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Should You Auto-Tune Your Vocals?

Tweaking your tuning may not transform your performance -says Wes Maebe

Back To The Future

1997 saw the release of an audio processor called Antares Auto-Tune; the following year it hit the market big time with Cher’s hit “Believe”.

“And the rest,” as they say, “is history.”

T-Pain regurgitated the effect with great success in 2005; in fact, he’s so associated with Auto-Tune that there’s an iPhone app named after him that simulates the sound.

We can’t seem to get away from the “Cher effect” and pretty much anything that hits the charts has been tuned to death.

To Tune Or Not To Tune…

There’s tuning as a distinct effect – and then there’s tuning as a way to make your voice sound just that little bit better on your recording.

I’m going to talk about the latter.

Personally I’m not against a little tuning when there’s no other way out. But the main focus has to be the performance.

Think of a vocal performance that knocks you off your feet; all the hairs on your body stand up and there’s a shiver down your spine—chances are you will not want tuning on this.

The Boredom of Clinical Perfection

In today’s world of clinical perfection, it would be tempting to go in there open up some tuning software and tweak every little nuance.

It’s on par with over quantizing where you make sure that every single drumbeat, bass hit, guitars, etc. are bang on the beat.

You’re right: it is perfect, but it can be perfectly boring too.

Music needs dynamics, movement, groove and feel.

When you make everything “metronomically” perfect, songs can lose those ingredients that make it exciting.

The same goes for vocals. Vocals deliver the heart and the passion of the song. They should have dynamics, feel and spades of passion.

Tuning every single vowel to perfection, flattening the lot to get rid of all the vibrato and drift tends to get rid of all that feeling.

Tuning & Time Constraints

But can auto-tuning save your wallet when you’re paying for your time in the booth?

Today, singers have reduced recording budgets and labels expecting a lot more for less money.

This translates right back to the artists who now tend to get in the booth, lay down a vocal and then ask for it to be tuned and cut to the grid so it’s all in time.

It may be impressive to get all your album vocals down in a couple of hours and then artificially correct everything, but, remember, this tends to be balanced out by the sheer amount of time spent tuning, flexing, warping, quantizing…

A Solution

I don’t know about you, but if I was a singer worth my salt, I’d be in that vocal booth until the vocal was perfect.

Ok, it can be very counter productive and demotivating to be in there and do 50 takes of each line.

If that is the case, I suggest you shelve this one for now, rehearse it, work on the song with your vocal coach and come back to it fresh.

When you do get that fabulous vocal performance on tape but there’s a little off note on something that you really can’t live with, of course, go in and sort that one out.

You can always have a quick look through some alternative takes and see if you can rescue it that way. If all else fails, tuning software to the rescue.

Machines vs. Humans?

Several major acts have been using auto-tuning live to correct pitch and a lot of vocal effects boxes now come stocked with tuning and pitch correction modules.

These are fabulously powerful tools, but I do urge you to use them with great care.

Machines are machines after all; you can’t expect them to magically make everything perfect.

There are quite a few parameters to set correctly. Anything off and you might end up perfectly out of tune.

Like everything, there’s a time and a place.

If you’re looking to create a real whacko vocal effect, the world of software and hardware is your oyster.

Have fun, sing your heart out and be true to yourself.

  • Anonymous

    Autotune is for people with no vocal pitch control PERIOD! It’s a cheat for singers like steroids are a cheat for athletes. The sad fact is that there are “entertainers” today that owe their entire careers to Dr. Hildebrand and his invention…sad, sad, sad.

  • Franklinbean

    You guys sound like what they used to tell us guitarists.  Turn off the distortion, reverb, delay, chorusing, etc and learn to play the darn thing.  But dont forget, once you do learn to do it right, there is nothing wrong with turning that stuff back on, if it is helpful to the sound you seek to achieve.  In this world of computer generated music, I understand your position, but dont be a purest for the shear sake of purity. 

  • It seems to me that you can autotune the parts of a performance that are pitchy and leave the rest alone. As an engineer/producer you get blamed for “letting” work go out that is in any way sub par. This is why you auto tune it. It’s not like there’s so much work out there that you can choose to only work with world-class singers! In a perfect world, you don’t need it, but for demo situations it can make the difference between singing it yourself and paying someone boatloads of cash to sing it for you!