One of the most controversial technologies of the last decade has been pitch correction. What is it though? How does it really work? In this article I'll break down the realities of "autotune" and give you some insights into when to use it and when not to stay away.
First-off, the phrase autotune refers to a specific plugin made by a company called Antares. There are a couple other widely used pitch correction plugins that aren't autotune but work the same way. Check out WavesTune or Melodyne as well.
Regardless, all of this plugin software basically works the same way, by analyzing the pitch of a track (usually a vocal) and then "rounding" that pitch to the nearest "correct" pitch.
Users can set the group of notes or key that they want so that the software can know the notes for which to aim and not aim. If my song is in the key of C then I can set the tuning plugin to adjust the pitches to fit into the key of C
Usually if you need tuning after you do your vocal takes a producer or engineer will add a tuning plug-in with a generic setting. Then after you've spliced or comp'ed your takes together, the finished track will be gone over note-by-note to add the appropriate amount of pitch correct where necessary.
It's pretty much possible to make any pitch, however wrong, sound right. However artifacts (audible traces left by tuning) are more noticeable the more the plugin has to change the original performance.
The other thing that's important to remember is that pitch is just one of the many aspects of a good vocal performance. While pitch is definitely a big deal, tone, articulation, and feel are every bit as important.
The key point here is that tuning can be really useful for cleaning up that last 10% of a performance, but it doesn't at all replace having a good vocalist. Tuning is great because the singer pays attention to being expressive instead of worrying about being perfect. Then later you can dial in tuning to tighten up the track. In general, we notice imperfections less in a live performance than we do on a recording so remember, if you don't enjoy listening to it live, it's probably not going to be great recorded, even if it's tuned.
SHAWT-AI-EE Ok so I don't know how to spell that at all but you probably know what I mean. T-Pain made using autotune famous as a vocal effect. If you're wondering what artifacts sound like, check out the first 10 seconds of Buy U A Drank.
I'm sure T-Pain probably wasn't the first to do it, but since him countless others have started using autotune as an effect in their songs as well. It creates a really cool. Once you get used to what it sounds like in a track where it's used as an effect, you may recognize it hiding in the background of other songs as well!
Pitch correction can be great for other applications besides tuning vocals. One of my favorite things to do using Antares Autotune, is to add it to a bass guitar track to make sure it's intonation is really strong. This helps clear out unfocused low end and gives me some piece of mind about the foundation of the song. Obviously this is not a substitute for making sure your instrument is in tune when you record it.
Additionally if you're dubbing background vocals, tuning can be really useful for getting those harmonies to sit together better. Artifacts are usually less noticeable as well on background vocals because they're less prominent in the mix. However, you still don't want to be 'hard tuning' or 100% tuning the background vocals. If background vocals are tuned too hard they won't blend as well together. Just use your ears and don't be afraid of imperfection if it sounds good.
The same goes for horns. If you've got live horns, you're in trouble if they don't have great intonation individually AND as a section. Pitch correction can help get you out of trouble if something just doesn't sound right about your horn tracks.
Note: It's actually true that having three notes in a chord be perfectly in tune isn't the best sounding option. In a chord the 3rd wants to be slightly flat to really lock in and make the chord sound right. Obviously you can't easily do this on a piano or guitar but keep this in mind when you're tuning background voices or horns.
Tuning is an amazing too, be careful you don't become too attached though. There's nothing worse than wrapping a session and figuring out later that you can't tune it cleanly and you have to re-track the whole vocal. Sometimes over-tuning a vocal can make it sound sterile and uninteresting. Just like in the timing correction article, stay focused on being expressive and being yourself!
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Until next time - Much Love.