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Who cares about autotune?

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Will Gompertz | 13:17 UK time, Monday, 23 August 2010

One of the more annoying properties of inventions is that you can't uninvent them. Not even for short periods of time. You can always pretend they don't exist by banning them, but knowledge is clever stuff and will easily outmanoeuvre such dull thinking.

Take the nuclear bomb. Creating the technology that has the capacity to obliterate us might seem, in hindsight, a bad idea. And no matter how many non-proliferation treaties the Western world's lawyers rustle up, we will forever live in the sinister shadow of a nuclear armageddon until somebody invents a device to erase our collective memory - one that isn't a nuclear bomb.

When Dr Harold (Andy) Hildebrand left his post as a research scientist in the geophysical industry to found Antares Audio Technologies in 1990 to seek ways he could use his previous experience to improve the process of digital sampling, it was inevitable that success on his part would mean the music industry would feel the effects.

And so it has. After a couple of early successes, Dr Andy then went on to invent Auto-Tune in 1997, a programme that corrects pitch problems in a singer's vocals. Just as Les Paul transformed the possibilities of the electric guitar through his solid-wood designs, and indeed his multi-track recording inventions (an area where Dr Andy has also found success); just as with Dr Robert (Bob) Moog's eponymous synthesizer, autotune has taken its place in the producer's toolbox of handy enhancements.

But where Les Paul's and Bob Moog's inventions are considered to have opened up possibilities for music-making, Dr Andy's autotune has generally been seen as a reductive tool; put bluntly, a cheat. Like an athlete using steroids to enhance his or her performance, some see autotune as the refuge for vocal fakes and frauds.

I don't agree. A singer's voice is just another instrument that has already been enhanced by the use of technology over the years. Almost nobody minds when a microphone is used to capture a singer's sound and then regurgitate it through a set of speakers, an amplification process that interferes with the purity of the natural voice. Or when a sound engineer sits in the middle of a gig and twiddles the knobs on the sound-desk to amplify the noise he or she wants to create, which is quite different to the unamplified sound on the stage.

So what's the problem with another addition to the armoury of electronic gizmos to manipulate the audience's aural experience? Especially if it is used with ingenuity as was the case with Cher's hit Believe.

There is a problem, though, when it comes to a talent show such as The X Factor. I don't care that the producers are manipulating my emotions; all artforms - including TV - do that. I don't care whether they use autotune or not, or indeed who uses it.

But I do care if autotune is not offered to all the contestants. If a singer knows it is available and chooses not to use it, that is fine. But to have the producers select who is put through one mixer to help them avoid another (in the shape of Cowell and chums) is wrong and certainly not in tune with the spirit of the show.


  • Comment number 1.

    repeat after me. a piece of computer code is called a...


    NEVER 'programme'

    1000 lines by tomorrow please.

  • Comment number 2.

    I still think it is a cheat, unlike the other examples of technology you have drawn attension, the autotune, changes the talent level of a performer, all les paul did was make sure you got the best sound, for what was actually being played. Someone who can't play guitar still can't play guitar regardless of the amount of technology. In there lies the difference. Autotune is a product of 'pop' where image matters more than talent, if it didnt there would be no need for it and the talented would simply rise to the top and then prehaps we would get music back from the hands of money men and independant labels would be able to compete.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    When it was used for Do you believe ? It was known to be tampered vocals. Anyone who has any knowledge of recording technology could hear it. Most thought it was some kind of vocoder and the producers lied about what they used to create that insanely high pitch.

    Regardless that tune is a bench mark. Not really like the Les Paul guitar but more like the famous use of double tracking and pitch shifting of guitar lines that Les Paul did.

    However neither technique is really used to the kind of extremes in these recordings in the modern world.

    My point against auto-tune would be that you would never ever get another Nina Simone for deffo using auto tune. And what happened to musical expression. No musician really wants to play the same thing in the same way every time and a "wrong" note is a matter of perception and can sound brilliant.

    What really gets me is that people think that the X Factor is real. Since when has anyone off X Factor written and made their own music, been successful for more than 3 years or actually have any artistic value what so ever.

    Pop music itself is very bland and fake is what makes it pop music.

    RATM beating X factor last christmas was great news and I feel more of the same from other bands come this christmas.

    We love to set them up, to knock them down.

  • Comment number 5.

    Euro Bubbles.

    Not strictly true. A load of distortion can make missed or added wrong notes sound perfectly fine. In fact most digital and tranny distortion adds harmonics in thirds actually making the guitar more dissonant and thefor holding it back. Tube overdrive tends adds harmonics in 5ths which is actually enhancing the sound of the instrument. However I agree with your sentiments.

