Earlier this year, “Auto-Tune” became a word in the dictionary. Jay Z‘s protest of the pitch-tweaking technique, “D.O.A.,” is five years old. Kanye West, Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens have all manipulated it as a creative tool, like guitarists with effects pedals. Few producers and singers acknowledge using it to fix mistakes, but their silence speaks volumes: Anymore, Auto-Tune is used on “pretty much every fuckin’ record out there,” said Tom Lorde-Alge, a three-time Grammy-winning engineer and mixer for the Rolling Stones, Santana, Weezer and more, as quoted in Greg Milner’s 2009 book Perfecting Sound Forever. Just because nobody admits to it doesn’t mean nobody does it.
And yet, as you may have seen, a recently circulating clip purported to be Britney Spears‘ Britney Jean track “Alien” without Auto-Tune has been drawing a great deal of online mockery. “Listen at your own peril,” warns BuzzFeed. And sure, the vocal take is pretty embarrassing, filled with bum notes and an all-around lack of polish. But to judge by many of the comments on Facebook, plenty of people are using this to reinforce the years-old fallacy that Spears’ success is somehow tainted by her use of the recording tool. Auto-Tune isn’t — and shouldn’t have to be — for everyone, but in 2014, can we agree that it least has its place?
First off, this Sigourney Weaver-worthy beastie of an “Alien” isn’t necessarily what it appears to be. Producer William Orbit, in a Facebook post this week, explained what what we’re hearing is a vocal warm-up, not just a pre-Auto-Tune version of the final take. And vocal warm-ups, as you might imagine, can sound pretty wonky.
“I’d like to affirm that ANY singer when first at the mic at the start of a long session can make a multitude of vocalisations in order to get warmed up,” Orbit wrote. “Warming up is essential if you’re a pro, as it is with a runner doing stretches, and it takes a while to do properly. I’ve heard all manner of sounds emitted during warm-ups. The point is that it is not supposed to be shared with millions of listeners.
“A generous singer will put something down the mic to help the engineer get their systems warmed up and at the right level, maybe whilst having a cup of herb tea and checking through lyrics before the session really kicks off. It’s not expected to be a ‘take.’”
Warm-up or not, though, it’s long past time to accept that some singers, enjoyed by many people (it’s fine if you’re not among them) use Auto-Tune. Future continues to demonstrate its power as an effect in the hip-hop and R&B space, following after Lil Wayne and, yes, T-Pain, while Justin Vernon-affiliated mood-builders Poliça have also made the technique a signature. For background, Dave Tompkins’ 2010 book How to Wreck a Nice Beach is an essential history of voice-altering tools, in music and beyond.
The debate over the use of Auto-Tune as a way to improve singing is more complicated. The same years as Jay-Z’s “D.O.A.,” Death Cab for Cutie showed up at the Grammys wearing ribbons they told MTV were to protest “rampant Auto-Tune abuse.” A few years earlier, the vocal powerhouse Neko Case told Pitchfork, “When I hear Auto-Tune on somebody’s voice, I don’t take them seriously.” Indie-rock super-producer Steve Albini has singled out Cher’s “Believe,” the Auto-Tune anthem that started it all, as the one he hates most in the world.
But chances are at some point you’ve enjoyed a song that used Auto-Tune as cover-up — even the most devout rockists. “You ever hear the Chili Peppers without Anthony’s voice [Auto-Tune'd]?” asked Courtney Love in a SiriusXM interview last year; New York producer Tom Beaujour, who in the last several years has worked with bands like Nada Surf and Minor Alps, told the New Yorker‘s Sasha Frere-Jones in 2008 that Auto-Tune ended up being used, somehow or another, in nearly all of his sessions.
And if by some miraculous chance a music fan makes it through the rest of a lifetime without ever taking some satisfaction out of a song on pop radio, where Auto-Tune has been virtually omnipresent for several years, that person will probably find friends and loved ones who enjoy the music. Auto-Tune-as-vocal-Photoshop is unfortunate and less than ideal, but sneering about it is a stale look.