FadersPitch correction software has applications from restoration and mix-rescue to outright distortion of a voice or instrument. I’ll discuss some of the more tasteful uses of these auto-tune tools (whether the original from Antares, or a variant like the free GSnap) below. But first I thought I’d highlight their misuse to illustrate the effects we usually try to avoid.

So, listen here to 10 of pop music’s most blatant auto-tune abuses:

If you’re unfamiliar with Auto-tune, and especially if you listen to much pop and rock, you might not hear it initially. When overdone, the effect yields an unnatural yodel or warble in a singer’s voice. But the sound is so commonplace in modern mainstream music that your ears may have tuned out the auto-tune!

The songs in this clip, in order, and the phrases most affected by auto-tuning to help you spot them:

Dixie ChicksThe Long Way Around – Noticeable on “parents” and “but I.”

T-PainI’m Sprung – Especially obvious on “homies” and “lady.”

Avril LavigneComplicated – Listen to “way,” “when,” “driving,” “you’re.”

Uncle KrackerFollow Me
The whole vocal sounds strained, but especially the word “goodbye.”

Maroon 5She Will Be Loved – Listen for “rain” and “smile.”

Natasha BedingfieldLove Like This – “Apart” and “life.”

Sean KingstonBeautiful girls – “OoooOver” doesn’t sound human.

JoJoToo Little Too Late – Appropriately, “problem” stands out.

Rascal FlattsLife is a Highway
Every vocal, foreground and background, is treated, but “drive” in particular.

New Found GloryHit or Miss – “Thriller”, and every time Jordan sings “I.”

The Cher Effect

When used noticeably, an auto-tuner produces what most call “The Cher Effect“, named for her trademark sound in the song Believe*. (In essence, we named the effect like scientists naming a new disease after its first victim.) Treated this heavily, a vocal track sounds synthetic, and obviously processed.

But not all auto-tuning is so blatant. In the sample above, it’s harder to hear the pitch correction on Uncle Kracker and Avril than on T-Pain and Bedingfield.

Tasteful Uses

As with any tool, a little care can yield great results. Some simple things to keep in mind about pitch correction tools:

  • Performance: Most importantly, an auto-tuner isn’t a shortcut to a perfect performance. If you can’t sing the song properly, no amount of post-processing will make it sound like you did. So when your pitch matters, and you don’t want to correct it with an effect, you’ll need to work on your performance until it’s right.
  • Less is more: The fewer notes you correct, the less obvious your use of an auto tuner will be. Consider automating the plugin so it acts only when most needed.
  • Graphical mode: If your pitch correction software offers a graphical mode (like Antares Auto-Tune and Melodyne,) learn how to work with it. The default “auto” modes are OK for basic corrections, but often produce noticeable yodeling.
  • Backing vocals: In general, you can get away with more pitch correction on backing vocals than lead vocals.
  • Outdated: Obvious vocoder-style autotuning is dated, and borders on kitschy. The synthetic warbling vocal sound marks songs as having come from a specific era, the same way gated-reverb on drums instantly places a song in the 1980’s. Remember: If you make the auto tuner obvious, people will say your song uses “the Cher effect.” Let this be a guideline.

Be sure it’s needed

Two songs have auto tuners on my mind today: Snoop’s Sensual Seduction (because of Anil Dash’s ruminations on the death of the analog vocoder,) and Natasha Bedingfield’s Love Like This, which I heard on the radio. In the former, the auto tuner is clearly a gimmick. But every time I hear Bedingfield’s song, I’m struck by the same question: Why do that to her voice?

She’s a fantastic singer, and once you’ve heard the song without the cheesy auto tuner effect, it’s hard to take the radio single seriously.

And there’s a lesson in that for home recordists, (even those of us who don’t write pop music,) which echoes the rule of mixing: If an effect significantly changes the sound of a track, especially one so important as the lead vocal, be sure that change improves the song before committing it to the mix.

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