Autotune vs Melodyne vs music

Pitch correction.  Sounds innocuous, even dull but those two little words are the signpost on the road to hell in some music fans’ eyes.  Watching a clip of Cheryl Cole’s epic in-concert software fail on youtube or reading about the furore over the use of AT in the X Factor  lays bare just how utterly vital vocal retuning is to today’s record industry.

So background: Autotune originated eight miles down, when seismic engineer Andy Hildebrand realised that his geological sound mapping could have an application in pop music, detecting and automatically correcting pitch in vocal tracks.  Originally bundled with Pro Tools it became a recording engineers guilty secret, repairing bum notes and wobbles when singers were unable or unwilling to do so.  Developed as a standalone plugin it’s reach widened and it wasn’t long before some bright spark discovered that when the retune setting was at the extreme, Autotune eliminated natural timbre and phrasing as notes were yanked unceremoniously back into pitch resulting in a weird android bleat.  Cher’s ‘Believe’ may have been the track which brought the technique into the open, but no one can establish if the effect was really a vocoder, a longer established toy that robotises in-key singing.

In the world of manufactured pop and r’n’b the use of autotune spread like ebola in rush hour.  Suddenly, TV talent show numpties, stage school fodder for boy and girl bands and rappers with no conventional singing ability were stepping in front of the microphone without fear.  Has any sound so come to define a musical era as the airless, almost nasal drone of heavily Autotuned vocals?  Things moved to a new level when performers started to rely on it for live performance, is it any different to just miming?

New kid on the block Melodyne does the same thing but makes a virtue of inconspicuousness.  Autotune has introduced a “humanize”  control for those who demand perfection but not replacement.  Encouragingly, the stark segmentation of the music biz is leaving blatant pitch correction as the preserve of T4 on the beach, Radio 1 and the X Factor.  But still, the philosophical question remains – if  the technology is rapidly approaching the point where an artist can deliver a terrible singing performance devoid of emotion, power or melody and be processed to sound like a soulless million dollars, who can say what real talent is?

Poor Sheeerl Keeerl is one of many who simply cannot deliver without software assistance but the panic on her face when the crutch is kicked away…

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