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Staying in Tune

by Jennifer Suryadjaja

Photography courtesy of Aktiv| on

Ever wondered how Adam Levine pulled the seemingly impossible pitches in Maroon 5’s “Payphone”? Or why Mariah Carey’s angelic voice seems weirdly off when performing live? Behold, the beauty of auto-tune, an audio processor that helps fine-tune voices that is used by almost every professional singer in the world. As much as producers and artists may have tried to hide it, auto-tune has been circulating in recording studios since the late 90s.

Dr. Andy Hildebrand established the Antares Audio Technologies in 1996, officially owning the Auto-Tune software. The primary use of this device is to perfect the human voice by elevating or lowering its pitch when it initially sounds distorted on audio. Upon its inception, auto-tune spread like wildfire, vastly improving the quality of voices everywhere. Artists no longer needed to expand their vocal range—much less strain their voices for those high-pitched notes.

As Hollywood grew comfortable with the foolproof use of auto-tune, producers sadly began to rely on its convenience. Auto-tune has made it possible for any artist to sing harmoniously with the press of a few buttons.

One popular example of auto-tune abuse was during Cher’s hit single “Believe,” recorded in 1998. It was met with huge success despite the obvious use of auto-tune. To this day, people have expressed mixed feelings towards this song. Other obviously enhanced throwback songs include Kanye West’s “Heartless” and Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok,” both of which made it to the US Billboard Hot 100 charts and were played worldwide.

When used tastefully, auto-tune can be helpful. Take Frank Ocean’s “Chanel,” for example. Listeners can specifically look out for the mild use of auto-tune on the bridge which creates a melismatic effect.

Camilla Breiner (COM ’20) agrees that less is more when it comes to using auto-tune, so keeping the fine-tuning minimal at certain parts of a song allows listeners to hear an artist’s authentic voice. She also said she wishes for today’s music to sound more natural with the help of auto-tune.

Likewise, I find that in this technologically advanced era, producers and artists are using auto-tune so subtly that we barely notice it.

With every boon comes the bane. Some artists whose voices were clearly distorted compared to their natural voices have landed in hot water when music enthusiasts found out that they had been relying on auto-tune. The infamous T-Pain is no stranger to this. Auto-tune is prevalent in his most of his singles, such as “I’m Sprung,” and “Buy U A Drank.” His career took a hit ever since he was exposed and subsequently criticized by other artists and listeners.

Thomas Hayes (COM ’20) noted that it is critical for artists to retain their unique, raw voices. That is where he thinks music gets its value from instead of altering songs all the time. There is a fine line between talent and ‘faking it till you make it.’

Although it was named one of the “50 Worst Inventions" by TIME, auto-tune has undoubtedly helped to expand the career pool of rising singers and can perhaps be appreciated if used appropriately. For every auto-tune-filled hit is a stripped down masterpiece. Moderation is key, especially if you have to perform live. Unless you’re Daft Punk, it’s probably best to abide by the “less is more” mentality.

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