Most of us have heard of or seen what is known as a “Photoshop disaster.” You know what we’re talking about: a model with a missing hand, or an airbrush gone wrong. In other words, a completely un-natural and off-putting effect originally intended as an enhancement.
I would submit that the corollary in the world of music would have to be the misapplied Autotune, either as an overt effect, or a botched enhancement. Everyone knows about Autotune by now. It has become ubiquitous in all forms of pop music and is probably the most spammed effect in the modern music era. Just like previous signature sounds of an era – like gated snares in the 80’s, or overused guitar feedback in the 90’s – there will come a day when it becomes unofficially blacklisted for fear of sounding retro.
But that won’t mean everyone will all of a sudden have to learn how to sing instead. Hell no, that’s crazy talk! There will still be an ever-burgeoning need for pitch-correction far into the foreseeable future. However, there will be shifting tastes regarding how that pitch correction comes across. Its interesting to note that the general music-listening public’s first experience with blatant Autotune was Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe” (or should I say “BEE-EE-AH-L-EE-AH-EE-VE”). Right off the bat it was mocked, lampooned, and secretly admired. While hardcore indie producers were exchanging jokes about it at coffee break, they would then creep back into their studio and, looking over their shoulders, insert Autotune into their own vocal takes. Carefully carving out bad artifacts, pitch spikes and any trace of actually having used it. Kind of like using the pinch effect in Photoshop on your social media pic, “what? It doesn’t look right? Well, I really AM thin enough to wear skinny jeans… (hater)”
The trouble is that as you become more accustomed to using it in your mixes, you start to notice its more subtle effect on vocals in general. You become sensitized and start noticing it pop up in odd places all the time. Like the time you’re listening to some farm-bred country singer singing on the radio, extolling everything “real” and “natural” and then you can swear you clearly hear a tell-tale “EEL-EE-EEL” right, dead, smack in the center of when they sing the word “real.” So, you listen closer to the rest of the track, and sure enough that’s not natural vibrato, that sh*ts be Autotuned! The irony is not lost in such instances though one would have to wonder if it really is the surreptitious work of a pragmatic (and tired) engineer who saw the easy way out of a 100-take recording session.
That example would have to be considered an Autotune disaster because the whole point of using it is to give the listener the sense that the song is flowing out naturally. Of course, a great majority of music recording is trickery and slight-of-hand; giving the listener the impression that this all happened in some single physical space, all in one magical take. And even if the listener knows better, its a subtle but salient point in preserving that suspension of disbelief – allowing the listener to dissolve judgment and be taken away into the world of the song being played. As soon as the listener zooms back out of their trance and says to themselves, “wait…what the hell was that?” you’ve probably lost them forever. They can’t help but forever hear the oddities in the track and, therefore, probably resist listening to it in its entirety.
On the other side of the fence is the blatant, purposeful use of Autotune. In these instances you actually want the listener to be jarred by it. You welcome them fixating on it like it was some giant, steaming alien glob of undifferentiated gelatinous protein. Its music’s equivalent of over-done plastic surgery. Its absurd because its SUPPOSED to be: “hey, in the end you are looking (listening) aren’t you?” This can’t be considered bad in and of itself. People have been putting attention-grabbing effects on their voice since they picked up a hollowed out seashell and spoke into it to the amusement of themselves and others. But just like any other effect out there, there is a way to do it right, and a way to completely butcher it. I’m not talking about carefully edited vocoder-like shifts, I’m talking about sounding like you shrunk Mike Tyson down to the size of a pinky finger and had him rapidly, and indiscriminately, punch a singer in the larynx while he or she was attempting to sing. This is almost always the result you get when you take someone who has zero singing talent to begin with, and then do a one-off or live take. It ends up turning a 3-note smooth transition, into an 18-note square-step transition all in the span of a fraction of a second. And then it repeats this pattern throughout the entirety of the vocal performance, bleeding your ears dry. You hear this a lot now in hip hop. You get guys who are great at spitting rhymes over beats, but then as soon as they get a couple of drinks in them they think they sound like Frank Sinatra and demand to sing the chorus themselves (instead of doing the more sensible thing and just hire an angelic-sounding female vocalist like they did in the years before Autotune existed).
Lil’ Wayne, I’m looking at you. Kanye, I’m looking at you…HELL, VIRTUALLY EVERY MALE VOCALIST IN HIP HOP, I’M LOOKING AT YOU! You can’t sing! Move on! Try something else or try another effect!
Now, there’s this great plugin called Melodyne by Celemony that has emerged in recent years. Because its fairly new, it allows for all kinds of new audio manipulations previously unheard. On vocals, you can easily change formants (the aspect of the voice that gives it its particular character), transparently adjust pitch mistakes, or even do rapidly chopped harmonies all with a single vocal take! There are so many new ways of grabbing the listeners ear, and it seems to me that Autotune has seen its day in the sun to that end. That’s not to say its completely useless. Although I’m not really using it in productions anymore, there are instances when a quick-and-dirty adjustment is worthwhile at the tracking stage, and Autotune is the quickest, and dirtiest, option available. So, no this isn’t an indictment against Autotune in specific. In fact, I do remember the awe it originally inspired for its magical leap of engineering when it first came out. And all of us engineers and producers, at all levels, were using it in the studio either in secret or with relish. Its just that the day has come for something new.
“Goodbye, you gurgling, warbling workhorse of an effect, it has surely been a square-shaped slice!”
– “why autotune exists to begin with”