Those who can't sing use auto-tune

BY VICKI ANDERSON
Last updated 09:36 15/06/2010

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Tho$e who can't $ing use Auto-Tune.

Exxon engineer Andy Hildebrand was using sound waves to locate oil underground when he realised the technology could be used to detect, analyse and modify pitch.

Antares Audio Technologies took this discovery and in 1997 released Auto-Tune, a software program that digitally corrects pitch, allowing singers who sing off key to produce perfectly tuned vocal tracks.

Auto-Tune has become standard equipment in professional recording studios, but the anti-Auto-Tune movement is vocal.

Opponents say its use is "killing" the music industry. Others liken it to "pouring motor oil over a gourmet meal".

Imperfection is the new perfection, the critics say. They believe perfect pitch is almost impossible to achieve, and that it is natural flaws and imperfections that make a voice memorable and affecting.

Fans of Auto-Tune and a similar program, Melodyne, argue it's a useful tool in the wide-ranging arsenal of technology available.

They compare the human voice to an instrument, and argue that Auto-Tune is merely an effect like a vocodor, talk box or a wah wah pedal. Think of it like a model putting makeup on to hide a pimple, they say.

Where it was once used sparingly, its use is now rife, with some artists using it on entire albums. Artists such as Lady Gaga, Madonna, the Black Eyed Peas, Chris Brown, Miley Cyrus, Daft Punk, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Avril Lavigne and Kanye West are all rumoured to have used Auto-Tune,as do TV shows like Glee and American Idol.

"If it shifts product, it ain't going to stop," says a Britain-based producer.

Most contemporary music is created with a computer program called Pro-Tools. It allows musicians and engineers to record on to a computer and map out songs on a visual grid. Just like with Microsoft Word, users can cut and paste, slicing at one point on the grid and pasting at another.

Making sure the cuts match requires the even pitch that Auto-Tune provides.

I interviewed four engineers and producers for this story and none of them wanted to be named. More importantly, not one could think of a recording session in the past five years where they hadn't used Auto- Tune. They also couldn't name an artist they had worked with who would want it publicly known.

"It is a lot like plastic surgery. You start with one little piece and, before you know it, you've modified everything," says one United States-based Grammy-winning recording engineer.

And it's not confined to recording studios. There are also hardware devices such as Antares Vocal Producer that do the same things in live sessions.

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Cantabrian Shane Goodwin is the bass technician for British act Muse, currently on a world tour. Last year, Muse were awarded the Q magazine award for Best Live Act in the World, the Brit Award for Best Live Act and MTV Award for Best Live Band. By email from Italy, Goodwin said he'd had no experience with Auto-Tune.

"I have not really had much to do with it. I know of one band that use/ used it live, it was a rather bad choice and quite noticeable! They are a very very famous American band, but I won't say who," Goodwin says.

"Auto-Tune is a ball-park unit. If you're not in or near the right key, it will choose one close to where you're at. [But] it can go horribly wrong. I have no experience with it and I don't want to."

History is full of musicians who have twiddled with tune or experimented with new tools. Roger Troutman and Peter Frampton used a talk box to great effect.

Doubling vocals was a favourite trick of John Lennon's that became standard practice in the industry, because it is effective at covering up unfortunate pitch.

Samplers were used by many producers in the 80s and 90s. Working with reel-to-reel tape, they would sample the word they wanted to fix and then alter the sample rate and zip it back in.

It is inevitable that technological advances will alter the musical landscape, but if a singer completely corrects their vocals digitally, isn't that cheating? Should they be given the credit for having the talent they don't have? Aren't they deceiving the record buying public?

Yes, yes and yup, American artist Vic Chesnutt told The Press before his death from an overdose of muscle relaxants last year.

He worked with Danger Mouse, Sparklehorse and director David Lynch, among many others. "There's nothing wrong with fixing the odd note, but it has gone too far for me. Potentially, it is more damaging to the industry than anything else. It's lazy and it's cheating.

"It's like Lance Armstrong using a motorbike in a [bicycle] race. The public is conned into thinking their Top 40 pop stars can actually sing in key, when it's all just a sham.

"Even on American Idol, when they're waffling on about pitch, the producers use it. They used it when judge Paula Abdul sang on the show, which is so hypocritical I can't even begin to talk about it. The industry is in enough trouble as it is, without deceiving the public."

Junior Marvin, an original member of Bob Marley's Wailers, argues that a vocal track treated heavily with Auto-Tune sounds synthetic and is merely electronically sanitised music, taking away from the musicality of the song.

"I lived in London when it was at the forefront of music with the Who, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix. It was all about live music being played. You couldn't use computers. You had to know how to play. It should be about good musicianship and skill," Marvin says.

"The other thing I really don't understand is when artists who are good singers use it. It's like pouring motor oil over a gourmet meal."

KIWI BANDS USE IT FOR 'EFFECT'

New Zealand artists are not averse to Auto-Tune, including Opshop and The Phoenix Foundation.

Opshop used Auto-Tool on the first single, Pins and Needles, on their upcoming album Until The End of Time (due out August 2).

"There's a bit of a T-Pain thing happening in there," says Opshop frontman Jason Kerrison, who did a production course at Berklee School of Music, Boston, in 2009.

"Obviously with this record we wanted to evolve sonically but it's fun to try new ideas. T-Pain and that whole pop culture embrace of that synthesised artefact [Auto-Tune] is very interesting to me and I had never heard that really taken into a pop-rock band context - taken by a band like us and used and abused like that. To integrate that timbre into what we were doing, it just sounds interesting."

Using Auto-Tune cost the group access to one Australian radio station. "One programmer over there refused to play it and said we'd have to remove the 'Auto-Tune s***' before he would. We decided to leave it in."

The Phoenix Foundation's Sam Flynn-Scott believes Auto-Tune is "one tool in a big toolkit". He says other independent artists with low recording budgets have saved albums with Auto-Tune, using it when recording under time constraints in expensive studios.

"We don't use it often but we have used it - more as an effect. It saves time. It's not that different to doing multiple takes and comping the best parts which 99 per cent of musicians do. It's technology that can be used with skill but it shouldn't be a replacement for the real thing. If it's used as correction on a natural voice, I hate it.

"Auto-Tune is like a bad toupee - you can always tell."

RIPE FOR PARODY

Much like scientists calling a new disease after its first fatality, using Auto-Tune is known as "doing a Cher". She is credited with being the first to use it - on Believe. It added a robotic, computer-style quality to the voice and was a huge hit.

Since, there's been a swag of songs criticising and paroding the technique. In 2000, The White Stripes made fun of the Auto-Tune effect on the B-side version of You're Pretty Good Looking (Trendy American Remix). It had absurd levels of Auto-Tune throughout the song.

New star Ke$ha clearly uses Auto- Tune, sparking one American comedy website to create a parody of her worldwide No 1 hit Tik Tok. In Sing Talk, a line under the video reads: Tho$e who can't $ing, talk.

Hip-hop godfather Jay-Z infamously launched an attack on the process in his song D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune), which ignited a feud with rival T-Pain, who has joined forces with Auto-Tune's creater to release a version as an iPhone application.

Manipulating the voice is a great tool, T-Pain believes: "Now everyone wants to be a Transformer."

* Vicki Anderson is music editor at The Press.

- The Press

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