Thursday, November 11, 2010

Autotune the whatever

I don’t like autotune. This much I’ve known for a long time. I agree with all the conventional arguments, saying that it makes singers sound robotic at higher settings, or even at lower, making it just a little fake.

However, I’d object to it even if it were able to be done perfectly. And indeed, it can be done with minimal interference – we just don’t notice when it is, unless the listener has a very good ear. Some vocalists have made it part of their style. I can sometimes even like that. My main objection to it is the very reason it was invented: that it smooths out flaws in a singer’s voice. That is what I feel is its main threat. As autotune and similar technologies are attacked for how fake they make singers sound, they’re developed to become better and better. To do precisely what is intended, making singers sound perfect.

Personally, I love listening to a great voice. I also like watching great runners, brilliant actors, or a well-executed dance number, regardless of the genre. I watch team sports not because I barrack for a team (I detest sports culture), but because watching teams act in unison is magical. I like being witness to the human ability to do great things; just like steroids ruin sport for me, auto-tune ruins my enjoyment of song.

Perhaps I should compare this to painting. Anyone who’s been to a gallery and seen oil paintings up close has seen the brush-work on the canvas. This can be subtle, achieved with fine brushes, or it can be extreme, applied with a knife rather than a brush, creating a textured surface. At a distance, the ridges and brushes blur together, making a more unified picture; up close, the details stand out. Compare that to seeing only a print of the painting; a whole dimension is missing.

An auto-tune for painting would be designed to make people paint like prints.  The richness and messiness of the brush-work would be lost, the paintings produced just so would have no texture. They would be beautiful, but distant, lacking character. Perfect.

Human beings are not perfect. Human beings are flawed by definition; the creations of humans are no exception. It is that very flawed nature that makes our artwork real. The mistakes in an hour-long orchestral recording that remind us that the performers really did do that all in one take. The cracking of a voice at the end of a hard live concert, the last rally as the final number of the night is belted out.

Auto-tune threatens that. It approaches looking like a democratising tool; making anyone capable of singing in tune. I’m not so concerned about autotune making things ‘too easy’; I worry about it making things too perfect. Beautiful voices, like Freddy Mercury or Dame Joan Sutherland, are celebrated because they are rare... but also because they’re human. Real human beings produced those sounds. I care about a perfect autotuned voice about as much as I do a steroid-influenced world record. Or perhaps as much as a print compared to the original art. It’s an achievement, and might even be pretty... but it’s not what I want to hear. Give me a flawed, real human voice, as imperfect as it comes, over that same voice smoothed to artificial perfection.


  1. First they take away our flaws, then they take our individuality. Before we know it, we're living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, being chased by hunter-killers with perfect singing voices. D=