This article is going to be about Auto-Tune. Go grab your pitchforks … I’ll wait.
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For many of you, this is going to be a great article about the creative and practical uses of Auto-Tune in modern music. For another significant portion of you, this will be a great opportunity to make not-so-clever jokes like “the best technique with Auto-Tune is hiring a better singer!”
Love it or hate it, Auto-Tune is a thing. And there are things about this thing worth knowing. So here are a few modern techniques for Auto-Tune.
In my mind Auto-Tune (or pitch correction in general) is used in one of two modes:
Mode A: A tool for locking in a few stray notes that missed the mark in spite of an otherwise rockin’ performance.
Mode B: An effect used to create a tone, much like a phaser or flanger or reverb or distortion.
Mode A is pretty straightforward — if a dirty note slides on by, hit it with just enough tuning to lock it back in. Generally, using a graphical mode from Auto-Tune, Waves Tune, Melodyne, etc. is the best way to do this. Or simply using an automatic mode and automating the Bypass works as well, unless some serious shifting is required.
Mode B is more fun. Within the world of being effect-y, there are a couple of ways to go. Auto-Tune can be used as a post effect — that is applying it after the initial recording, or the vocalist can sing into the plugin and manipulate it. I’m a fan of the latter. A very good vocalist can control their pitch and delivery enough to play off of how the tuning mechanism reacts and get a number of fun effects from it. Controlled slides and ‘distunes’ (I’m making that a word) can make the happy accident of tuning distortion into a creative tool.
In today’s music, I often think of Auto-Tune as a tonal device (hence my horrible pun). Most of the time I’m trying to get a bit (or a lot) of sparkly, phase-y distortion. This creation of synthesized harmonics makes a voice sound a bit synth-y, or robotic depending on the approach. For the most part, people just tend to slap Auto-Tune on there and find a retune speed they like and roll with it. I’m a bit more neurotic and like a more refined approach. I’m pretty decisive about whether I’m abusing Melodyne, modern Auto-Tune or the classic ol’ school Auto-Tune. They all have different tones and sometimes one is more fitting than the others.
Melodyne generally has the most transparent tone. It can thin the low-mid of a vocal a little, but sometimes that can actually be a good thing. When abused, it has a specific color but it’s a very evenly distributed harmonic thing that happens — hard to put into words but it feels very “consistent”.
The current version of Auto-Tune is also pretty transparent but does do the quintessential Auto-Tune sound. The classic Auto-Tune, version 5.1 most notably, is really the one that we think of when we think T-Pain — because the formant shifting is the least accurate.
Then there’s the question of how much abuse I want. Just a touch of glitter, or full-on Robotron.
If I want just a touch, one really easy technique is to use two instances of Auto-Tune, both set to very slow retune speeds. The reprocessing of the tuned vocal generates harmonics on top of harmonics allowing for a subtle yet ever-present flavor. Because I’m using slow tuning speeds it also means that the tuning effect is fairly homogenous.
However, sometimes I want a much more printed effect that still stays on the vocal in a consistent way. I find that by coupling Melodyne with Auto-Tune I can get a very even, yet very effected sound.
A great example of this is the vocal tracking for “Comentale” by Ozuna and Akon.
The chain for both vocals was Melodyne first in graphical mode just getting the notes a bit closer to center, and then Auto-Tune with a pretty fast retune speed to create the effected tone. The only place the Auto-Tune really ever varies tonally is when Akon does his faster note runs. When he does this I prefer to let the Auto-Tune glitch up a little because I like the texture it creates. Kon is very smart about where he places these glitches in his delivery — which I’m going to touch on again in a moment. As a side note, both Ozuna and Akon sang into Auto-Tune Pro during the recording in order to make the sound very deliberate — with Ozuna set to the regular mode and Akon set to the “classic” mode. The whole process is a lot more calculated than simply slapping Auto-Tune on there.
That said, sometimes you can just slap Auto-Tune on there.
Sometimes I don’t want Auto-Tune to act evenly on everything. As I mentioned before, Akon is very particular about how he blends his voice with Auto-Tune. He will go out of his way to glitch it on purpose in order to create captivating moments. When he does this I take that as a cue to automate the settings on Auto-Tune to emphasize the effect.
Basically, I’m just picking up what he’s putting down. A lot of people associate Kon with heavy Auto-Tune, but when I think of his style I really think of someone with a masterful delivery above all else. He shapes his vocal tone and personality very carefully. For an artist who does this, I actually don’t like the Auto-Tune to be overly heavy. My default here is “classic” Auto-Tune (that 5.1 algorithm sound) with a retune speed of 12ms (maybe less for a more serious song, maybe more for a more club-oriented song). Admittedly this is pretty fast because I do want that distinct tone. But it’s not the T-Pain 0 millisecond sound. On certain runs or moments, I’ll automate the retune speed either very fast to bring out the glitches, or slow it down to keep things a little more subtle.
Formant shifting is an underutilized effect. When we speak, our vowel sounds are determined by the shape of our mouths. These harmonic signatures, determined by mouth shape, are called formants. In order to preserve the sound of a voice during pitch correction, the formants have to be adjusted accordingly.
