Saturday, June 10, 2017

Auto-Tune's moment is past - keep it real!

I'm intrigued by the lack of information available on the internet about top artists who DON'T use Auto-Tune pitch-correcting software, either live or in recordings. Yes, there is the odd query on Quora or Yahoo, but the responses are anecdotal, amateurish and most definitely not definitive.
The best I can elucidate is that Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie and Neko Case definitely reject the technology on principal, because they have gone on record as saying so. Jay-Z is also outspoken against the use of Auto-Tune, although it would not be very relevant to his own style of rap music anyway. P!nk, Nelly Furtado and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco are other possibles, although many people still claim to detect its use in some of their songs. Certainly, any artist recording before Cher's "Believe" became the first (and possibly worst) example of Auto-Tune to hit the public consciousness back in 1998 would, almost by definition, not have used Auto-Tune, although that's still no guarantee that these artists did not then go on to use it in subsequent recordings.
The truth is, Auto-Tune, and related products like Melodyne, are absolutely ubiquitous in pop music today. The Auto-Tune product was first launched in 1997, and by 2003 the vast majority of recording artists were apparently already using it.  In her above-mentioned interview, Neko Case once asked a studio guy in Toronto, "How many people don't use Auto-Tune?", and he replied, "You and Nelly Furtado are the only two people who've never used it in here".
Some artists, like Kanye West and T-Pain for example, have gone the other way, deliberately over-using the effect - which in a perverse way is perhaps a more honest approach - and the "T-Pain effect" joined the "Cher effect" in the mid-2000s. In 2009, Jay-Z, whose rap style happens not to include melodic elements and so just has no use for Auto-Tune anyway, released a track "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)", complete with some deliberately untuneful singing, as well as a whole anti-Auto-Tune album "Blueprint 3", as a statement against the excessive use of the technology by fellow rappers like Kanye West, T-Pain and Lil Wayne.
The problem is that that, when used subtly, it is essentially impossible to tell when Auto-Tune is being employed, and it can even be used in live performances to make singers sound better than they otherwise would. Hell, there is a whole sub-genre of YouTube videos comparing auto-tuned and non-auto-tuned singers. And don't even get me started on the various lip-syncing d├ębacles over the years.
Me, I dislike Auto-Tune on principle. It just seems a shame that today's singers, some of whom are actually very good, even if not perfect, do not have the confidence to present their voices unadulterated. While some might see the technology as levelling the playing field, others see it as just old-fashioned cheating, and I'm afraid I am nearer to the latter camp than the former. There is essentially no way now to tell whether a singer is genuinely good or not, and surely that should still mean something?
To me, though, the worst of it is that the extent to which Auto-Tune is used kind of makes everyone sound the same, even though that is not a necessary corollary of the technology itself. It has become the fashion, the expectation, and most recording artists who are just out to make a buck feel obliged to toe the line. It is not often that I actually listen to mainstream radio stations, but when I do I am struck by the sameness of the songs, and the glaring use of Auto-Tune is definitely part of that.
So, come on people, it was just a phase, let's get over it! Generations of singers have managed without it, and generations may do so again. Good music does not have to be note perfect - computers can do that all on their own. Quite honestly, there is way too much music out there anyway, not all of it of top quality, and "levelling the playing field" is perhaps not in the best interests of music as a whole. What is it these hip-hop people say? - "Keep It Real!"

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