What Is Autotune?
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What Is Autotune?

Author: Caleb J. Murphy

Date: February 17, 2020

Reads: 222


Caleb J. Murphy is a Songwriter/Producer based in Austin, TX. He isthe founder of Musician With A Day Job, a blog to help part-time musicians succeed. He is also a contributor to CD Baby's DIY Musician blog, Sonicbids, and Bandzoogle. His work has been shared by ASCAP, Hypebot, and Music Think Tank.
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Musicians started using autotune in 1998 after Cher dropped her song “Believe.” And now, nearly every professionally produced song uses it.

Some use extreme settings as a stylistic choice, others use it to subtly adjust the vocals.

If you’re not sure what autotune is or how to use it, keep reading.

In explaining what autotune is, we’ll explore:

  • Who invented autotune
  • What autotune is
  • Different methods for using autotune on vocals
  • The best autotune plugins

Who Invented Autotune?

Dr. Andy Hildebrand is the one who invented autotune, making it public in 1998 when Cher released “Believe.” Hildebrand earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois, so creating this powerful piece of software was just what he loved doing.

But some people wonder if he and his autotune ruined the music industry. Isn’t autotune cheating?

Not according to Hildebrand.

“Cheating in the old days used endless retakes to get a final result,” he told PBS1. “It’s easier now with Auto-Tune. The real impact of Auto-Tune is that it changed how studios produce vocals.”

“If you’re going to complain about Auto-Tune, complain about speakers too,” he said2. “And synthesizers. And recording studios. Recording the human voice, in any capacity, is unnatural.”

Whether or not you agree with him, autotune is here. And it’s here to stay. Now it’s up to us to use it well.

What Is Autotune?

We know autotune automatically tunes something you’ve recorded. But what is it, technically speaking?

Well, it’s a piece of software that digitally corrects the pitch of your voice (or any instrument). It uses something called a Phase Vocoder.

To understand a Phase Vocoder, we first have to talk about a regular vocoder.

With a vocoder, you sing into a microphone while you play an instrument so the vocoder can adjust your voice notes to fit the notes of your instrument. The output will sound like your instrument is singing. So it doesn’t really matter what notes you sing into the mic because the vocoder will adjust your voice to fit the notes you’re playing on your instrument.

Here’s an example.

So a Phase Vocoder does basically the same thing but all with software and, most of the time, at a less drastic level.

That’s what autotune is — it adjusts the notes you sing or play to match the closest actual note in the chosen scale.

There are three main aspects of autotuning: Musical Key, Input Type, and Retune Speed3.

Musical Key

For autotune to actually tune something, you need to tell it what key to operate within. So before you do any autotuning, you’ll need to set it to the key of the song.

Input Type

What is the thing you’re autotuning? That’s your input type. Your autotune plugin will most likely give you options for different types of vocals (soprano, alto, tenor, etc.) as well as different types of instruments (bass, guitar, keys, etc.). This helps the autotune be more accurate and natural-sounding.

Retune Speed

Retune speed determines how quickly the autotune catches an off note in order to tune it. If you want a T-Pain-level of autotune (i.e. to sound like a robot), you can set the speed to 0, which is the fastest retune speed possible. But if you want something effective but less noticeable, you can set the speed between 20-150.

Different Methods for Using Autotune on Vocals

The first method of using autotune is the one you may think of first. It’s where the vocalist sounds like their voice has been run through a robot — because, well, that’s exactly what happens. Artists who made this style popular include T-Pain, Kanye West, and Akon.

It’s definitely a stylistic choice.

The other autotune method is used more often. It’s where the autotune corrects notes but stays transparent and keeps the vocal sounding natural (see this video as an example).

Because this is probably the style of autotune you’re looking for, we’ll breakdown the steps for using it.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Set your autotune plugin to the correct musical key and scale
  2. Choose your input type
  3. Set the retune speed

Slower retune speeds are good for more accurate Singers.

Faster retune speeds are better for less practiced Singers.

Start with a speed of 20 and adjust from there.

Those are the basic steps, but here are some extra tips to consider when using autotune:

  1. Use autotune only on the sections that need it rather than applying the effect to the entire vocal track — autotune on the entire track can negatively affect the quality of the recording.
  2. Try the Humanize function on your autotune plugin — this helps counteract faster retune speeds by smoothing things out and making the vocals sound more natural.
  3. Flex-Tune may be helpful — instead of letting the autotune pull each note to the closest note in the scale, you can use Flex-Tune so that each note is only corrected as the Singer approaches the right note.

The Best Autotune Plugins

Regardless of what style of autotune you want, there’s an autotune plugin on this list that will meet your needs.

MAuto Pitch

The free version of MAuto Pitch has a specialty: simplicity. The interface is easy to figure out, so it’s a great option for beginners. There may be other autotune plugins that deliver more effective results, but this one is a smart choice if you want to familiarize yourself with the autotune world.

Antares Auto-Tune

If you Google “best autotune plugins,” I guarantee you’ll see Antares Auto-Tune. It’s supposedly the plugin Cher used and all the blogs recommend it. And that’s because it’s great. It is a bit pricey, but if you’re already familiar with autotune and want to use what the pros use, this plugin is a good choice.

Graillon 2 Free Edition

Graillon 2 Free Edition calls itself a voice changer and features pitch correction and pitch shifting. But make no mistake, this is an autotune plugin meant for vocals. Some reviewers have said it can be a bit more on the dry side rather than the wet side, so beware of that. But for a free plugin, it’s not bad.

X42 Auto-Tune

Not only does the X42 Auto-Tune fix tuning issues, but it can also help with sweetening the tone. Although it doesn’t offer formant correction, it will resample the vocal and then loop the signal.

For this reason, it works best for subtle tuning changes, not for the robotic-sounding stylistic choices. One cool feature is the Bias parameter, which keeps the vocal on the current note for a little longer instead of jumping to the next note in the scale. This makes it sound much more natural.

Autotalent

Autotalent is great because it works well with both subtle adjustments and the robotic autotune sound. This free plugin has an LFO and vibrato section, which lets you add vibrato onto the vocal. The downside is the interface, which can take a minute to get used to. But if you’re into the features, you can get past that.

GSnap

GSnap was one of the first free autotune plugins, and it’s still considered one of the best. The flagship feature is that you can adjust notes depending on the MIDI notes you feed into the plugin.

So to correct a Singer’s notes, just play the notes on a MIDI piano, feed that into the plugin, and it will shift the notes to fit the piano. Plus, you can add vibrato (and adjust the speed) and you can tell GSnap to only affect certain parts of the recording.

KeroVee

KeroVee is known for precise autotune and pitch correction — its ability puts it at the top of the “free plugins” list. Although it doesn’t offer the robotic autotune effect, you can get very specific with the pitch correction.

You can choose which notes in the scale KeroVee should correct your recording to. And, like GSnap, you can use a MIDI piano to adjust the Singer’s notes. The super unique feature is the Nuance parameter, which lets you ignore certain pitch changes and keep others.

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References

  1. 1. "Auto-Tune: Expert Q&A". PBS. published: 31 March 2009. retrieved on: 10 February 2020
  2. 2Crockett, Zachary. "The Mathematical Genius of Auto-Tune". Priceonomics. published: 26 September 2016. retrieved on: 10 February 2020
  3. 3McAllister, Max. "How to Use Auto-Tune for Vocal Tuning". Produce Like a Pro. published: 29 June 2019. retrieved on: 10 February 2020
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