    When it comes to audio manipulation most effects are across the board and can be used to create a new/artistic production value to a record. Maybe overdriven trumpets or vocals. Yet auto tune is practically always used for vocals.

    Could you imagine an instrument player saying they want the equivalent of auto-tune ? I am trying to picture John Coltrane asking for some auto tune on his sax.

  • Comment number 6.

    Pretty much agree with WG. Most pop music nowadays is largely synthetic. But that doesn't make it inauthentic or bad. Work backwards from the experience: if you like the song/record etc., who cares how it was made?

    The problem with the 'X' Factor is that it sells itself as an authentic 'talent' contest but techniques such as autotuning the contestants continually undermines this. Of course, it's actually not a talent contest at all. It's a light entertainment television show. The real triumph is getting 11 million people to watch ITV on a Saturday evening. Now that is talent.

  • Comment number 7.

    I think it is totally wrong to use autotune on a talent show. This isnt giving the audience a true show. But if they had of used the autotune correctly and in the right key it mite not have been as obvious to the viewers. I would love to hear Gamu Nhengu's first recorded audition to key where she slips out of key because the autotune used on for her on Saturdays show was tuning note that didnt need tuned, resulting in her sounding completely fake!!!! although shes a great singer let us hear her true voice and not a digitalised autotuned voice

  • Comment number 8.

    I am quite surprised the media watchdog have not become involved in this because morally this is no different from fixing those telephone quizzes. Cowell & co. are trying to fix a talent contest by making a proportion of the contestants sound better (gaining an advantage) and by the smae token others sounding worse by comparison (being disadvantaged). If this is okay then why not allow lip-synching to a pre-recorded track or better still get professional singers to dub the singing for the contestents. Does Mr Cowell not remember what happened to Milli Vanilli and their producer.

  • Comment number 9.

    I agree: the voice is just another instrument: we have been tinkering with effects on instruments for hundreds of years. Tuning them up with electronic gadgets for many years so the voice is no different!

    It’s not cheating it’s just using available technology!

  • Comment number 10.

    The prolific use of autotune would only be an issue if you believe that the popular music industry has some kind of aspirations of artistic credibility. It doesn't. You're being sold entertainment and the only reason it's an issue with the X-Factor, rather than the 99% of pop records that are saturated with it, is that they've sold you the idea that this is about aspiring talent achieving their dreams. The fiction doesn't look so seamless now though.

    Using autotune is much like photoshopping a fashion model - not there to enhance, but to cover-up flaws and inadequacies. There are plenty of creative musicians out there using the technology for novel purposes, the difference is that they don't use it to deceive.

  • Comment number 11.

    I'll leave my "manufactured vs credible" rant for another day - although Must be the Music appears to be doing a very good job of lampooning rock snobbery all by itself - and deal specifically with the autotune debate of today.

    I have two words for any rock snob: Double. Tracking. It was autotune before autotune and is still used. Every artist since multitrack was invented has used double-tracked vocals to fool their customers...sorry, enhance the listening experience. Kurt Cobain refused to do it until Butch Vig told him John Lennon did it.

    That's before we get to the technology of every other piece of studio fairy dust, from reverb to aural excitement.

    God bless Bill Bailey for his "U2 without the echo pedal" bit.

  • Comment number 12.

    Mel0dymaker wrote:
    What really gets me is that people think that the X Factor is real. Since when has anyone off X Factor written and made their own music, been successful for more than 3 years or actually have any artistic value what so ever.

    Since when did writing your own music have any artistic value? Have you ever heard an Ella Fitzgerald or Tony Bennett-penned song? Motown was full of artists benefitting from other writers and everybody loves Motown. The Beatles wrote plenty of their own teenybop songs once they'd been put into suits, sacked their mate from the band for a session muso and been marketed to teenage girls but it took the Stones a while to get off the covers trail.

    How many signed bands you'd approve of last more than 3 years? How many make records that'll endure as much as 'Love me Do', one of the most trite and commercial hits of the Beatles' songbook?

    What really gets me is people think rock is any different to pop, or that one obeys a set of rules the other breaks, as if there are rules for what is acceptable art.

    Any idiot can write a self-indulgent rock song but it's very difficult to write a good pop song. Try it sometime.

  • Comment number 13.

    ITV have said that auto tune is only used on the final broadcast and in the studios the judges hear what they actually sound like.

    Well isn't that just peachy? The judges aren't the ones who decide who wins its us, the voting public. It doesn't actually matter what the judges hear, they are only there for out amusement.

    It's a con.

  • Comment number 14.

