R.O.A (Resurrection of Auto-Tune)

James Redburn 24 January 2013

The title of this article is misleading. I mean ‘resurrection’ less as in ‘Christ coming back to life after being crucified’ and more in the sense of The Stone Roses, Pulp, Blur et al. reforming from the depths of Brit-Pop just because ‘the fans deserve it’. Everybody’s doing it these days, and, whether or not you disagree with it in principle, you will struggle to admit that you don’t enjoy it in one way or another.

Cher’s ‘Believe’ in 1998 was the first commercial recording to use Auto-Tune software, and, in ‘honour’ of her, Auto-Tune came to be known as the ‘Cher Effect’ – unfortunately, the producers got a bit over-excited with their nob-twiddling and ended up with a result that sounds like a cross between Wall-E and Darth Vader.

Things have moved on a bit since then and, these days, Auto-Tune is used widely in both recordings and live performances and often goes unnoticed. It doesn’t change anything radical; just think of it as an editor sifting through and correcting the occasional grammatical mistake in a novel. The end product is still very much the author’s own work– it’s just been rendered clearer to consume for the reader.

I should know, because, over the holidays, I spent a couple of days in a recording studio with a band that I’m in, Bears of Brasov (ahem, not so subtle nudge towards our FB page). Auto-Tune was used occasionally on our vocals because, let’s face it, we’re good but we’re not perfect. Go and give us a listen and tell me if you notice anything.

I also learnt, during this experience, how remarkably easy it is to manipulate a recording in other, perhaps even more disturbing ways. It’s called quantization. This is basically Auto-Tune for instruments, because it allows producers to move recorded instrumental tracks so that they’re perfectly in time to a click-track. It also allows them to take one bar or section of a recording, such as a riff which was played particularly well, and to simply copy and paste it when it needs to be repeated. Furthermore, with a couple of clicks of a button, you can replace every single hit of any given drum in an entire song with a digital sample.

You can bet your bottom euro that your average Jose won’t complain about any of these things, but surely they’re just as bad as Auto-Tune? If we’re using the authenticity argument to debunk correction on vocals, then we’d be hypocrites not to do the same for correction on instruments.

Could you imagine if, during the epic riff which opens ‘Sweet Child of Mine’, you heard Slash hit a bum note? Of course not. But I’m sure he did, during one of the takes. And I’m sure it took Bullet For My Valentine many attempts, and maybe even a little ctrl-C, ctrl-V, to nail those monster drum fills on ‘Waking the Demon’.

The entire recording process is about striving for perfection, whatever it takes. Nobody’s perfect, and so nobody is ever going to be able to give a perfect performance, no matter how many times they try. I’ve listed only a few of the effects which producers use to take live recordings and render them into commercial quality records but there are, of course, many more.

A live performance, however, is completely different from recording a track because it’s a one-off event. If the bassist screws up, the others have to carry on regardless. In this situation, Auto-Tune has far less ammunition to defend itself with because people aren’t looking for perfection here; they’re looking for a human, relatable performance.

Of course it’s great when singers can re-create a record-quality performance when they’re singing live but, in all honesty, nobody will ever listen out for their minor deviations in vocal pitching. I mean come on, when was the last time you heard anybody comment on Paul McCartney screwing up ‘Hey Jude’? Ok, bad example, but you know what I mean.

The ethical dilemmas begin to arise when bands start using Auto-Tune just to make them sound bearable during ‘live’ performances. This leads to easy accusations of laziness, dishonesty and, shock horror, even lack of talent. But, in a time when most pop artists have their songs written for them, their brands created for them, their gigs organised for them and their backing tracks switched on for them, Auto-Tune is just one amongst many factors which allow talentless fools to have their stupid faces plastered across every billboard from Cambridge to Canberra.

Remember that Simpsons episode – the one where Bart becomes a member of ‘The Party Posse’ with Milhouse, Nelson and Ralph and they ascend to stardom using voice enhancers built by NASA and distributing subliminal messages about joining the navy? Their career ended when the voice enhancers were switched off and everyone realised that they were, in fact, just wailing the whole time. I wonder what would happen if we did the same to those pretty 1D boys…

James Redburn