The music industry has evolved at ground-breaking speed since the late 90s, and Auto-Tune is perhaps the most revolutionary tool among all those that have changed the workflow of music producers over the years.
The software designed by Antares has become the Swiss Army knife of audio engineers, singers, and songwriters because it allows correcting vocals' pitch in seconds, giving artists of all levels the possibility to record and release professional-sounding music.
But that’s only half of what Auto-Tune can do! This powerful tool can transform a singer's voice into a musical instrument, with unique effects that can help you craft the perfect sound for your vocals.
So, what is Autotune, actually? Is it a pitch correction tool, a creative effect, or both?
Although Antares Auto-Tune is one of the industry-standard tools in music production, many are still not aware of how it works or how it can be used to improve vocal recordings.
So today, we'll delve deep into the world of Auto-Tune: we'll answer questions such as "what is Autotune?" and "how can I use Auto Tune to improve my tracks?" and analyze the evolution and applications of this phenomenal tool.
Let’s dive in!
The history of Auto-Tune
Andy Hildebrand developed Auto-Tune in 1996 after a conversation with one of his wife's colleagues who wished there was a device to help her sing in tune. Hildebrand was a Ph.D. research engineer specializing in signal digital processing, so he put his knowledge into developing an algorithm to correct imprecise intonations and presented the results to the NAMM Show later that year.
The Autotune plugin was released by Antares Audio Technologies in 1997 to critical success and was popularized in 1998 thanks to Cher's massive hit "Believe." In this case, Auto-Tune's extreme settings create an unnatural robot voice that completely removes the slide between one note to the other in Cher's singing.
By the early 2000s, Auto-Tune was a critical tool for artists across genres, who either used it to correct pitch that sounded imprecise or to completely alter their voices’ characteristics. Needless to say, the extensive use of Auto-Tune in pop music polarized the opinion of singers and audio producers, with some believing that the tool creates an artificial sound and deprives them of the artist’s soul.
Despite the criticism, today, Auto-Tune is a must-have for music producers and recording studios that want to deliver high-quality music. Over the years, Antares has developed dozens of critical tools to change and enhance vocal performance, pushing the boundaries of what's possible to achieve through vocal pitch correction technology.
Creative effect vs. Pitch correction tool
Before we delve into the possibilities offered by this powerful tool, it’s important to identify the most common ways Auto-Tune is applied to a vocal track.
While originally developed exclusively as a pitch correction software, Auto-Tune soon became a crucial effect to dramatically change vocals, creating the unnatural sound we’ve all heard in T-Pain and Travis Scott’s songs.
This effect is possible by using Auto-Tune's extreme settings instead of subtle modifications to correct imperfections. The result is perfectly-tuned vocals with a total lack of portamento (the natural sliding of one song to another), creating the unrealistic effect that’s become standard in hip-hop, trap, and even pop music.
The difference between these two approaches to Auto-Tune effects is crucial as it defines the final result we'll get from our vocal processing. Do you need a subtle correction to make your vocal performance sound perfect in your recordings? Then a gentle pitch correction is all you need. If you want your song to sound natural, but the pitch correction required is too aggressive, it's a better choice to simply re-record the track. Applying too much Auto-Tune will inevitably make your voice sound artificial.
On the other hand, Auto-Tune's extreme settings can help you craft a unique vocal effect by changing every aspect of your voice to turn it into a malleable musical instrument in its own right.
Whichever path you choose, it's vital to define beforehand what you aim to achieve with Auto-Tune. This is a tool that can be subtle and transparent but also aggressive and prominent, so spend some time identifying what you're looking for and then apply Auto-Tune accordingly.
How to use Auto-Tune
Aside from its outstanding performance, what makes Auto-Tune so popular is also its intuitive interface. Enhancing the qualities of your vocals can take a few seconds, so long as you know the purpose of each effect and knob.
First off, Auto-Tune by Antares is a plugin that requires a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to work. While the Autotune plugin should work seamlessly with all popular DAWs in the market, it’s good practice to double-check their compatibility to avoid workflow issues.
Some software and DAWs come with an integrated version of Auto-Tune. Most popularly, Spotify’s Soundtrap comes with the built-in Autotune plugin correction tool, so if you already own this DAW, look through your library, and you should find the effect there.
