9 September 2010

AutoTune Doesn't Ruin Music - People Do.

For many music fans, nothing provokes knee-jerk anger quite like "AutoTune", the brand name now used as a catch-all for any software that can manipulate a singer's performance to iron out dodgy notes. Most fans consider it simple cheating, a way of making a quick buck from the pretty-but-talentless before shoving them out of the music industry's revolving door. With the furore over doctored vocals in X Factor, Jay-Z taking a stand with Death Of AutoTune, and AutoTune The News becoming a pop-culture phenomenon on YouTube, the idea that singers are regularly getting artificial help is at the forefront of the public's consciousness.

But is vocal tuning really the route of all musical evil? There's no doubt that it has a natural home in the world of manufactured pop, where it can help grease the production line and get a useable result from a mediocre singer far faster than the old days of wading through molasses, repeating each line over and over in the hope of getting something useable. Without question, there are successful artists now who might never have had a career twenty years ago. Poor vocals are often massaged into tune not to make them sound good - a bad singer is a bad singer, whether or not they are in key - but to make them seamlessly melt into the swamp of backing vocals, gospel choirs and effects that so often provide the illusion of quality.

Then there are the singers who don't need to be tuned, but get the treatment anyway. It's the easy, safe thing for a producer to do: tuning a vocal means never later realising that you've missed a bum note; it means getting out of some of the big decisions you might otherwise have to make, because you know it can always be fixed later; it means finishing earlier and getting to the pub, while the assistant engineer sorts out the problems. Oh, it's the easiest thing in the world to lambast producers for short-changing artists in this way - but the really sad thing is that these days it is more often the artist than the producer who demands the tuning treatment.

A decade ago, when tuning was in its relative infancy, it was a production decision - even, sometimes, a label decision. Singers then were as wary of it as fans are now, and I remember as a young engineer witnessing blazing rows between perfectionist producers and artists who did not want their performance touched. Some unscrupulous producers would do it anyway, as soon as the artist's back was turned (at least the threat of discovery would make them do it judiciously).

But experienced producers and engineers have been able to tune vocals now for so many years that it's no longer exotic and impressive; it's just another tool. They know where it can help, and they know the pitfalls. They've been through the temptation, and learned when it's really needed, and when they've later regretted it. Things have changed. Now it's just as often the singers themselves who are demanding that their vocals be tuned, and the producers who are trying to warn them of the dangers. When you get singers and producers working together who are all too happy to throw vocals through a tuner - especially in the dreaded 'automatic' mode, instead of taking the time to use their own human judgement - you've got a recipe for the bland homogenisation that has infected far too much of our music.

So, would music really be better without AutoTune? Well, maybe, but just as with the Internet, or nuclear power, or any game-changing technology, it's easy to focus on the negative, and the truth is just a little more complicated. Imagine a promising young singer, perhaps not the best in the world, but singing her own words with passion and delicacy, has just finished a mesmerising take. The emotion, the intimacy is all there but on just a few lines, in her eyes-closed reverie, her tuning has wandered enough to induce a wince. Once, the only way to fix it was to replace the line with a new one, perhaps from another take where the tuning was better but the magic was lost. Nowadays, with experienced hands and a delicate touch, it's possible to transparently rescue those few wandering moments and present the performance as the singer intended.

Then, of course, there is tuning as an obvious special effect, whether the crazy robotisation made famous by Cher and employed by a thousand rappers, or the smooth, silky 'over-perfection' that's a big part of the modern R&B sound. These uses might annoy you, but it is a deliberate choice of sound, and quite different from the stale efforts to make poor singers presentable.

As fans of great music, it's easy to get angry at the mere suggestion of tuning, and to think that its use is never justified. But it's always worth stepping back before we give the order to fire. Vocal tuning is one of those things that we don't notice when it's done tastefully. We only hear it when it's been done badly or inappropriately, or when it never needed to be used. AutoTune doesn't ruin music - people do.