Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #17: Autotune or Nah?

Sounding Off2klatsch \KLAHCH\ , noun: A casual gathering of people, esp. for refreshments and informal conversation  [German Klatsch, from klatschento gossip, make a sharp noiseof imitative origin.] (

Dear Readers:  So we’ve had two excellent posts on Autotune that have stirred up no small degree of controversy: Osvaldo Oyola’s “In Defense of Autotune” (9.12.11–our most popular post to date!) and Owen Marshall’s “A Brief History of Autotune” (4.21.2014). And now, we want to know how y’all feel and think about this most controversial of technological effects–with or without some of that T-Pain Effect.  —J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

What’s your take on Autotune and what are we really talking about when we talk about it?

— Comment Klatsch logo courtesy of The Infatuated on Flickr.  

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5 responses to “Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #17: Autotune or Nah?”

  1. Andy Stuhl (@akstuhl) says :

    My undergrad thesis looked to web forums like the Tape Op Message Board in examining how present-day recording engineers contend with the fetishization of pre-digital technologies. Auto-Tune, unsurprisingly, turned out to be a particularly interesting flashpoint for discussions on authenticity and digital disruption. One engineer explained how he had shifted from being “an outspoken opponent of pitch correction plug-ins” to viewing the tool as something “I don’t think I would mix without” (original thread:, explaining that a recording session in which a talented singer had struggled with pitch due to her pregnancy had made him reconsider the tool. A responder echoed that “When you KNOW a singer is good, but is having a hard problem overcoming an illness, or, in this case, pregnancy, it is only your ‘moral’ duty as an engineer to facilitate the situation for her.” For these engineers, the much-hyped promise/threat of pitch correction to “make bad performances sound good” is still an undesirable end, but Auto-Tune can aid the engineer’s work of transmitting a good performance onto the recording medium with minimal technical interference; the change effected by Auto-Tune, then, is the re-casting of bodily hindrances (pitch problems) as technical obstacles of the same sort as studio noise or electrical distortion.

    I should note that discussion of Auto-Tune in engineer forums focus almost exclusively on its use as a corrective tool and not on its more generally popularized use as a recognizable effect. However, the ongoing controversy around Auto-Tune for recordists, I argue, has a lot to do with its lacking a pre-digital precedent; and the popular status of Auto-Tune as digital-age sonic novelty adds to that tension. As multiple Tape Op users noted, tools like artificial reverb have been blurring the line between effect and corrective tool since long before computers entered the studio. A lot of arguments I’ve seen against Auto-Tune rest on an imagination of pre-digital recording and its tools as bearing more authenticity by their nature, a view which discounts the performative work of recording engineers and places fetishistic value in analog machines.


  2. j. stoever-ackerman says :

    In my thinking of autotune and the EXTREMELY passionate emotions it tends to evoke (not here yet, but if you look at the hundreds of comments on Osvaldo Oyola’s “In Defense of Autotune” you’ll see what I mean), I have been especially intrigued by the fact that many of autotune’s most ardent haters tend to reference black American artists almost exclusively as examples of the “raw” and “authentic” that Autotune allegedly destroys– particularly James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday (and the token Bob Dylan, LOL).

    In the American racial imaginary, it falls upon black artists, in particular, to be exemplars of emotiveness and “authenticity” and this authenticity is signaled often by so-called imperfections of the voice (that autotune allegedly removes). Mainstream culture often holds up use of autotune by white artists like Cher or Bon Iver as an artistic innovation (or intentionally ironic, such as in the case of fun. or Ke$ha ) whereas autotune by T-Pain or Lil’ Wayne is disingenuous and “ruining” music. My research for my upcoming book _The Sonic Color-line: Race and the Politics of Listening in America_ traces racialized vocal referents like “raw,” “uncultivated,” and “genuine” back to black performers in the nineteenth century. Even though “black” music has dramatically changed—-the mainstream cultural referents largely have not and the “smooth” “robotic” effects of autotune seem particularly disturbing to white listeners habituated to the sonic markers of black “authenticity.” And, in both past and present, they equate “authenticity” with natural talent, ignoring these singers artistry, rigorous practice and performance schedules, as well as the traditions they came of age in (gospel, for example, which Ann Powers is currently investigating).

