Ever wondered how the vocals in one of the songs you listen to either on the radio, your phone or your media player can sound a bit robotic or a bit distorted? Or perhaps that it doesn’t sound right or being too off-key?
There’s one thing to call it: Auto-Tune, an audio processor that has been controversially used to alter or falsely improve a singer’s vocal, which can mislead fans. For example, compare “We R Who We R” by Kesha with “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. Which one is Auto-Tuned and which one is not? The answer is that the former is Auto-Tuned and the latter is not since Auto-Tune didn’t come into usage until 1998 and then into more usage in the late Noughties.
It is basically the technological equivalent to well, backing vocals and this decade’s equivalent of the 2004 Ashlee Simpson miming incident in Saturday Night Live, which itself was the Noughties equivalent of the 1989 Milli Vanilli lip-synching incident in which they had to repeat the hook of their hit song “Girl You Know It’s True” on MTV when the song was jammed.
The truth came out in 1990 that they were not the singers on any song from them, which tarnished their reputation along with the producer of the songs, legendary German producer Frank Farian, who would later rebound with Eurodance group La Bouche and pop trio No Mercy.
I think Auto-Tune is indicative of an inability to sing in key and why do that? I mean why use it to disguise poor vocals or change the pitch of your vocals in order to do what? Become overhyped and popular with the public? Or even worse, face a strong backlash for the effect?
Well popular songs of the past two decades from some of my favourite artists have used this divisive and controversial processor. One of the first songs to use this processor was Cher’s megahit “Believe”. However, unlike the other examples, part of Cher’s vocals in the song that were Auto-Tuned was actually done as an experiment by music producer Mark Taylor. In fact, part of the then-new processor in the song is what led to it becoming one of the best-selling singles of 1998-99 and spawned a new category of music: Electronic-tinged pop. I wonder what if the Auto-Tune effect wasn’t used at all, would “Believe” still be a megahit?
Time magazine called Auto-Tune “one of the 50 worst inventions”. The very same magazine whose journalist Josh Tyrangiel unfavourably compared it to Photoshop, while Daily Telegraph music critic Neil McCormick called the processor “a particularly sinister invention that has been putting extra shine on pop vocals since the 1990s” and legendary producer Rick Rubin said this “Right now, if you listen to pop, everything is in perfect pitch, perfect time and perfect tune. That’s how ubiquitous Auto-Tune is.”
Auto-Tune can be used for a good reason like Kanye West did for his fourth album 808s and Heartbreak, which was a complete departure from his usual hip-hop sound as he did it for a dramatic effect following the death of his late mother and T-Pain deliberately uses it to make his vocals sound metallic than to cover up bad singing, but aside from that, it is considered to be overrated, overused and oversaturated. It basically damaged the music charts of this decade. A prime example of this is the first US number-one of this decade was none other than “Tik Tok” by Kesha, which was largely criticised for the overproduced sound, however the first UK number-one of this decade was Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, which did not have any Auto-Tune at all, though “Tik Tok” did reach number one in the UK not long after, which comes to show that the British public are more discerning of Auto-Tune than the American public.
Is Auto-Tune a bad thing if it takes over the music charts? Yes. Aside from the loudness war, it’s fine to use the effect if it doesn’t replace the artists’ original authentic sound but it’s not fine to use the effect in order to disguise poor singing. Some artists appreciate the effect, while others don’t, for example Jay Z did a song for his 2009 album The Blueprint 3, called “D.O.A.”, which stands for “Death of Auto-Tune”.
Furthermore, six years ago the seventh season premiere of The X Factor got flack for its usage of Auto-Tune and after realising that, series creator and head judge Simon Cowell ordered a ban on Auto-Tune for future episodes. Heck even The Simpsons episode “New Kids on the Blecch” poked fun of the effect (at the time called a pitch corrector) when it was used to make up for the total lack of singing talent from Party Posse. The usage of Auto-Tune needs to be reduced because this processing effect is out of tune.