Pitch correction software generally does this automatically — but sometimes it’s not 100% spot-on. So most pitch software will allow us to manually adjust formants when needed to compensate. Higher formants refer to brassier tones like “a”, “ah” and “e” sounds, while lower formants refer to rounder tones like “oo”, “oh”, and “uh”. Sometimes it’s fun to abuse this formant shifting to create a variety of textures. We can do this on background vocals to make them sound less like the lead and more like different voices. Or, we can do this on a lead to make it sound like a singing chipmunk or Frankenstein’s monster.
What’s the fun in writing an article if we can’t be a little creative? Here’s some next level stuff that my weirdo brain likes to get into.
The first thing that tickles my fancy is the relationship between pitch correction and reverb. You may notice that if you’ve ever printed or committed Auto-Tune it will not null against the original track. That means that the same track printed through Auto-Tune is not technically the same thing as the track with active Auto-Tune on it.
Ok … so what?
Well, the discrepancy between the two comes down to phase rotation. The micro-timing of the track changes, which changes the phase of the signal. Phase is an extremely important aspect of determining spatiality. Because I often use outboard reverb I found that if I print the reverb back in, and subsequently commit my Auto-Tune settings after the reverb print, the vocal will actually feel a bit more forward and disconnected from the reverb and have a stronger front to back image. Weird little quirk.
We can also do a doubler effect by making three instances of our source track and pitch correcting a left pan version up a few cents higher, and the right pan version a few cents lower, keeping the main version right in the center. This works very similarly to a classic doubler but because there’s movement in the pitch we get a bit of a phaser quality as well as an image that actually expands and contracts a bit. It’s a bit more movement-driven, which can be good or bad depending on what we want.
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Lastly, I really like delays into Auto-Tune. We can get the glitchiest sound in the world and it sounds very futuristic and cool as a delay. Great for something we want to have a hint of sci-fi sound to it.
Auto-Tune is part of our musical landscape. Personally, I prefer to look for ways to expand the use of the tool rather than try to fight the cultural wave.
How do you find yourself using Auto-Tune? Have any of your experiments gone right?
Download a FREE 40-minute tutorial from Matthew Weiss on mixing low end.
The King of Auto-Tune has retired his crown.
Since releasing debut album Rappa Ternt Sanga in December 2005, T-Pain has lent his digitally altered vocals to some of the biggest hits of the past decade, including solo singles and all-star collaborations with Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown. Although he ditched the pitch-fixed sound last year for his natural singing voice, those team-ups still 'blow my mind the most: having people I grew up listening to wanting to do songs with me,' says the 30-year-old (real name: Faheem Najm).
As he readies a new album for release next year, T-Pain celebrates Rappa's 10th anniversary by breaking down some of his most beloved songs. (Warning: Some contain NSFW language.)
1. I'm Sprung
Peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in November 2005
T-Pain's debut single, Sprung, was written for his wife, Amber, whom he married in 2003 and has three children with. 'It was brand new love. It was the kind of love that makes you write a song about it.' The song itself came together quickly. 'I was experimenting with Auto-Tune at the time and I really got into it. It was fairly easy to get that done, because it was about something I am well-versed in: love.' Before T-Pain had even signed to Jive Records, 'the song was already circulating. It was kind of surprising once I found out what label money does to a song — just seeing it spread once the label got involved was amazing. It surprised me how fast it happened, but I already knew it was a good song.'
2. I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper) (feat. Mike Jones)
Peaked at No. 5 in February 2006
Luv was inspired by a night when T-Pain took his friend to a strip club for the first time. 'We got one girl to dance on him and he was just automatically trying to take her out of the club, pay for her tuition and do everything. The next couple days in the studio, everybody was still laughing about it. I started playing with GarageBand on my Mac and singing, 'I'm in love with a stripper,' and everybody was like, 'Yo, lay that down and we'll give it to (him) as a joke.' Then the label came in and we were going through some songs I had recorded. They heard the 'joke' and were like, 'This is the furthest thing from a joke. We're putting this out next week.' ' The fact that it became a hit 'threw me off. I was literally trying to make a bad song but it didn't work.'
3. Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin') (feat. Yung Joc)
Peaked at No. 1 in May 2007
'This is the first record where I was trying to make a hit song. I was going into the studio consciously like, 'What do people like talking about? They like drinking and they like drinking with girls. What do you say to a girl to get her a drink?' I really went down the list. That was the first time I had ever done that. I didn't like doing that, because that's not really making music to me — that's making hit songs to get some money real quick.' The track started simple and sparse, before he started adding harmonies and ad-libs to the verses. 'It got to where I actually liked the song. I was like, 'This is a pretty cool, dope song.' That's what really made me like it and then it became my first No. 1.'
