneath it. Artists are constantly seeking new ways to define and rarify their sound, and by using pitch correction effects and processing in ways beyond their original purpose they are forced outside of their creative comfort zones and into uncharted territory.
For a modern producer like Finneas for example, auto-tune and pitch effects have become like different colours and shades he reaches for from the palette. They provide the ability to reference certain musical eras, or compliment and accentuate the moods within a song. A certain section of a song, a vocal passage, or lyric may suggest a particular feeling or intent behind it. The knowledge and mastery of tools like pitch correction and other related vocal processing effects can drastically increase the impact of ideas you are trying to put across in your music. More than any other instrument, the human vocal frequency range naturally draws your focus when you listen to music, so your attention to detail here will not go unnoticed.
Learn what Auto-Tune can do through the Antares website.