Do you know where you were when you first heard Auto-Tune in action? I do. Kitchen table. Cher came on the radio. My first thought was, “Hey, that’s neat!” Years later, I don’t think it’s so neat anymore. The word “overused” comes to mind.

Cher, T-Pain, and the like have certainly exploited the hyper-tuning capabilities of Auto-Tune, but that’s not the purpose of this article. Yes, you can use Auto-Tune as an over-the-top effect, but what about using it as an engineering tool? Is it cheating?

I’d love to know your opinion. Be sure to leave a comment below. I’ve thought through this a lot over the years and talked with many an engineer, and I’ve formed my own opinions on the matter, so here’s what I think.

Auto-Tune is just another tool.

Auto-Tune is not the savior of the modern recording world. It’s also not evil incarnate, some malicious technological force on a mission to ruin the recording industry as we know it.

There are a lot of singers out there who are adamantly opposed to Auto-Tune. I can’t say I blame them. If their vocal take has to be tuned, then that means they must be imperfect. Nobody wants to be told they’re imperfect.

However, I am a singer, and I have no issues with Auto-Tune. Singing into a microphone while wearing headphones is an unnatural experience. It’s not how singers are trained to sing. I learned to sing by just singing and hearing myself naturally, without the aid of any headphones or amplification.

Because of the unnatural nature of headphones, sometimes it’s hard to hear subtle changes in pitch. I can deliver an awesome, emotional performance, but there may be a few places here and there where my pitch fluctuates a bit. Sure, I can re-sing the part (and I do), but sometimes the best take may be the one that’s a little bit out of tune. The timbre and energy of the voice may be perfect, but the pitch is just a little off.

In instances like this, I have no problem whipping out Auto-Tune and fixing a few things.

It’s not meant to be over-used.

A lot of engineers put Auto-Tune in a “Cheating” category. I don’t think that’s quite right. I put it in the same category as every other plug-in I use.

Any plug-in can be the bad guy. They can all be over-used — too much low frequency boosts with an EQ, too much compression, too much reverb, too much distortion. We’ve all heard mixes with any or all of these, and chances are we’ve all done our fair share of each of them.

Does that mean we should get rid of all these plug-ins? Of course not. If the guitarist’s tone is a bit too bright, it just makes sense to turn down the highs a bit with EQ. If the drummer’s timing is a little off, it makes sense to pocket things a little bit. If the singer is a little off-pitch here and there, it makes sense to correct it. At least, that’s what I think.

One Final Thought

Everything I mentioned above was written with the understanding that none of us are trying to fix a horrible vocalist. Your singer needs to have talent. You can’t make a bad singer sound good with Auto-Tune. You can fix pitch issues, but you can’t fix the timbre and energy of the voice itself.

Alright, it’s your turn to weigh in. What do you think? Leave a comment.

Other Articles in This Series:

  • Patch Campbell II

    I think it can be used creatively but mostly its used to cheat! That why I am trying to make this app; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miATfMvO9Go

  • Dan Satter

    I think people associate auto tune with cheating because the other effects you talk about are used to enhance the original sound, not alter it. A singer can’t make their voice sound like it has reverb unless they record in a cathedral. A singer can’t compress their voice to make it all produce at the same volume. A singer can, however, change and correct their pitch. Pitch as one of the fundamentals of singing and if you can’t sing with good pitch, you’re done. People are often disappointed when they hear their favorite singers live and their pitch is all over the place. People mainly think of auto tune as cheating because of the last paragraph in this article.

    • floppsE

      a singer certainly CAN compress and alter the volume at which they’re singing. it’s pretty important skill for a live vocalist!

  • “Over use” certainly comes to mind for this discussion. For me, the use depends on the artists style etc. I personally own autotune, which occasionally is linked through the plugin chain and edited for the right key of the music etc. I find it crazy fun to use when improvising vocals, which stops an overly serious mentality and we never know what will occur with it. In production I mainly use melodyne and/or Variaudio. Variaudio is easier for moving parts/ arrangements about. It also sounds like real life too.