Once you recorded or uploaded your vocal track, it’s time to load Auto-Tune and adjust the settings to achieve the desired effect.
Input, Scale, and Key
Choosing the input is the first step to start using Auto-Tune. Based on the voice type, you can choose between alto, soprano, tenor, bass, and so on. If you're planning on using Auto-Tune for musical instruments (yes, you can do that, too), you can choose the right instrument from the dropdown menu.
Next, come the scale and key. These are crucial to identify the vocal's melody and movement, so make sure you enter the correct values in line with the rest of your composition.
Here’s what ultimately defines how your vocals will sound. By adjusting the retune speed, we’re deciding how fast Auto-Tune should intervene to correct an off-tune note. The lower the value we place (so a slower retune speed), the more robotic the final effect will be.
If you’re looking for a more transparent effect, choose a faster retune speed that’ll maintain the natural characteristics of your voice while adjusting the subtle imperfections of your performance.
A slower retune speed is more appropriate for artists who have complete control over their voice and can normally achieve perfect pitch even without autotune plugins. A faster retune speed is indicated for those artists looking to use autotune plugins as creative tools.
Flex, Vibrato, and Humanize
Other effects include Flex, Vibrato, and Humanize. Flex helps you bring back the "human voice" effect in the recordings after applying the pitch correction tool. With the Vibrato effect, you can apply a soft note change to enhance the voice's natural characteristics. Finally, Humanize will hold a specific note without affecting it, giving a more natural sound to sustained notes.
These are critical tools that can help you fine-tune your vocal performance and make it sound unique. Crafting a vocal track requires attention to detail and a focus on what can make our song stand out.
Impact on the music industry
There’s no doubt Auto-Tune has been one of the most polarizing tools for audio production of the last two decades. Many industry professionals and singers criticized the heavy use of the effect in popular music, highlighting how auto-tune technology is undervaluing the importance of practice and dedication to become a better singer.
On the other hand, many recording artists appreciate the new effects and tools that Auto-Tune offers to music-makers of all levels. All in all, using Auto-Tune or other similar pitch correction tools empowers artists with everything they need to release music professionally and craft their unique vocal signature.
Many professional singers and producers addressed the issue and went public about their opinion on Auto-Tune. From Jay-Z to Christina Aguilera, Steve Albini to Taylor Swift: many big names in pop music showed their distance towards Auto-Tune’s heavy use in modern releases. However, many of them changed their mind over the years, perhaps intrigued by the endless possibilities and simplicity of use Auto-Tune provides.
Other artists embraced the new technology in no time. Songs of rappers T-Pain, Lil Wayne, and Travis Scott are perhaps the most popular examples of the creative opportunities offered by Auto-Tune, and almost every pop artist uses pitch correction tools and Auto-Tune effects to alter their voice, from Justin Bieber to BTS, Beyoncé, and Kanye West.
The cultural significance of Auto-Tune
Whichever way you look at it, there’s no denying Auto-Tune changed the music industry for good, empowering music producers with a tool that can make voices sound perfect and unique.
Vocals have always been the most difficult sound to record: a voice’s vibrancy, subtle changes, and unique personality, are very difficult to reproduce in the recording studio and edit in post-production. If you have ever recorded an album, you know what I'm talking about.
With Auto-tune, the recording and editing process is simplified to the extreme, giving the opportunity to artists with little time, budget, or even musical talent, to express themselves fully through sound.
The endless opportunities offered by Auto-Tune are available to anyone with a DAW and a desire to express themselves creatively. Even if you're a bad singer, today, you have tools at your disposal that can correct your pitch problems and make your music more pleasant to the ears of your audience.
The Autotune revolution is not unlike the one caused by DAWs when they became popular in the late 90s: both are tools that make music production easier, more accessible, and affordable and allow more people to create more.
The production tools that define modern music are focused on simplifying workflow through extremely intuitive interfaces and accessible sound libraries ready to use. In this, autotune plugins are no different. They do so much more than correcting pitch: they empower artists and mixing engineers with technology that makes music creativity almost effortless.
Long gone are the days when an artist had to go to the recording studio and spend thousands of dollars to record, mix and master a track. Getting the right sound or the perfect take could take days, and the expenses to obtain an industry-standard song were unaffordable for many.