4. Kiss Kiss, Chris Brown
Peaked at No. 1 in November 2007
Kiss' music video shot on Florida International University's University Park campus in Miami. 'It was a two-day shoot, but I was super lazy at the time, so I only showed up for one day. Just watching how they were trying to split everything into two days was pretty funny because it was quite hectic and Chris would not let up on getting what he asked for. I gained tons of respect for Chris, he was really taking charge of that whole thing.' Although Brown had already scored hits such as Yo (Excuse Me Miss) and Say Goodbye prior, 'it made me feel like Chris had grown up and was doing his thing.'
5. Good Life, Kanye West
Peaked at No. 7 in November 2007
T-Pain recorded a number of different hooks for Life, but 'it just wasn't sounding right to Kanye. He needed something different that was real anthemic and blew his mind right away. What ended up happening was, he made a composite of all the hooks that I did and made the hook out of it. Even the last part that I sing — 'Is the good life better than the life I live?' — that was one of the hooks, and he just put it at the end of the song and made it a bridge.' When it came time to shoot the music video, 'it was a completely different song. I got to the shoot and (Kanye) was like, 'Do you want to listen?' And I was like, 'No, I've heard it.' He was like, 'No, you're going to want to listen to the song again before we start.' '
6. Low, Flo Rida
Peaked at No. 1 in January 2008
Low's hook was one of many that T-Pain wrote during a one-night writing session with Atlantic Records' A&R head Mike Caren. 'He gave me a bunch of beats and I just ran down the list and did a bunch of hooks. A lot of them turned into singles for Atlantic artists,' including Flo Rida, then an up-and-coming rapper. The song's now-iconic refrain of 'Shawty had them Apple Bottom jeans / boots with the fur' was inspired, in part, by 'what all the girls were wearing. It was a rich white girl's uniform, it was so weird. Now it's like Uggs and yoga pants and Starbucks cups. It was just what I was seeing girls wear in the club and it kind of wrote itself.'
7. Got Money, Lil Wayne
Peaked at No. 10 in September 2008
Money's music video depicts a bank heist, but 'what a lot of people don't know is that Wayne was shooting two videos at once. He was shooting (the A Milli video) out on the street and then it turned into the bank video. Everything about that day was super fun, it was just a bright and sunny day.' Wayne and T-Pain are shown throwing cash throughout the video, a lot of which was real. 'I didn't feel comfortable because it wasn't mine — or maybe it was. Maybe that was my payment for the video. I asked for fake money, but they kept passing me real money, like, 'Yo, just throw this.' I was like, 'No, I'm not throwing real (expletive) money.' '
8. Blame It, Jamie Foxx
Peaked at No. 2 in May 2009
'Jamie's a crazy dope writer. A lot of people don't know that, but it's insane how good he is. He came up with the hook and wrote the verses, and sent me the song. For some reason, it took me like 20 minutes to catch the chord progression. It was weird, I didn't know how to set my Auto-Tune and I was like, 'I don't want to call and ask how he set his Auto-Tune, that would be embarrassing.' So I just went through like 20 minutes of trying to figure out how I was going to sing this thing, because I didn't want to do the same rhythm as him. I just kept the faith and hopefully I was going to stumble on one of the keys of Auto-Tune I wanted to do this in. Once I found it, I recorded my verse, sent it to him,' and Blame won a Grammy Award in 2010 for best R&B performance by a duo/group with vocals.
9. I'm on a Boat, The Lonely Island
Peaked at No. 56 in June 2009
After T-Pain appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2008, Andy Samberg's comedy trio reached out to his team about collaborating. 'They sent us the song and I didn't know what the (expletive) they were talking about. I couldn't tell if the song was serious or not, so it kind of confused me. But once they said it was a Digital Short, then of course I complied. They wrote the whole thing, I went and put my voice on it, and sent it back.' They later shot the video in Miami on a '$30 million yacht, which was pretty cool. I'll tell you what, though — it was cold as (expletive) out there. We had to do these (aerial) shots and I wish drones had been popular back then, because they used an actual helicopter and that thing was spraying so much water on us. That was probably the worst video day I've ever been through.'
10. All I Do is Win, DJ Khaled (feat. Ludacris, Snoop Dogg and Rick Ross)
Peaked at No. 24 in July 2010
If there's one thing you should know about Khaled, it's that he's persistent. 'He won't let you not do something. If he has an idea, it's going to happen real quick and on his terms. He showed up to my studio one night and I was like, 'Man, I'm doing stuff. I could be here eating steak and lobster, but I'm actually working. Let me chill.' In the next 20 minutes, he had someone show up with a ton of steak and lobster for the whole studio. It was pretty (expletive) impressive. I was like, 'I was just trying to make a statement, but thanks. I'm going to eat it.' '
Afterward, Khaled gave him a handful of beats to record Win's hook over, including one produced by DJ Nasty and LVM. 'I go in the booth and start doing ad-libs, and it was very confusing for him because I could hear it in my head and he couldn't. So he stopped the beat and was like, 'Yo, I don't think that's it. Let's try something else.' I was like, 'How about this? How about you get the (expletive) out of here and I'll call you when it's time to come back in.' He left, I finished the hook, and he came back in and was like, 'This is the biggest (expletive) hook of all time. This is an anthem.' '