    Or, to put it more bluntly, as I once overheard an older black woman say in the bathroom of the Apollo during an intermission at a Sharon Jones concert. “This group sounds like James Brown. . .and you KNOW white people love themselves some James Brown.”

    Autotune then messes with and threatens the simplistic racialization of popular music, where smooth and perfect =white (your Pat Boones and your Fleetwood Macs) and rough/raw=black, boxing black music into certain sounds, genres, and histories and casting black artists and traditions questing for “smoothness” as “inauthentic”: think the Ink Spots, Sam Cooke, Lena Horne, entire stable of Philly Soul and “Quiet Storm” artists, or what a colleague at Northwestern has awesomely identified as “Black Yacht Rock”–Anita Baker, Peabo Bryson, Al Jarreau, etc.). Now, none of those artists used autotune in pursuit of perfection in their sound, but know also that sometimes legendary Philly Soul producer Thom Bell didn’t even use the *actual artists* listed on the record when the was making that beautiful music–when members of the Stylistics or the Delphonics couldn’t hit the notes he needed them to, Bell pushed them out of the way and sang the damn parts himself, essentially human autotune.

    Because of these little-talked about sonic racializations of genre, the conversation on autotune often focuses solely on what it DOESN’T do, leaving a huge silence about what, in fact, the effect DOES do—and why it seems to signal something to us sonically about our current moment, particularly very very obvious uses of autotune that have little to do with the outmoded argument of who can and can’t sing

    Kanye West’s use of autotune to emote the extremities of grief in _808s and Heartbreak_ for example. . . or the way Kelis uses Autotune to drag and extend her voice at key points on her dope new record _Food_. . .or Frank Ocean’s beautiful, frightening, muted ennui in “novocane”. . .

    and yes, I know its vocoder, but Zapp and Roger’s computer coolness is the epitome of the tradition of smoothness in black diasporic musical traditions that anticipates autotune in really important ways–it may be “So Rough, So Tough out here,” but the people who know already know–and for those who don’t, I’m gonna tell you about it, but I’ll be *damned* if you’ll hear me sweat:

    As T-Pain said back in 2012, casting out into the unknown possibilities of the Afro-future: “I know [Auto-Tune] better than anyone, and even I’m just figuring out all the ways you can use it to change the mood of a record.”,9171,1877372,00.html#ixzz1mIbm8KuY

    For artists compelled to vocally emote America’s racial burden for so long, autotune offers new possibilities, a way to get out from under that sonic color-line. And shit, at the very least, it is high time that computer voices were a little less Siri and Hal 9000 and a lot more Darth Vader and Rhianna, no?


  3. Chris says :

    Hey Ms. Stoever-Ackerman- Fordham U. junior here, actually using this topic for my final research paper for my sound studies course! Haven’t done too much research yet but right off the bat, I think autotune is super annoying. It dinishes the authenticity of vocals in a song. However, it was a necessary advancement. Technological advances in music creates new niches and new genres of music to be filled. Autotune fills the niche of technological alteration of vocals. It was only a matter of time before this happened.

    Also, check out our class archive of sound studies related topics!


    • j. stoever-ackerman says :

      Thank you for participating! I am really excited about your class archive as well and I just tweeted about it on @soundingoutblog

      I am curious as to what, in particular, annoys you about autotune? Are you as annoyed by other vocal effects like multitracking, echo, and/or reverb? Why not?


      • Chris says :

        Love the tweet, Prof. Hendler will be thrilled! And thanks a lot for helping me develp my thoughts here. Cranked out that post fast on my phone earlier, meant to say it *diminishes the authenticity in vocals. What’s good about autotune is that we wouldn’t have any of T-Pain’s catchy songs without it. What I don’t like is that it makes any artist sound like a robot. For me, it takes away some of the human quality of the voice. I think multitracking is great, as it adds harmony. I had to google what echo and reverb are. I can’t imagine what a voice on a hit track would sound like if it were echoed/reverbed. An example I found of a tune though, after more googling, would be Green Day’s Blvd. of Broken Dreams. This got me thinking that there is a time and place for these effects to be used. It works well in the opening to rock song such as this one.


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