Today, this is no longer an issue. All artists committed to their craft can spend a few bucks and invest in a tool that can dramatically improve the sound quality of their vocal tracks, and autotune is the effect that gives independent artists the opportunity to compete with the big names in the industry on equal terms. And what's not to like about this?
Pros and Cons
- It gives your tracks a more modern, polished sound.
- Can fix small pitch mistakes without having to re-record vocal parts.
- It can be used as a creative tool (as T-Pain or Travis Scott do).
- It’s heavily used in the industry, meaning you’ll achieve a standardized sound quality
- It can dehumanize vocals' sound, making them sound artificial and mitigating their emotional impact.
- It makes it tempting to record average-quality vocals just because the track can be corrected in post-production (that's the so-called autotune cheating).
Technology can be good or bad depending on the use you make of it, and pitch correction tools are no exception. While Auto-Tune can indeed suppress the emotions in a human voice, it can also greatly simplify the job of singers and audio engineers, as well as expand a producer's sonic palette with fully-customizable effects.
Ultimately, if the Auto-Tune software simplifies your workflow, helps you create more music and release more tracks, you should consider it a valuable tool to make the most of your artistry. On the other hand, if you use pitch correction tools out of idleness or just because that's what everyone does, I'd suggest you leave Auto-Tune aside and reconsider your objectives as an artist.
Autotune software can help you find the perfect pitch and discreetly correct imprecise intonations while leaving the emotional qualities of your song untouched. Many singers nowadays use autotune to create new sounds, correct errors, or fix off-key songs. These are all positive ways to use autotune plugins to improve your creative output.
Alternatives to Auto-Tune
There are quite a few alternatives to Antares Auto-Tune these days if you’re looking exclusively for a pitch correction tool. However, if you’re looking for a complete effect library to improve your vocals, the only worthy alternative to Auto-Tune is Celemony Melodyne.
Melodyne offers a plethora of effects to take your vocals to the next level. It allows you to adjust the speed and curve of every note's transition and correct sibilants manually, making the whole track sound natural and transparent.
Melodyne works magnificently with all DAWs. I had the opportunity to use it multiple times during recording sessions and was impressed by its intuitive interface and the balanced sound it can bring to life.
It all comes down to personal taste, but the way I see it is Melodyne is a subtler tool ideal for tracks that require transparent corrections that leave the depth and warmth of a track untouched. Auto-Tune is a more creative effect that can bring to life interesting vocal effects and denaturalized voices.
Another crucial difference is that Auto-Tune can be used in real-time, whereas Melodyne requires an already-recorded track to operate. Finally, Melodyne can work with polyphonic melodies, whereas Auto-Tune is monophonic.
The Future of Auto-Tune
There's no doubt Auto-Tune will shape the future of music. It's become such a vital part of an artist's workflow that it's simply unthinkable to imagine we'll revert to a wholly-natural vocal sound in the future.
Looking at the progress of Auto-Tune in recent years, in the future, the naturalness and quality of effects will increase dramatically, to the point that applying these effects won't have any audible impact on the voice's intrinsic qualities.
The heavy use of Machine Learning will also have an effect on how Auto-Tune works, increasing its level of accuracy and pitch detection in vocal performances even more, with AI algorithms analyzing vocal tracks in real time to deliver the desired sound in seconds.
Many artists have already used real-time pitch correction for their live performances, but as the technology to correct pitch in real-time evolves, we'll hear artists performing live magnificently as the algorithm makes adjustments to their voice before it reaches your ears.
In a way, Auto-Tune is one of those tools that democratized music creativity, giving independent producers and singers the opportunity to record high-quality music at a fraction of the cost of a recording studio session.
The technology is here to stay, and when used correctly and professionally, Auto-Tune can bring to life an entirely new sonic palette and help you find your unique signature sound. Auto-Tune is the ultimate tool for the artist who wants their music to sound like the big hits and is eager to explore new creative territories offered by the constantly-evolving technological landscape of the music industry.
My final recommendation is to embrace whichever new technology comes your way and make the most of it to improve your sound, workflow, and creative expressiveness.
Good luck, and stay creative!