The Politics of Auto-Tune
November 24, 2008
A few weeks ago I was working in the office when I got a call from a nice young gentleman representing the science program NOVA that airs on PBS. He had some basic research questions for an article they were thinking about whipping up for NOVA Science Now, about the use of intonation software... the most famous of which is, of course, Antares Auto-Tune.
I felt rather badly for him... the conversation must have been pretty frustrating on his end, because he was very new to the technology and hadn't really thought through the ramifications of its use. His first question was, "Can you give me a list of famous artists who use Auto-Tune on their voices?" And his second question was, "Can you name some famous engineers who put Auto-Tune on the artists they record?"
It took me a while to explain to him that Auto-Tune, being a tool in the hands of people who are fallible, is value-neutral; it is not good or evil. It is capable of doing great good in the right hands and great evil in the wrong ones, but that rests with the engineer, not with the tool... and the problem is that enough people have overused Auto-Tune for one reason or another that the software itself has been demonized. I walked him through a few examples, which I'll now share with you.
"Imagine," I said, "An incredibly talented singer, well trained, emotionally powerful, really in the zone. She sings a lead vocal for her next big hit, and really nails the take, just nails it. It seems like the performance of a lifetime, until you listen back and hear that one note in the second chorus is off pitch, just enough to really make you wince. If you had a way to gently nudge that one note back into place without hurting the rest of the performance, wouldn't you take advantage of it?" He agreed that that was a noble and worthwhile thing to do.
"Okay, now imagine a singer who was hired because he's gorgeous and a great dancer and looks great on video, but who is untrained and has such poor intonation that you suspect he may be tone deaf. You put him in a vocal booth and have him sing his heart out, and he somehow manages, in ten or twenty takes, to get through the song so you can go in and assemble one word at a time from various takes into a completed performance... maybe even going down to the level of one SYLLABLE at a time! And then, when you're done, his pitch is still all over the place, so you feed the vocal through the intonation software and crank it way up to smooth it all out. You're going to make a fortune if this guy's record sounds good, and if you refuse to go that far, they'll find someone else who will. Are you still justified?" He agreed, with some trepidation.
"Okay," I said. "You have now defined the top and the bottom of the slippery slope. Where you stop is up to you, and it has nothing to do with the software, only with how you use it."
Once he understood how much intonation software was hated-and-yet-loved by the world of music recording, I asked him to name a favorite vocalist. He named a fairly famous R&B singer. I said, "Fine. Well-loved voice, a Grammy winner. Good. Go to her engineer and ask him if he uses Auto-Tune on her. See what he says."
He thought about that for a moment, then sighed, and said, "I guess I see your point. If he wants to keep his job he won't say stuff like that. But what about Madonna? She made a big deal about using Auto-Tune on one of her records, her producer admitted it..."
I said, "Ray Of Light?"
You could hear him blink. "How did you know?"
"Because that was her techno album... William Orbit did that to her voice as a deliberate special effect. Ask the guy who produced one of her other albums, like I'm Breathless, and see what answer you get."
I signed off by saying that it was probably possible to find a combination of people who would be willing to talk about this stuff on the record: a well-established engineer at a famous studio whose reputation wouldn't be hurt by frankly discussing this stuff, in conjunction with an up-and-coming young artist whose career wouldn't be tanked by talking about Auto-Tune, and maybe a few careful references to big hits where it was used as a special effect, because its presence would be undeniable and easy to hear. But I couldn't make any suggestions.
I don't know if anything ever came of that NOVA segment. But yesterday morning, Dr. Mrs. Dr. was listening to NPR and heard a technology segment about Auto-Tune in which the producers did exactly that: interviewed a famous engineer at a well-respected studio, demonstrated the effect on a singer who was as yet unknown, and discussed the politics and history of the process in a careful manner. It's a really nice bit of reportage, and put me very much in mind of my phone chat from a few weeks back. You can find the article here, and a slightly older comment on the subject by David Was here. An older article on the subject is here, and is still interesting and relevant.
The takeaway from this is that it's a poor workman who blames his tools: Auto-Tune and other intonation and pitch correction programs are not inherently evil, and it's up to you not to abuse them. But if you're forced to keep quiet about them when you do, well, I can't help you there.