Autotune is many times more popular than commonly thought. In spite of the Cher/T-Pain effect permeating the Hip Hop industry with robotic vocals, Autotune was surprisingly designed for an entirely different purpose: Natural, transparent, and genuine vocals.
Instead, we commonly associate it with the extreme settings that result in the Cher Effect, where the pitch correction is set to do a 100% hard correction at a 0ms delay, completely removing any transitions that would ordinarily softly glide notes to the singer’s notes.
Autotune, however, is used more often for non-robotic, transparent vocals. More often than even Autotune, the industry has settled with an alternative tool called Melodyne.
What is Melodyne?
In short, it’s post-production pitch correction software. It is an audio editor that allows each individual note to be edited by hand. It can be slightly adjusted or massively shifted. Vibrato can be added or removed. Wobbly notes can be made smoother. Notes in the wrong formant (sounding too low or high) can be adjusted, and loudness problems can be smoothed out.
It’s so powerful that it is now used on almost every song that can be heard on the radio today. Very few artists completely avoid using this elusive tool. Even live performances are touched up. Producers often correct a singer’s vocals without their knowledge, and fewer takes are required in the studio to get a good vocal. The tool is both incredibly powerful and industry-changing.
What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, there is another slight issue with the pervasiveness of pitch correction software: The human voice isn’t designed to hit the note 100% on target, every single time.
Any song from the 70s,, 80s, and 90s has natural pitch imperfections as a result of singers naturally singing a little sharp or flat on a note. Our ears were used to hearing these imperfections. They did not sound out of tune, but rather gave the song a certain expressiveness from the singer.
Nowadays, we remove many of these imperfections with post-production software. Notes are hit 100% on-target thanks to Melodyne and Autotune, and our ears are no longer accustomed to hearing the natural imperfections and nuances of the voice.
The end result is that a live performance is shocking compared to the studio performances. Good singers are now slammed as being untalented simply for being unable to reach an impossible standard. Even live performances are usually touched up in the studio afterwards as a result, and it has simply become the expectation of the industry to have brushed up vocals.
Because of its pervasiveness in the industry, we’ve lost a certain touch and feel with the vocals that exist within newer songs. And while it has allowed good vocals to be released from songs that otherwise had poor takes, it can result in artificial sounding mixes as seen in Michael Jackson’s posthomous records (where producers over-processed his vocals using such tools):
Producers of Michael Jackson’s posthomous work used Melodyne extensively, resulting in the over-processed sound that is not typical of Michael Jackson’s work.
Pitch correction is a double edged sword.
It’s given the industry the ability to take poor live performances and make them great. It’s given recorded TV performances the ability to screw up a little in front of the camera while still being released in good shape. And it has allowed great artists to record fantastic songs without needing the talent to be American Idol singers out of the box. It has been a huge tool used by the industry to enable fantastic vocals to come from anyone.
The only downside is that when used incorrectly, it results in nuances and imperfections being removed, and thereby changing the character of the song. Its pervasiveness in the industry has become something that we must simply accept: It is here to stay, and our ears are accustomed to hearing it. It is no feasibly possible for a singer to sound “in tune” without the processing our ears have become primed to hear.