    Classical instrumentalists and singers don't need to use anything to 'enhance' their sound and unlike most of the people on X Factor, they actually rely on talent and years of hard work. Just another thing that proves how pointless the X Factor is.

  • Comment number 15.

    Why not focus on the output, rather than the mechanism? In believe, autotune was used to create a (reasonably) novel aesthetic effect.

    There's nothing novel or interesting in how it's now being used: to remove interest, charm and beauty from voices.

    You can use Photoshop to produce beautiful, original images, and you can use it to airbrush away any non-compliance to a tediously dominant and normalising ideal.

    And you can use autotune in the same ways.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    Well My view is that the other enhancements mentioned are not an attempt to falsify a vocal, as it is totally obvious when they are being applied. However changing the pitch and stretching the vocals is a clear attempt to lie about the quality of the performance.

  • Comment number 18.

    So what is The X factor all about in the end? Surely as a singing/vocal competition, the whole idea is to hear and listen to, vocal notes, bum ones and all. As (what has become a tired show) comes to an end, as an avid, no sorry, HUGE fan of the programme, I won't be watching it,or spending my hard earned cash voting! Personally, there has not been any real talent on the show since Alexandra Bukre won, and prior to that we had probably one of the best female british singers this country has produced in recent years, a REAL winner, Leona Lewis, come on down!

  • Comment number 19.

    Ok im old... ill say that now...

    I grew up in an era of Top of the Pops and Live bands. Saturday night talent shows were for stand up comedians and impressionists.

    My favourite band growing up refused to play on TOTP because bands mimed - Queen thats the reason we got the "Pop Promo" or video. As I got older I listened to heavier music, do you think Dee Snyder would have won Pop Factor? but he's sold a hell of a lot more records!

    I will admit I bought Rage last christmas to stick two fingers up to "the establishment" and now read this and some of the comments with incredulity verging on disgust.

    A good singer is someone who can hold a tune THEMSELVES. By the logic of the great sage Cowell John Lennon would have come out sounding exactly the same as Perry Como.

    A live show USED to be where fans could hear the band playing the songs and hear the little errors, the slight difference in the guitar solo - my favourite possibly KNOWING that at Monsters of Rock there was no way Bruce Dickinson was going to hit THAT top note in Aces High. He didnt, he screamed instead and the crowd went wild.

    Now "singers" are miming - sorry I pay music to hear you sing.. so sing!

  • Comment number 20.

    What's less well known is that pitch correction can be applied to live recordings, including those recorded with the accompaniment on the same track(s) as the vocals. I should know - I invented the process!

  • Comment number 21.

    When Edison released his Wax Cylinders live musicians of the day said they would kill music, the Anal-logue tradionalists are always quick to condemn new technique and effects developed by computers, if it is the process that you are into thats great, but it is not the process that the vast majority are concerned with, not many folk care if the drummer is alive or is a machine, i love the new technology, it frees people who were not fortunate enough or rich enough to have the gear, to make music of a high standard, without the muscle memory or the cash to buy exy instruments, learning to speak french does not make you a french person, the same is true of learning to read music,

  • Comment number 22.

    if all you hear is zero's and one's when you listen to modern music i pity you

  • Comment number 23.

    you can play the guitar on a computer and sound great in minutes, or you can program/write your own classical music using midi, this is great for folk who would like to make music but missed out on a formal education, how is this a bad thing?

  • Comment number 24.

    ''...certainly not in tune with the spirit of the show.''

    Surely, the ''spirit of the show'' is what it is and not what you seem to think it should be.

  • Comment number 25.

    As a classical singer who teaches I am saddended that many people think it is ok to use this on a regular basis. The fundamental criteria for being a professional singer in any genre is the ability to sing in tune! I think it is too tempting for producers to use this function, and I suspect they use it with classical singers too, as a quick fix. It's all about saving money. But you are then altering how people hear sound and they get used to a kind of mechanised version of the voice. Then they come to people like me and try and recreate THAT because they think it is a natural thing! Classical music is mostly sung accoustically so you have no option but to be in tune! I am even against enhancement with microphones which is coming into this arena because it them leaves your fate in the hands of somebody twiddling knobs! Your confidence in singing comes from the fact that you can produce the goods without any help - then when you are asked to sing at somebody's wedding/party etc it is as natural as it should be and people will not be disappoited in the out of tune singing but thrilled at the effect of a live voice - there is nothing to beat that for all concerned.

  • Comment number 26.

