Auto-Tune: Cheat Code or Creative Tool?



The music production tool of Auto-Tune, first released in 1997, has divided opinion since day one of its existence. The first notable use of the tool was on Cher's 'Believe'; during the production process, the producers found that using the tool on full power created a robotically fast correction of pitch, essentially using Auto-Tune to "exaggerate the artificiality of abrupt pitch correction".


What's interesting to note is that, despite the song being the public's introduction to Auto-Tune, it was actually used in complete contrast to the inventor's original purpose for it - to discreetly correct slightly out of tune vocals. Since then, Auto-Tune has become a staple part of music for over twenty years, with countless artists using it in that time - and many jokes made at the their expense. So the big question is - is it cheating to use Auto-Tune, or is it just another tool to be creative with, like Delay, Chorus or a Vocoder?


The truth, as is the case so often, lies somewhere in the middle and normally depends on who is using it. By the time 'Believe' was released, Cher had already been making music for thirty years, so it's safe to assume that she didn't need Auto-Tune. Instead, the producers used it to add a new dimension to the track, something which, at the time, was completely new and had never been heard before. In the years since 'Believe' was released, Daft Punk have used it to invent their robotic sound, Radiohead used it on 2001's Amnesiac to create a "nasal, depersonalised sound", it's become a crucial element of Trap music and, most notably, it became a signature component of T-Pain's music, which inspired a late 2000's surge of the effect's use.


These are all examples of Auto-Tune being used to create music in a new and inventive way. Rather than being used solely for pitch correction, it's being manipulated to create new and interesting sounds in music which haven't been heard before. When used in this way, Auto-Tune becomes another valuable tool in the box of any music producer willing to experiment with it.

Cher's use of Auto-Tune on her 1998 hit 'Believe' shot the tool into the public consciousness.

Of course, there are two sides to every coin. Multiple artists, including Lil Wayne and Britney Spears, have used it to correct various vocal lines on recorded albums and, in addition, artists such as Tim McGraw and Shania Twain are known to use it during live performances as a "safety net". Perhaps most controversially, the British singing talent show The X Factor admitted, in 2010, to using Auto-Tune to improve the voices of the contestants - surely negating the point of the show in the first place. Naturally, this has called these artists into question; can they sing properly without Auto-Tune, or do they need it to cover up a lack of vocal control? It's difficult to know the answer for sure, but this lack of integrity, or perhaps even trust in their own voices, doesn't help their cases.


Multiple artists and producers have voiced their opposition to Auto-Tune over the years. Songwriter and composer David Mindel launched the Live Means Live campaign, which includes Ellie Goulding and Ed Sheeran as members, to end the use of Auto-Tune in live performances, saying that when an artist displays the Live Means Live logo at their gigs, the audience knows it's all organic. Christina Aguilera has also worn a shirt bearing the phrase "Auto-Tune is for pussies" in the past (despite her own use of it on 'Elastic Love'), and Jay-Z has released a single entited 'D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)'. The use of Auto-Tune has also been parodied by the likes of SNL, South Park and Weird Al Yankovic.


So, with all this in mind, is Auto-Tune a saint or a sinner for music? That's up to you. Certainly, it'll never be universally popular, though it's important to remember that it can be, and often is, used for purposes other than solely pitch correction. Auto-Tune can be used creatively to change the mood of a song, to generate a purposefully robotic tone, or even to forge a new signature sound for an artist. Conversely, it can be used as an effective 'cheat code' for the voice, enabling people who arguably cannot sing to achieve success when, perhaps, they shouldn't.


Whatever your opinion on Auto-Tune is, it's here to stay. As we enter the 2020s, more artists than ever will be using Auto-Tune to either correct their inept singing, or to create new and cool sounds that actually make an artistic difference to their music. Get used to it.