Autotune: Spawn of Satan or Delicate Tool?

Taylor Swift: Autotuned Diva

Taylor Swift photo by Eva Rinaldi

It’s 2013. Autotune has happened and we all have to live with it. For some artists (Swift, Spears), it’s the only way they can do a live show without being booed off the stage. For others (Counting Crows, Dylan, Petty), autotune would have destroyed the very sound that made them unique. In the 90’s, lip-synching and pre-recorded backing vocals were the big threat to a performer’s credibility (Milli Vanilli, NKOTB), but is there a way to actually use autotune properly and with total transparency?

I’ve used autotune many a time for album backing vocals and even to patch up a spot on the lead here or there. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to keep that a secret, either. What about live shows though? I have always been dead-set against using auto-tune for any reason during live shows (well, other than that Cher effect), but recently I stumbled upon a use that doesn’t seem like cheating but makes the show sound a whole lot better: Autotune the doubled vocals.

Warning: Technical Content. When I (and many artists) record a song, you’ll often hear them double (or triple, or…) the lead vocal during the chorus. When performing live, though, you can’t just use a pre-recorded backing vocal unless you sing with the same inflections and timing every single time. To achieve the same effect, some people use a short delay (like a sixteenth note or less) or some kind of ADT plugin that detunes, delays, and varies the live vocal so it sounds slightly off. The effect works a little bit, but I’ve found that it mostly just sounds like phase issues.

While putting together the vocal setup for “The Good Life” and “She Will Set You Free“, I experimented with something I’d never thought of before: Why not auto-tune the artificially doubled vocal track? Given that my voice naturally drifts from the exact pitch, auto-tuning the quieter double made it sound a LOT more like a naturally-recorded double track. And it’s not like the audience doesn’t already know it’s an artificial voice anyway; I haven’t been able to clone backup singers yet. The lead vocal is still a natural, un-retouched sound, it’s just being reinforced by a pitch-perfect robot.

What do you think? Legitimate use, or terrible crutch? I’ve got a rehearsal recording (in m4a, not mp3) that’ll demonstrate… I kick in the auto-tuned double- not a pre-recorded double -during the chorus.

Lost on Block Island – Rehearsal (Download M4A)

  • kiranlightpaw

    Well, in the first two examples you give (among many others), they are massively overusing autotune to cover up their own vocal failures. Well, at least in many cases – I actually liked Taylor Swift back when she was singing country, before she went pop.

    Anyways, what you’re doing with it is entirely different. Carefully and artfully using it to enhance the music rather than ramming it in like a bull through a china shop. Two totally different approaches. One produces beautiful music. The other produces overplayed pop garbage with all the musical content of a Big Mac.

    As always, I know you’ll make the best decision. 😛

    • Thank you. 🙂 I honestly wouldn’t even consider using it if the result didn’t SOUND a lot like real in-studio vocal doubling. I had to get over a major mental hurdle even to try it, but the result sounds pretty damn cool without, in my opinion, using it as a crutch.

  • Stafford

    I haven’t paid much attention to the various methods used by artists to create backing tracks, but I understand what you said about live-performing and ADT. I wasn’t able to compare your sample with the original “Block Island,” but listening to your sample alone, it sounded just fine to me. The backing track was almost unnoticeable, but as I said, I don’t know much about this topic, so if you intended a subtle effect, then it turned out nice. Definitely a legitimate use of auto-tune.

    I’m wondering how feasible it is to auto-tune in real time during a performance, but apparently, you’ve done it!

    • Well it is possible… but not recommended. 😉 Like I said, the only reason I was toying with a live autotuner was for the robo-voices of those two songs. The vocal doubler trick was something I just experimented with.

  • Enda Reilly

    I’d be of the Communication before Intonation school of thought. But I think many people don’t care one way or another. Good stuff.


    • Excellent way of phrasing it. It’s all about reaching someone, not HOW you reach someone.

The Democratically Elected Best of Matthew Ebel Join the Robot Army, get a FREE album!

* indicates required

Enlist Today!