  • Macgyver

    Fixing tuning is OK in my book. Yes, of course it’s cheating, but everything we do as mixers can be categorised as such.Every single track in a mix should get the full attention to make them sound their best.

    I use Melodyne to ‘manually’ (not auto) correct notes, not just the pitch, but the timing, note transition and volume too. I have no hang-ups about doing that whatsoever.

  • Razor.

    If auto tune is cheating, then is a guitarist cheating when he tunes his guitar strings? Ultimately though, nothing is cheating because nothing trumps the first rule of mixing… if it sounds good… Then it IS good!

  • Nanthaa

    I havé a same probleme, tnx i Will dry with auto tune, tnx for thé best tips

    • You’re very welcome. Thanks for reading!

  • CamBam

    I think Auto tune is a useful tool for small fixes, but over use makes the singer turn into an instrument, which is being played by the engineer.

    • That’s a great way of looking at it.

  • Meshkat Chowdhury

    Great Stuff! Auto tune is the great tools for music composition! It’s a really great factor of music world. An auto tune tool makes the music better algorithm. I would like to use this tool for my personal songs. Thanks for the nice contents… 🙂

  • Jeremiah

    Great post! I feel that if your going for that “robot” effect a auto tune feature is good to use. Although in more of a realistic approach there are times when you have an absolutely fantastic take but your client may have been just a little flat (from the emotion of the performance, etc.) and you don’t want to retrack it auto tune features are paramount! Just to “polish” vocals as you would say, to clean things up. We have so many advantages in the box of mixing now I think a lot of producers and engineers get to comfortable with being able to slap a plugin that says “analog” and they think they have the problem solved. I think the use of auto tune is left up to interpretation as long as you do it as it fits the song. If it doesn’t need it, or needs to be retracked, retrack it, if it can be cleaned up, clean it up.

    • You’re totally right, Jeremiah. Just take a common sense approach to everything. Don’t have an unrealistic idea of what you can do or “fix” with software. Like you said, if it needs to be retracked, retrack it. Plain and simple.

  • Rob

    I don’t personally use it, but I don’t disapprove. It’s just another piece of technology. Multi-tracking isn’t even natural. If it makes music more enjoyable to listen to, it’s good.

    On making bad singers good though, I’ve seen the before and after of a very popular artist…and believe me HE NEEDED IT! Without it, the guy probably wouldn’t sell 1000 CD’s. With it he’s sold 20 million+.

    If you’re that much of purist, then go sing with the birds naked.

  • James Otis

    I am an independent hip-hop artist, and i think autotune is very important. Not to fix vocals, but to give it a “robotic” feel which is amazing in some songs (not every song!). There are plenty of songs I have which I would NEVER autotune, and some songs I would never not autotune. Basically, my (dont judge me!) sex songs and intense rap, hating songs, I autotune, and love songs/when I want my singing/rapping to stick out, I don’t autotune.

    • i am also an indi hip hop artist, the only diference is that i come from Australia, and here in the hip hop scene, if you Auto tune, u have no talent. i used to think the same, but it does make scence to use it if the tone is out a little.i just don’t agree with over doing it. (thanks alot t-pain…just wreck everything man)

  • Kevin Hilman

    I use Evo Autotune on all of my vocal tracks and trumpet tracks. The thing is that I use it in a transparent manner set to a very slow speed. This way I don’t get any of that Cher/T-Pain robotic effect at all. Just gentle nudges toward the actual pitch center.
    I’ve never used it in the manual mode to correct an individual note. I figure if a note is that far off it’ll be better for me to just re-record it.
    All in all I’m really pleased with what Autotune has done for me.

