Autotune – more popularly known as “the Cher effect” – is perhaps one of the most controversial effects ever to be used in music. Practically every music fan will have an opinion on it, even if they haven’t entirely managed to put it into words.
What it does is difficult to explain, and so I’ll leave that to the experts. There’s a more detailed article about the specific plug-in and how it came about here. It’s very clever stuff, but essentially it corrects tuning on singers’ voices to put them closer to where the correct note should be.
I’ll also admit at this point that we’re probably talking about a whole group of similar plug-ins rather than one specific one. But anyway, if used sparingly, it’s remarkably effective. If used too much, it sounds awful. Which is actually true for most effects in the world of music.
But where does that line actually lie? In recent years I’ve heard a lot of people say things like “It’s fine when it’s used as an effect, but I don’t like it being used to make bad singers into good ones.” This is, of course, nonsense, but figuring out why isn’t too easy.
As the article linked above explains, it wasn’t long after Cher had done it that the likes of Daft Punk and Black Eyed Peas were throwing it all over their records; T-Pain was making it his trademark; and even non-electronic acts such as Maroon 5 and Avril Lavigne were making use of it. It’s pretty much everywhere now – try listening to the UK top 40 countdown some time if you don’t believe me.
For me, it is perhaps most familiar from Pet Shop Boys‘ 2002 album Release, and honestly it’s the thing that really ruins the album. There are some pretty good songs on there, and some lovely acoustic guitars, but even on some of the best tracks (London is a great example), Neil Tennant‘s vocals are backed up with a hideous electronic howling sound from the effect.
At the time, Pet Shop Boys were extremely excited by it, talking at length about how it turned the voice into another musical instrument which could become an organic part of the song. Which I can see as an argument, and I think partly my dislike of the effect on Release is actually tempered by the fact that it didn’t take long for absolutely everybody, good or bad, to use it with the same aim in mind. Daft Punk used it pretty well, but that was in conjunction with other effects. And did Andy Bell really need autotune on Tomorrow’s World? Well, we’ve discussed that previously.
In a way, part of the problem is actually the dehumanising effect that it has on the vocal performance. Particularly a decade or so ago, when artists were constantly telling us that we shouldn’t download mp3s because they were lower quality, they were quite happy to reduce the fidelity of their own vocal performances to practically nothing by running them through autotune. Surely that doesn’t make sense, does it?
But if using autotune as an intentional effect is an annoying trend, is it wrong to correct vocalists’ performances by using it gently? Well, actually, no. Not in my opinion.
I suppose the first argument is that a good singer doesn’t need autotune. Yes, except I’m not sure there are any singers who are that good. Everyone sings the odd duff note from time to time, and some more than others.
Well that’s fine, so why not just accept that this is true, and leave the duff notes in? It works for The Human League, and actually for whole swathes of rock music. Yes, great, except a lot of gentler songs in particular will sound a lot better if the singer is actually in tune. Accept that your vocalist won’t always be pitch perfect, but that the song requires something more than they can give, and there’s really only one conclusion that you can reach.
So why all the hostility to autotune? Well, apart from the fact that everyone is using it for artistic reasons – still, over a decade after Cher popularised it – there are whole swathes of artists who are relying on it, particularly in the manufactured pop market.
But I don’t think the problem lies with autotune – it lies with the artists. It’s still not turning people into good singers, even when it’s only used to put them in tune. If we stop buying the sort of nonsense that Simon Cowell tells us to, then we will be a whole lot less worried about autotune. Get rid of him, not than the vocal effects.
So where does this leave us? Well, I’d argue that autotune has its place. For the average singer who has something to say but can’t quite do it justice, it’s fine. For the avant-garde Daft Punk wannabe, it also serves a purpose. But it’s with the everyday X-Factor reject, and everyone else who makes up the Top 40 right now, that the problem lies, not with the effect that they’ve come to rely on.
And so on balance I’m going to say this now, and it will probably come back to haunt me: long live autotune.