What is Autotune?

If you've listened to any pop music from the last twenty years or so, there's a high chance you'll have encountered autotune in one form or another. But what actually is it? Is it only used when an artist can't sing? And how did it come about in the first place?

Will Brook-Jones

Will Brook-Jones

What is Autotune?

Autotune was first introduced in 1997 by Dr Andy Hildebrand. Andy was a Ph.D researcher exploring digital signal processing while studying electrical engineering. He first installed his algorithm for autotune on a custom Mac. After extensive development and testing, he showcased its potential at the NAMM show. This demonstration created clamour across the industry. To say it was an instant hit is an understatement.

The word auto-tune is actually a product name – owned and trademarked by Andy’s company, Antares Audio Technologies. Other companies simply refer to their offerings as autotune. But what actually is it? It’s used to smooth out flat and sharp notes to ensure the singers voice is in the correct pitch. Once you’ve selected the pitch that the vocalist (or yourself) is meant to be singing in, the software will scan the vocal. It picks out notes which don’t fit the scale and moves them back into line at the right pitch. Autotune also makes the transition between multiple vocal takes smoother.

Where is Autotune used?

Fast forward and it was quickly incorporated as a plugin into Pro Tools. This software was recognised as the industry standard DAW then as it is now. You’ll also find autotune within other DAWs, studio equipment, or as a piece of standalone rack-mounted gear (which is ideal for live shows – although it’s usually frowned upon in this setting).

This technological innovation has forever changed modern music and the way that professional recording engineers, producers and studios craft a vocal track – especially within pop. Almost every big track in the charts utilises it in some way. Sometimes it’s more subtle; you may not even notice that it’s being used. While other times it’s not even trying to hide. It’s become a production tool as commonplace as compression, EQ, and reverb.

Autotune Examples

One of the first (and most famous examples of autotune) was the release of Cher’s single ‘Believe’ in 1998. The song relied heavily on the effect, with most of the dials intentionally tuned up to 11 (cheers, Spinal Tap). This created a robotic, otherworldly chorus that was new to listeners everywhere. It went on to become her bestselling song and one of the bestselling singles ever released.

This solidified autotunes place within pop music’s production arsenal. It’s gone on to be used by the likes of Daft Punk, Kanye West, T-Pain and other big artists – receiving a further surge in popularity during the 2010s within trap music especially.

Critical Reception

However, it wasn’t well received by everyone. Some said it would ruin the music industry. Others claimed that it was cheating – helping vocalists to disguise the fact that they couldn’t actually sing. Steve Albini, who famously recorded bands like Nirvana, was one of its earliest detractors, saying that it was “mind-numbing”. He also said it would become tiresome and a cliche in no time at all. Later, Jay-Z shared a similar sentiment, claiming that it had become a gimmick, and that too many artists were jumping on a bandwagon.

It wasn’t just artists being critical; other professionals and publications were putting the boot in too. An anonymous recording engineer (with a Grammy) stated that as every track now has perfect pitch, songs are becoming harder to differentiate and everyone sounds the same. Time Magazine even put autotune in their 2010 article ‘The 50 Worst Inventions’. Others have described it as “Photoshop for the human voice”.

There’s a practical argument in favour of autotune though – especially if you’re not a professional. For example, you may have a couple of duff notes present in your recording, yet don’t have the time or money to get yourself or the artist back in the studio. This is where auto-tune comes into its own. You won’t have to record take after take either.

How do you use Autotune?

The first thing to consider when using autotune is that you should only use it on the sections of your song that require it. Don’t add the effect to the entirety of your vocal take. This is is because having autotune on the whole track will be detrimental to the sound quality of your recording.

There’s two main schools of thought when it comes to using autotune. The first is to use it as an outright effect – slathering your vocal in it so it’s obvious to absolutely everyone. This will make it sound more robotic.

The other way is more subtle, using it in a more transparent manner to fix any rogue pitches in your vocal take. This should keep the vocal sounding a lot more natural if used correctly.

To change the amount of auto-tune to your liking, there are three key settings that you’ll need to consider:

Input Type: this is what you’re applying the autotune to. For example, the autotune plugin should have options for the different kinds of vocal – tenor, alto, soprano, bass etc – and even instruments (guitar, keyboard etc). Selecting the correct input type will make the autotune sound far more natural, as well as being more precise.

Musical Key: this is the key you’re working in. You need to set the autotune to match the key of the song you’re doing.

Retune Speed: this parameter decides how quickly your autotune will capture a missed note and then tune it. The higher the retune speed – e.g. 20 – the more transparent the effect will be; the lower the retune speed – e.g. 0 – the more robotic the effect becomes.

A faster retune speed can sometimes be more suitable for singers with less experience/ability, while a slower retune speed will suit vocalists with more control over their voice.

Autotune & Pitch Correction Software

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Will Brook-Jones
Will Brook-Jones

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