  • Jed

    I agree with you, Joe. It’s a tool to be used when needed. I try to get the best performance possible out of the singer including doing a number of takes on lead vocals and then harmony / background vocals. In the end, there will probably be a spot or two that needs a bit of tweaking. This is when a bit of pitch-correction software magic does the trick. I had a father / daughter doing an acoustic set in the studio before Christmas and we were pressed for time. We re-did a couple of things but there was one line that was off on the back ground vocals – I applied the auto-tune to that and it sounded much better – not perfect, but good enough such that the average listener probably would know.

    • Yep. AutoTune is a great tool, but it shouldn’t be something you rely on heavily. If you find yourself reaching for AutoTune with every part of every session, something else is wrong. 🙂

  • Another reason why auto-tune and pitch correction are useful to the home studio musician: doing everything yourself in a tiny room instead of in a vast climate-controlled studio with an engineer at the controls can stress you out like crazy, and you won't always be in the best of voice when you find the time to record.

  • Kieraan

    im not sure which program to use, because i wanna speak through my microphone and i want it to come out of my speakers with auto tune without recording nothing soo im singing into my mic and it auto comes out as auto tune out of my speakers. and i really want to know how to do it i use windows xp on my computer.

    • I’m not sure why you’d want to do that, but you need AutoTune.

  • Personally, I think that it’s ok to use Auto TUne. But too many people trash T-Pain for it. I’ve worked with Auto TUne for about a year now, and I’m pretty familiar with it, and to use it the way he does actually requires ALOT of talent. He actually can sing despite alot of

  • people do use auto tune to fix bad vocals
    even live performances are fixed
    it makes human vocal perfection the most important thing.
    i think it becomes whoever has the most money sounds “right” and natural talent which can be a “little off” is scoffed at now when it might have had a chance to grow before.
    so many ppl don’t realize that all this perfection they hear in every song is computers and we’re losing the ability to appreciate an honest performance as a society.
    with these standards, either you have auto tune ($$) or you have to be part of the slim .0001% who have perfect pitch every time, everyone else better save up for auto tune or forget it.
    i can see it being used as any plug in but it is to the point where there isn’t a song out there without it.

    • Bain

      It’s certainly not just vocals where “whoever has the most money sounds right.” Electric guitar rigs are hideously expensive and will dramatically affect the perceived talent of the performer. Quality sounds require quality instruments. Microphones, speakers, compressors, reverb, ADA converters, cables, EQ, consoles. It all adds up and you get what you pay for

      • I’m not sure I agree. I tend to think if you slap Clapton on a cheap rig he’ll still sound WAY more talented than I would on a pricey rig. (But I do get your point that we need to make sure we don’t use really bad gear.)

    • I’m not sure I agree with “with these standards, either you have to auto tune ($$) or you have to be part of the slim .0001% who have perfect pitch every time.”

      What are you basing this on? Just because most popular music is heavily tuned doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what people want. Most music is WAY too compressed and limited, but that doesn’t mean that’s what people want. That’s just the current trend.

      I personally don’t use AutoTune on my voice, and that means I have notes that aren’t completely on pitch. I still think people like and enjoy my recordings. Y’know?

  • I agree, Auto-Tune has become a gimmick, and, like most gimmicks, gets used, re-used, and finally over-used ad infinitum. But the truth is, in this day and age, there are very few singers who can sing a whole album perfectly in key, and many minor tuning issues fall through the cracks during the recording process. At this point, the engineer/producer have two choices: Call the singer back in, or tweak with auto-tune. I have no qualms with tweaking an otherwise good track and making it great with a little technology.

    But really, someone’s gotta tell Kanye to cut it out. He’s not fooling anyone!

    • Bain

      I could say the same thing about guitar distortion

  • Great post. Oddly enough I posted a rather less balanced and objective opinion on autotune a couple of days after you:

    How to sound like T-Pain – it’s easy, but WHY ?

