It’s the latest controversy to hit pop music, and it doesn’t have anything to do with sex or drugs or trashed hotel rooms.
Instead, the music industry is divided over the use of computer hardware called autotuners, used by acts such as Britney Spears and ”N Sync to make sweeter music on the days when they can’t quite hit those tricky notes.
Pop stars and punk bands alike are piping their voices through the hardware, which corrects and improves their vocal pitch during concerts and on records.
“It’s actually been used on stage for quite a while,” said Marco Alpert, vice-president of marketing at Antares Audio Technologies, a major supplier of autotuners.
With musicians on the road touring for weeks on end, the autotuner has become a safety net that catches the occasional clinker on days when their voices may be off. (In a nutshell, the autotuner is told what key the vocal is in and analyzes the wave form in real time. If the singer is off-key, it will adjust the pitch to the closest note in that key.)
Reba MacIntyre and Cher are unabashed about travelling with a rack of autotuners, Mr. Alpert said. Other performers, such as Shania Twain, are rumoured to use the electronic coach. But there is an unwillingness to trumpet this fact because of the presumption that it’s somehow cheating. But they are being used because Antares alone has sold “thousands and thousands” of them.
However, to some people in the industry, these devices are the work of the devil. “It’s satanic,” said producer R. S. Field, who has used it sparingly on records. “Digital vocal tuning is contributing to the Milli Vanilli-fication of pop music. It’s a shame that people just do it by rote.” Field produced Allison Moorer’s Miss Fortune CD, which comes with a label warning fans, “Absolutely no vocal tuning or pitch correction was used in the making of this album.”
Gord Adams, a Toronto music engineer, set up the sound system at last summer’s Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary Open Road Tour, which featured artists such as Journey and April Wine. He witnessed autotuners being employed there by about half the major recording artists.
“If I’m a professional singer, I don’t want to say, ‘Hey, nice to see ya. I’ve got this thing on my sound board that makes my voice sound a little more accurate,’ ” Mr. Adams said.
Alex Andronache manages a roster of record producers for management agency Worlds End Canada.
He said he first noticed the use of autotuners a few years ago when he took his daughter to see Britney Spears in Toronto.
He couldn’t help but notice three Antares tuners lined up in a row at the engineer’s sound board that evening. But he said he couldn’t say for certain they were there for her vocals. They could also be used to tune backup singers or their instruments.
The driving force behind this trend has been the fans themselves, who now have a more educated ear and can tell if something is off-key, industry experts said.
To attract concert-goers, artists will do whatever it takes sometimes to please demanding customers, who often pay upwards of $100 a ticket to hear their favourite musicians.
The presumption that autotuning is somehow cheating is just that, proponents argue, since the technology won’t transform a bad singer into a good one.
“If you’re a bad singer and sing out of tune, it’ll turn you into a bad singer who’s now singing in tune,” Antares’s Mr. Alpert said.
Until recently, autotuners or pitch-correction tools have been mostly used in the recording studio. Most albums nowadays are made using the autotuner, which is also found in computer-based recording systems to fix flat notes and off-key vocals or to create an entire performance by digitally cutting and pasting numerous takes. Its ubiquitous presence has courted criticism sometimes from the very people who use the technology.
“I think it’s abused,” said Daryn Barry, who has mixed or engineered music for Blue Rodeo and the Weakerthans and has used the autotuner in an album he is producing with Toronto singer-songwriter Lindy. “But I think like any tool that’s fairly new that people will hopefully get sick of [it].”
Mr. Barry said he relies on the autotuner when a musician’s performance is nearly flawless except for that one flat note “that’s going to drive everyone crazy” or when there are time constraints. In the old days, it would take months to make a record.
Producer Brenndan McGuire, who produced and engineered several Sloan albums, also avoids them as much as he can.
“As a producer, you like to coach a performance, and I think it’s a lazy way of achieving results through electronic means,” he said.
But, like many, he is not opposed to using autotuners. In fact, Mr. McGuire, who produced Sam Roberts’ We Were Born in a Flame, said there was the odd note in that album that “may have been stretched out with that device.”
Electronic tuning took off in the mid-1990s after the introduction of computer-based recording systems, such as Digidesign’s Pro Tools, Emagic’s Logic Platinum and Steinberg’s Cubase. Their owners allowed others to develop additional features on their flagship systems, one of which is the autotuner.
But it’s important to remember that sounding flat or sharp is as much a musical expression as being in tune, industry experts said. The Doors’ Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan rarely sang in pitch, but they’re still music icons. The same goes for Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters and Billie Holiday.
Would fans still like them if the producers had decided that a curlicue or buried roll or slightly out-of-tune phrasing was flawed and ran it through a vocal tuner, Mr. Field wondered.
Still, the newer punk bands, such as Sum 41 and Good Charlottes, would sound awful if they weren’t corrected with an autotuner. Last week, Mr. Field was back in the studio, producing another album with Moorer, and they were sticking to vintage analog gear to record what they want, “a fat, aggressive sound.”
Only this time, they’ve decided not to label the new CD with a warning. “We can’t put a sticker that says no computers were used in the making of this record,” he said. “It’d really make us look like jerks, but there’s not going to be any of that.”