Making 'bad' notes better

Auto-tune software is removing singers' mistakes, but what will become of music's personality if all flaws are erased?

Todd Korol/Reuters
Michael Bublé

Have you noticed how unnaturally perfect all the singers are on “Glee”? Or “Smash”? No one ever seems to sing even slightly off-key. Is there a secret lab somewhere developing a superior strain of singers, genetically incapable of wandering off-pitch?

Close, but not quite. What you are hearing is the work of advanced computer software. The official brand names are Antares AVP and TC Helicon VoiceWorks (or TC Helicon VoiceWorksPlus), but the technique is collectively known in the sound business as “auto-tune.” And the pitch-correcting software heard on nearly every contemporary vocal recording is causing a heated debate among sound engineers, producers, and recording artists.

Record producers helped create the comeback hit “Believe” for Cher in 1998 with an aggressive application of the then-brand-new auto-tune, creating a somewhat robotic-sounding vocal that captivated record buyers and returned the star to the limelight for one last time. The pure novelty of the sound transformed a fairly forgettable pop song into a sensation.

How does it work? In the recording studio, the vocal performance is sent from the microphone through the auto-tune plug-in, which “bends” the pitch of the sung notes to the nearest semitone, up or down. When applied aggressively, it makes a synthetic distortion, rendering each note perfectly. Many performers in the hip-hop and rap world like the aggressive approach. Artists such as Kanye West and T-Pain, who don’t really “sing” anyway, claim that auto-tune enhances their musicality and projects emotion.

But other, more conventional, singers are dead-set against it. Portland band Death Cab for Cutie showed their distaste for its widespread use in the recording industry at the 2009 Grammy Awards by wearing protest ribbons.

Popular singer Michael Bublé criticizes auto-tune for making everyone sound the same, “like robots,” even though he uses it when recording pop-oriented music. Broadway performers, the last bastion of “real singers,” are crying foul because of auto-tune’s infestation into cast album production. Mama mia!

And it’s not only a recording tool. Country stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw told the Boston Herald that they utilize auto-tune in live performance, as a “safety net.”

What will become of the tiny human imperfections that give music much of its personality? Will we tire of all this gloss and robotic precision and toss the pernicious processor in the circular file? Stay tuned.

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