    More seriously, I agree that autotune can sometimes be exactly what’s needed, but personally I prefer to tune by hand if possible – ie. pitch-shift by 10 or 20 cents where necessary. This is MUCH slower and requires lots of patience, but yields far more natural, convincing results, especially on harmony vocals.

    There’s usually quite a bit of resistance from the artist at first, not least because of the time = money issues, but the results are so much better…

    Ian

    • Ian-

      I knew there would be someone with a similar idea gazing at this forum. I’m a huge advocate of manual correction- it takes quite a bit longer and requires a higher level of concentration/ aural discipline, but the results are worth it. Sometimes a phrase containing a note resting at, say, -6 cents off of center results in a more lively, true feel. Through careful exploitation of minor instances you can create a far better piece of work that a similar track simply “blanketed” with AutoTune.

  • Hey Joe,

    Great blog man!

    I use AutoTune, Drumagog, Pitch ‘n’ Time, etc… All are tools, as you said, and I think it depends on the purpose of the recording whether or not to use the tools.

    Most pop music is commercial, slick, produced, and built around a vocalist singing a song; the production, mix and tools used should accentuate the singer, the song, the lyrics, the story, etc. I feel you can use all the tools available to improve a mix and showcase the purpose of a song (without getting cliche with anything).

    I just got a beta test link for Melodyne’s DNA editor, that crazy note-separating tuning/editing tool. This one might be the straw that breaks over-production; you can get SO granular with this one… Not sure how I feel about it yet. Did you get one? What do you think of the app?

    • I’ve not checked it out yet, but the idea behind it is pretty wild. I can’t imagine it sounding all that natural though.

  • I can see the validity of using pitch correction for certain styles of music. Vocal performances on pop records need to be a bit more “perfect” than something on an alternative, or indie release. Being more of an indie music fan, I can say that the imperfections are kind of endearing and like the fact that a few show up in some of my favorite recordings.

  • Regarding awkwardness when recording with headphones, you can set the monitor mix to mono, then reverse the polarity of one channel. Place a set of monitor speakers equidistant from the microphone and offset so that you can still be in front of the microphone and still hear from the speakers. I’ve never used this method personally but I’ve been told it works. The speakers will phase each other out by the time they reach the microphone but since you aren’t in the phase area, you should be able to hear the music without headphones.

  • WILLIAM JONES

    I personally don’t have a problem with it. My Boss BR-1600 has those kind of tools. I usually try to avoid using it, though. I’d rather try to nail it myself without the aid of that stuff. But it’s nice to know it’s there in case I decide to delve into it.

  • Joe

    Hey good article. My band is in the middle of recording and it’s been a subject of much heated discussion. We decided not to do it on lead vocals. It has made the recording process longer, but I think the singer is happier with the results. It definitely takes away the temptation to be lazy.

  • Good stuff Joe!

    You know, as a singer, I was opposed to any sort of tuning for years. Like you said – nobody wants to be told that they’re imperfect.

    When used sparingly, Auto-Tuning (though I’m more of a melodyne guy myself) can be a great tool – and honestly is something you have to use now. Every record on the radio uses it, and the average listener doesn’t realize it – they just think that all radio artists have perfect pitch. So – when they hear a GREAT vocal delivery (with emotion!) without tuning, they actually think that the singer is simply not that good. They don’t know why they think it, but they know there’s something different.

    But it still makes me absolutely crazy that people use it as much as they do, and use it live at all. Sheesh. If you can’t sing, then find another instrument…

  • Chris

    I mix every week for broadcast, and I can’t think of a single instance where I haven’t used auto-tune or Melodyne or any of those vocal correction plug-ins. Thing simply sound different on stage than they do in the studio. I see vocal correction as a necessity, at least in my scenarios, because without it, it just doesn’t sound that great. And it really doesn’t have that much to do with the singers; some rooms are just more forgiving than others. The difference between a tuned track and an untuned track is huge to me. I vote in favor of tuning vocals every time, even if it sounds perfect. Just my opinion, not a law.