Updated: Nov 16, 2020
Ahhh, the creation of auto-tune. The thing that makes being "good enough" an acceptable standard. In Aretha Franklin's "Respect" you can hear her crack on the record. Not only does it give the song some spice, it proves that there is no such thing as perfect. We all know Aretha can sing. She still had an amazing, lifelong career, and people still love the song today. The sad truth is that "Respect" would not fly in today's music world. I was always taught that practice makes permanent, not perfect, but today, it's all about perfection. Everything has to be exact and clean, and when everyone is putting so much effort into making it perfect, they leave no room for artistic creativity.
When singers go to the studio now, they can just be "good enough." They know there's auto-tune, and so do the engineers. Every time I've worked with an engineer on a song, when they send me the first draft, I hesitate to listen because I am so afraid of hearing auto-tune. I always do and I hate it. I feel that it does not represent me as a singer at all. I want to sing until I get it right. If the engineer thinks I'm sharp or flat, I will do it again until I sing it correctly. There is no "oh don't worry we will just tune it up later" for me. That's not how I was taught and that's not the work ethic I was disciplined to acquire. I work hard to be the singer that I am, and I practice everyday so I can be the best that I can be, not so someone can slap some Melodyne on me. To be honest, it is very insulting.
So why even use auto-tune? Right now, the act of tuning vocals has become a vital part of today's pop music. Even if you are right on pitch, engineers still want to put a nice coat on top. I was watching the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom and there was a gentleman speaking about the first time he was told he had to make room in his mixing schedule for tuning vocals. He didn't understand why he had to tune vocals when the singers were supposed to sing on key. I have some theories on why we use auto-tune so much these days, besides that it is practically a requirement for pop music. These are solely my opinions and observations I've made.
1. Most engineers don't want to sit in the studio and do multiple vocal takes. They want to mix the song, tune the vocals, and push the song out as fast as they can. In a world of free music, the more songs you put out, the more streams you could get. So there's that.
2. They know they're going to use a tuning program, so why not just accept mediocre vocals. I've also noticed that most engineers don't even know how to use auto-tune. Instead of manually correcting any notes the engineer thinks may be off, they just do a blanket tuning on the vocals in the key of the song. This then puts the vocals in an unnatural state where any use of vibrato or certain "explorative" notes (creativity!) become completely off pitch and sound very strange. I have worked with engineers and DJ's in the past where if I hear this, I tell them it's over tuned and sounds unnatural. I am not sure how this is even possible, but most of them can't even tell, and continue with the release of the song. Guess what? My name is on that!
3. The singer can't sing! The singer cannot sing or is not good enough, but wants to record a song or has a career in music. If you want auto-tune for your voice, move over and let someone else sing.
Something I have always noticed is that if the vocals are over tuned, they lose the emotion. It sounds like I had a stroke as I sang the song because the vocals sound just a smidge slower than normal. Again, this is insulting and misrepresents me as an artist. I found a very interesting article from Pitchfork, and I wanted to share a piece of the article that I think hit the nail on the head:
"When our emotional and social arrangements increasingly occur via info-mechanisms—DMs and FaceTime, Snapchat and Tinder, Instagram and YouTube—and when we habitually use editing and processing to tint and tidy up the image we present of ourselves to the world, it’s easy to see why we’ve gotten used to pop stars using artificial processes to disguise their imperfect selves, from their videos to what was once thought of as the singer’s most intimately innermost possession and deepest personal truth: the voice. It makes absolute sense that Auto-Tuned singing—bodily breath transubstantiated into beyond-human data—is how desire, heartbreak, and the rest of the emotions sound today. Digital soul, for digital beings, leading digital lives." (Pitchfork, 2018)
I love this quote so much. As a society, we are handed filters and false images to train our brains to believe that we can't be anything less than perfect. We listen to corrected vocalists who sound great on the radio but can't live up to their standards live (oh but I forgot about the auto-tuned microphones). The entertainment industry is as deceiving as it is removed from reality. But didn't we learn that imperfection is beauty? Haven't we seen enough Hollywood movies of actresses running from wrinkles, only to bust their face even more? Didn't the world shun Milli Vanilli when we found out they couldn't sing, and never did? Why then do we say filters and auto-tune are acceptable, and raw talent and beauty is toxic?