It Doesn't Do What You Think It Does
Auto Tune is a method and pitch correct tool that is most commonly used by Music Producers to improve recorded vocals that have pitch and tuning problems. Auto tune has been around for decades in various hardware and synthesiser units but these days companies such as Antares create a vast select of software plug ins that will give you the auto tune effect.
This article will explain what auto tune actually is as I find "Auto Tune" is being used as a term thrown around by people without any idea of what "Auto Tune" is, what it does and can what it can destroy. I will also explain what the alternative method is to auto tune.
Auto Tune Is A Term Generally Misunderstood
I believe auto tune is a term mostly used by people to describe what they hear as a poorly performed and recorded vocal being improved upon by technology. People use this term "Auto Tune" as though they are being lied to, that the auto tune is making them believe that whoever is singing on the recording can not sing very well because auto tune is on their voice. I feel the term Auto Tune also allows anybody to have an opinion on what truly lies beneath it.
Example: "Can that person sing?" - "No... they're rubbish... you can hear they've been auto tuned!!"
I feel that the above example is not a fair comment for people to make against artists, producers and mix engineers that have used auto tune on vocals as they may have had an artist or creative reason to use it. I know I have.
Have a listen to the example below. You will hear what the auto tune effect is in a nut shell. You'll also hear how this particular auto tune effect works with the style of music they have chosen.
The Obvious Sound Of Auto Tune
I understand auto tune to be what I'm relaying to you in example 1. A bit of software, that with very little setup, forces every note sung into the key of the song. This method removes any natural feeling, vibrato and tone from the original vocal. It gives the vocal a very synthesised, almost instrumental feel and presence that can not be achieved by singing naturally. This creative effect can be great to use if a song, genre and mix dictates it, however I find that it does not fit the majority of styles I work on nor can achieve the results people believe auto tune provides.
The Alternative To Auto Tune - Manual Tune
When I'm presented with vocals that needs to be pitch corrected I use a different method that I call manual tune. I do not treat manual tune as an effect like in example 1 but more as a dynamic 'air brush' stage to improve an already good vocal performance. I use a software called Melodyne.
Melodyne enables me to adjust individual notes and phrases within the performance to keep a natural and transparent sound. Listen to the example below to hear what it does.
When manual tuning I rely on my ears and musicianship to always keep a vocal sounding natural. If I push melodyne it gives me an auto tune effect that most of the time I don't need.
How Both Auto And Manual Tune Can Destroy A Vocal
Both methods can improve a vocal in a mix... there is no doubt about it. The problem is that if either method is used badly it can sound obvious and unnatural, even to the untrained ear which for me is an absolute fail if your brief was create a great and natural sounding mix. I would rather re-record better vocals than try to fix poorly performed tracks any time.
It must be remembered these tools help to improve, not fix something that is badly performed in the first place. Never record a vocal with the mind set of - "It can be fixed with auto tune later". Auto and manual tune will not fix a bad vocal in the ways you would think it might. Manual tuning will have a better chance but can, if pushed, sound unnatural in other ways like auto tune. Small adjustments with manual tune will always sound better and for me, if I can't hear my manual tuning, I have done a good job.