If you know the artist T-Pain or have heard the weird “up and down” robotic voice, you probably know about autotune. But when it comes to a technical and modern standpoint, what does autotune do to your voice?
Autotune allows your voice to automatically correct to the closest key. While Antares Audio Technologies initially created autotune for vocal corrections. However, autotune is more popular as a distortion tool.
The frequent use of this technique has come into criticism, with many thinking that it removes the individuality behind the singer’s voice. Despite some criticism, it still is prevalent. We will explore autotune further below.
How Does Autotune Work?
Developed in the 1990s, autotune is a program that automatically alters the voice to keep it in pitch and key when someone is singing. It’s a trick used by sound technicians everywhere in music, whether in a recording studio or even on stage.
Using it is apparent to any ear as it gives off a robotic edge to the vocals. Unlike a vocoder or other digital vocal tools, you can still hear a large proportion of the natural voice rather than a complete robotic tone.
Using it has been a source of much debate as some people have used it as part of their identity while others use it to mask flaws in a recording. Generally, you will only hear it in small portions of a song.
Artists can use it in many ways; it has become a trendy tool in all forms of music and prevents artists from re-recording songs time and time again to get them perfected before finishing the final mix.
One of the earliest and most famous uses comes from “Believe” by Cher.
Cher – Believe – An Early Example of Autotune’s Distortion Abilities
The 1990s were full of overproduced pop hits that dominated the charts, but Cher’s megahit “Believe” in 1998 announced the arrival of autotune. While you can still hear the deeper tones that define Cher, there is a prominent robotic edge to her voice – particularly on more extended notes held throughout the song.
This song shows how dramatic an impact autotune can have on a piece. Believe was a smash hit, topping the charts in 19 countries across the US, Europe, and Asia, dominating everywhere it was released. It still is beloved to this very day become the 17th best-selling of all time in the UK Record Charts. What a way to welcome new technology!
How Autotune Continues to be Popular
As the benefits of autotune became more apparent to the world, so did the use of the tool. You would be hard-pressed to find a top chart hit nowadays without it. Some people have taken the use of it further than the “here and there” approach taken by many producers.
Many rappers are particularly keen users of it as it hides away from their weaker “clean” vocals compared to their actual rapping skills. Big names such as T-Pain and Fetty Wap have enjoyed regular success from this, with the distinct digital edge on their voices clear in choruses throughout entire albums and adding to their overall reputations.
Its use has gone further than just artists as a defining trait of some genres. The rise of “crunk” in the late 2000s was particularly guilty of this, with bands using autotune religiously in their albums to digitalize their voices. Crunk, being a weird hybrid of emo and hip-hop – features much more electronic elements than the “emo” bands that were dominant at the time.
With electric drums and synths replacing many live instruments, vocal lines were heavily autotuned when they weren’t relying on gang vocals or rapping. Despite adverse reactions from industry critics, crunk landed a place with young fans and dominated the charts for several years even as the emo “craze” died down.
Cobra Starship – “Good Girls Gone Bad”
For the early part of the 21st century, Gabe Saporta fronted Midtown – one of the best-loved pop-punk of all time. After they split in 2005, Saporta started up Cobra Starship, which ditched the guitars for electronica and led the “crunk” boom.
Their breakout song – “Good Girls Gone Bad” – demonstrated why autotune was all the rage in the music business and how different music could be. Gone was the edgy angst of Saporta’s trademark vocals for digitalized nasally vocal lines.
The guest vocals from Gossip Girl actress Leighton Meester only added to the new direction and showed what was to come in the next few years. A top ten hit in both the US and Australia, there was no giving up the new style even if it split punk fans worldwide.
The Great Debate of Using Autotune
As it has become so prominent in music, there is a debate about using autotune. The love/hate relationship divides the music world. Purists argue that it is killing music while others see it as yet another technical evolution.
It’s easy to see why many people don’t like it. With many names often using to produce a hit, it is easy to argue that anyone can. Some songs like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and Ylvis‘s “What Does The Fox Say” are controversial examples. Those songs live on for all the wrong reasons and show everything supposedly wrong with modern music.
Yet, there is still a need to have apps like autotune to help refine hit records. You may hear top musicians use it on a recorded version, but the natural arrangement is never too different. Many artists sound the same without any effects if you find a song’s acoustic or live performance.
It’s the reason why best-selling artists like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Rihanna still dominate the charts even without the polished production. All autotune does for them is refines the recorded version with a bit of extra polish that makes it radio-friendly.
Linkin Park – “The Catalyst”
To see just why this debate rages on, listen to Chester Bennington’s vocals in “The Catalyst.” Linkin Park’s departure from their signature heavier style is on display here. The digital effects on Bennington’s voice were apparent, with autotune in use throughout the song.
It split critics and fans down the middle and was a sign of things to come. Still, hearing it live was a completely different experience. The power was still there in Bennington’s voice for everyone to see. The use of autotune gave the band the chance to experiment with a different style. Linkin Park would pursue this style further in albums.
Realistically, the rise of autotune has come with the added electronic aids that evolved from breakthroughs in music production. In a world dominated by technology, these programs will always be part of music, no matter how people debate.
It can undoubtedly help make massive hits and even define a band or genre. However, artists with natural talent will always shine. This situation is accurate regardless of how artists and audio engineers use autotune.