    There is a major difference between techniques such as double tracking, amplification, equalisation and reverb as they are all part of the musical process. They do not interfere with the basic skill of hitting and holding pitch accurately. The analogy I prefer is with football - change the boots or change the ball, David Beckham can still hit the ball fifty yards straight onto the head of an onrushing forward and I can't because he has talent and I don't.
    Autotune is the football equivalent of a guided missile. It also has a more sinister application. I saw an interview with Pete Waterman saying that he did not want any of his acts to sing live because of all the effort they went to in the studio to make them sound as good as they can. What he was actually talking about was the process of taking some talentless nobody, feeding their weedy out-of-tune vocals through Autotune and conning the audience into believing they had talent. All of the other techniques are like make-up - they enhance but do not change. Autotune is like plastic surgery - marry a beautiful wife and then have ugly kids.

  • Comment number 27.

    Personally, I can't stand X Factor. It is just another excuse for Simon "fat cat" Cowell to earn more millions and it doesn't suprise me there is an element of cheating, because no matter how you talk round it, that's what it boils down to. Axe the show would be a good idea.

  • Comment number 28.

    Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things..X Factor is a light entertainment programme for unsigned acts and pop music is part of our everyday lives. Singers and groups have nearly always sounded better on recordings than playing live. No one who is serious about a future in the industry would audition for X Factor, as they know there is no real credibility in it, in fact many find themselves as the cabaret acts at Butlins or similar. Shows like 'Over the Rainbow' are different, all the finalists have real talent and many have landed proper roles in the West Lauren in Grease, Sophie/Danielle - Wizard of Oz and Steph in Smokey Joes it I lay my case that it really doesn't matter what enhancing tools are used, because in the end the show is just to entertain the viewers and to have 'water cooler' moments at work, and of course great discussions on Facebook...

  • Comment number 29.

    I'm sure this is simply 1 method that talent shows employ to ensure the audience vote for the right person. I read Ben Eltons "Chart Throb" about 2 years ago (in the book the judges write their comments before the show to push the audience in the direction they want) then 2 weeks later on American Idol Paula Abdhul started critiquing a song that hadnt been sung yet, until 1 of her fellow judges managed to stop her. They explained it that Paula was just being ditzy but it was very interesting given Ben's novel!

  • Comment number 30.

    Firstly I agree with the idea that autotune is just another tool that can be called upon whenever required. As a pro musician having worked in studios costing thousands per day - anything that can be taken away & used in post production to improve the live recording has benefits.

    These things should be used with care, but should be used.

    However, when a television programme is expecting the viewing public to pick up the phone & vote for their favourite (& fund the creation of the tv show from the call cost), everyone participating in the competition should have the same, level playing field.

    Viewers start to identify in the early shows who they will support if they get through to the live stages. If some contenstants have an advantage over others in the early shows - that will affect the voting figures.

  • Comment number 31.

    How this response could come from a supposed Arts expert is beyond me!

    If I did a crayon drawing and added the appropriate brush strokes with some kind of paint software would that make it a Van Gogh? All this does is do further damage to the integrity of the British music scene which has already been decimated by commercialism. programmes like this (in conjunction with the smoking ban) have already wiped out many live venues for unsigned bands, etc because we've all become too lazy to out and discover new acts for ourselves.

    This crass approach to music means that such talent shows become nothing more than a beauty contest; allowing music moguls like Simon Cowell to pick a pretty face that teen girls will love, use 'em up, spit 'em out and replace them the next year. it won't find any artist with longevity or integrity.

    For shame Will, you deserve to have your walls covered in prints from Ikea and nothing but Jedward pumped into your home 24 hours a day!

  • Comment number 32.

    After reading the various articles on the autotune, I am now feeling kind of cheated. Why? Because I feel that the artists that I have been paying good money for really are fake and not as talented as they are made out to be. I can understand voice manipulation such as Cher and I believe, if that's the result she wants, but it is obvious to anyone that this was the intended result just by listening to it. In that context it is fine. But to sell a product with a vocal enhancement like this and not inform the audience of said enhancement is basically lying about the true ability of the singer. It's like having a photograph of yourself 'enhanced' by removing your moles or freckles. The photograph may still be you, but those freckles were your personality, they are what made you, you.

    I am beginning to wonder if this is why so many modern day performances all seem to sound the same, bland and boring. The autotune in my humble opinion removes the personality of the performer. Just recently I have been discovering the early performances of Jack Jones and the recordings he made in the 1960's on the Kapp record label, and I have sat back in amazement at just how beautiful and natural his voice sounds. His pitch is right on the nose; his word enunciations letter perfect. No autotune back then, just the pure talent of the singer.

  • Comment number 33.

    Wow. So if you mention 'The X Factor' in your blog post, you get about a ten-fold increase in reader response...


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