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The History of Auto-Tune and How to Use It

The History of Auto-Tune and How to Use It

Learn how to tune vocals for natural-sounding results.

Mix engineers today are asked to do far more than simply mix the song. Oftentimes they're asked to "tune" an out of tune vocal. This process is faster and easier than ever, but like anything else, you still need good fundamental technique to pull it off.

Available exclusively on the UAD platform, Antares Auto-Tune Realtime X is the definitive version of the popular vocal effect that became an industry standard almost immediately after its release in 1997.

The History of Pitch Correction

Though widely popularized beginning in 1997, pitch correction has been around since the 1970’s, starting with the Eventide H910 Harmonizer. Primitive as it was, the H910 did allow for slight pitch corrections, although the digital artifacts that it imposed on the sound were quite substantial the farther you strayed from the original pitch.

As newer versions of the Harmonizer (and later the French Publison Infernal Machine) were released, engineers could get a wider range of correction before the digital artifacts became noticeable, but the bulk of the work was still done manually.

Before pitch correction plug-ins there were hardware harmonizers like the French Publison Infernal Machine.

To give you an idea of what “manually” actually meant, the engineer would locate the point in the track that needed correction, set the Harmonizer to the correct pitch, rewind the tape, play it through the Harmonizer, then either record it on to another track or a different tape machine, which then had to be recorded back onto the master in sync.

Needless to say, it was a tedious process to correct even a single note. Of course, studio owners back then loved to hear that a project decided to tune vocals since the bill for studio time would expand substantially.

Getting Started With Auto-Tune

The most popular tuning plug-ins are Antares Auto-Tune and Celemony Melodyne, but there are many others to choose from as well. Be aware that all tuning plug-ins impart their own sound, and it might not always be pleasing. Engineers typically own several different ones so they have options for various tuning situations.

This article isn't focusing on Auto-Tune as an effect, ala T-Pain, Travis Scott, Future, and others. These tips are for subtle pitch correction.

  • Use the performance itself first. Before you apply pitch correction, try to find other parts to use in the performance to keep any correction as natural-sounding as possible. Consider vocal comping, or simply copy and paste phrases, words, or syllables from other parts of the song.
  • A little goes a long way. The fewer notes you correct, the more natural your performance will sound. You’re much better off just correcting a few notes than attempting to correct a large portion of the entire performance. If it’s that far off, you should simply record that part again.
  • Use the most precise mode. Auto-correct modes may be designed to make things easy, but they’re often not precise enough for most applications. As a result you may get audible fluctuations that make the track sound artificial. If the plug-in has one, use the mode to achieve the most precise tuning with the least amount of audible artifacts.
  • Don’t worry about perfectly tuned vocals. Even the best vocalists are never precisely on pitch — that’s what makes them unique. Getting the pitch within a few cents will sound more like the real thing, since it’s the variations and inaccuracies that make a human voice sound human.
  • Print the pitch correction. Instead of leaving the pitch correction patched in as a plug-in, you’re better off printing a corrected pass and using that track instead. This saves precious system resources and also eliminates any problems that might occur if the session is moved to a different DAW.

A Few More Tips

Here are a few tricks often used when correcting the pitch of a mix element. As always, don’t be afraid to experiment, since slight variations might fit better on a particular mix.

  • Experiment with harmonic resonance. Sometimes raising the formants (the harmonic resonance) of a voice can make the vocal sound a bit more exciting or breathier. It doesn’t actually change the pitch — just the placement of the voice’s harmonics.
  • If the vocal is off enough that the pitch correction sounds robotic, try this trick. Copy the vocal to two additional tracks and spread them left and right. Tune one of the vocals up by 2 to 8 cents; tune the other down by 2 to 8 cents. This will smooth out an out-of-tune vocal and make it sound a lot thicker at the same time.
  • Try adding some reverb. Tuned vocals almost always sound better with a touch of reverb or delay.
  • Be gentle with lead vocals. Generally, background vocals can get away with much more pitch correction than lead vocals before any artifacts are heard.

Ultimately, Auto-Tune is a necessary and powerful tool in modern music production — use it wisely.

— Bobby Owsinski

Bobby Owsinski is a producer and music technology consultant who is the author of 18 books about recording and the music business, including the most recent 3rd edition of The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook. Read his music marketing blog at Music 3.0 music industry blog, and his production blog at the Big Picture production blog. You can read about his books at bobbyowsinski.com, or follow him on Twitter for daily blog updates.

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