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What is Autotune?

Autotune is often discussed by music industry professionals and casual listeners alike. People often claim that a singer sounds overly processed or manipulated, but what does that mean? So, let’s find out what is Autotune? And why so many singers use it.


The History of Autotune

What is Autotune

Autotune was first introduced by Antares Audio Technologies in 1997. We can thank Dr. Andy Hildebrand, who was the CEO of the company, for its creation. However, it took another year before it became widely known after Cher released her 1998 hit “Believe.” The song features a heavily stylized vocal sound that stood out from the other songs in the charts and was very groundbreaking for its time. 

Prior to the 1990s, there was no vocal tuning technology similar to modern autotune, but there were ways to manipulate vocals. Musicians had been using various ways to distort and change vocals for decades, like the vocoder. This could change pitch and frequency and was a very interesting effect that is still widely used today, but it couldn’t selectively change notes and put them in the correct tuning. In fact, it wasn’t created to be applied to music as it was originally made in the 1920s for the war efforts. 

Over time musicians adopted it and experimented with it. As technology advanced, the idea of vocal manipulation was toyed with and eventually led to the autotune that we have today.

What is Autotune?

Autotune is a trademarked audio processing technology belonging to Antares Audio Technologies that allows producers to manipulate the pitch of vocals. It was originally designed to correct inaccuracies in notes that were sung, allowing vocal tracks to be perfectly in tune despite them actually being slightly (or quite majorly) off-pitch.

However, although originally designed for subtle corrections, it has since been used in various ways. Some still use it to make minor modifications for improved tuning, while others have taken it much further and made it the key aspect of their sound. T-Pain is a good example of this, and his trademark sound can be heard in any of his songs. Take a listen to “Buy U A Drank” from his album Epiphany if you want to hear up-front auto-tune’ing.

Autotune lets you adjust sounds using tuning parameters. You can adjust the tuning before the vocal is recorded, then apply those presets to the recording. This will automatically manipulate the sound to your presets. 

Autotune can either be an external processor, or a whole/or part of a software plugin. Most music production software such as Logic Pro has autotune included, though it is named “pitch correction.” 

Autotune vs. Pitch Correction

Pitch Correction

Some people might mistake pitch correction and autotune, but they aren’t the same thing. Pitch correcting can be made using autotune, whereas autotune is a plug-in or a hardware processor with technology that is used to correct pitch

An easy way to think about it is that pitch correction is when vocals are manually adjusted to fix the pitch, whereas autotune is when a producer presets the pitch settings and then runs a live or pre-recorded vocal track through it to be automatically manipulated to those fixed settings.

Autotune Backlash

Not everyone likes Autotune; in fact, a lot of producers and music lovers don’t like auto-tune at all. Some consider it to be cheating or a cheap-sounding way to mask bad vocal performance. People have also argued the perfectly processed sound takes away from the minute imperfections that give a voice and, therefore, the song, character. 

This can be true in some cases, but a lot of artists have taken and created a sound instantly identifiable. It’s part of the continued technological achievements that allow visionaries to create new sounds. Musicians continue to push boundaries as music production evolves.

As for my personal opinion, I think it has a place. If it’s part of the vocal sound, then that’s obviously perfectly acceptable and a great use of technology. However, unlike a lot of producers, I personally have no issue correcting two or three slightly out-of-tune notes in an otherwise excellent vocal take. Far better than spending another three hours trying to get perfection, but with the vibe of a live take for the sake of a few notes that only 0.00001% of the listeners will ever notice have been changed.

Using Autotune – What You Need

If you want to learn how to use autotune, then you can start with a beginner recording setup. Since autotune is digital software, you can buy a downloadable version of it, but you will need quite a few other things for your recording setup, such as microphones, a quality interface, good monitor speakers and/or headphones, and a computer that can support recording software such Reason or Ableton for PC users, or GarageBand or Logic Pro for Mac users. 

If you’re on a budget, this condenser microphone bundle will get you started. Or, if you need a far higher-quality vocal recording, go for the AKG P220 Condenser Microphone Bundle.

You can also set yourself up with some quality affordable speakers such as the Behringer MS16 High-Performance, Active 16 Watt Personal Monitor System, or if you want to spend a bit more, I highly recommend the Focal Alpha 65 Evo 6.5 inch Powered Studio Monitor.

Or, if you prefer using headphones until you’re happy spending on a really good pair of monitors, I would go for either the budget price but great sounding Audio-Technica ATH-M20X or the fantastic value for money Sony MDR7506 Professional Large Diaphragm Headphone.

How To Use Autotune?

How To Use Autotune

Autotune can differ depending on what type of software or plugin you are using. Here are some general steps for using it.

  1. First, you will want to open your production software and choose your input type. 
  2. Then pull up the key of the song and what scale is used. Now, choose what mode, usually auto or graph. 
  3. Next, decide on your preset and record a small section of the track (or playback a pre-recorded vocal track) to see how the sound is affected. 
  4. Then, tweak your presets until you are happy with the sound. 

It might take you a while before you are comfortable using autotune. You’ll just have to keep practicing until you find the sound you are looking for.

If you need inspiration, listen to some of the popular artists who use quite a bit of autotune. I have already mentioned Cher and T-pain, but there are lots more. Lil Wayne is a rapper known for using auto-tune on songs like “Lollipop” and “How To Love” from The Carter III album. There’s also Jason Derulo and the Black Eyed Peas.

One last iconic artist to check out is pop icon Britney Spears who has many hits with auto-tune on her Singles Collection to listen to and draw some inspiration from.

What Auto-tune Should You Buy?

Well, that’s a difficult question without knowing your budget, recording system, or what you need it for. But all the information you need to make the perfect choice can be found in our in-depth reviews of the Best Autotune Microphone Systems and the Best Autotune VST Plugins you can buy in 2023.

You’ll also need an audio interface if you haven’t already got now, so take a look at our reviews of the Best iPad Audio Interface, the Best USB Audio Interfaces, the Best Low Latency Audio Interface, or the Best Audio Interface currently available.

As for more excellent microphone options, check out our reviews of the Best Microphones for Recording Rap Vocals, the Best Live Vocal Mic, the Best Vocal Mic, the Best Condenser Microphones, the Best Shure Microphones, the Best XLR Microphones, and the Best Dynamic Microphones on the market right now.

What is Autotune? – Final Thoughts

Autotune has been in the music world for around 25 years old now, but there’s still so much to experiment with and new techniques to create and use.

So, listen to and explore more music genres and the different sounds used to create the songs. And include lots of songs that feature or don’t feature autotune to see what it does, or doesn’t do, to enhance the music. Then decide how you want to use it to create your next musical masterpiece.

Good luck with your autotuning! 

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About Joseph L. Hollen

Joseph is a session musician, writer, and filmmaker from south Florida. He has recorded a number of albums and made numerous short films, as well as contributing music to shorts and commercials. 

He doesn't get as much time to practice and play as he used to, but still manages (just about!) to fulfill all his session requests. According to Joseph, it just gets harder as you get older; you rely on what you learned decades ago and can play without thinking. Thankfully that's what most producers still want from him.

He is a devout gear heat and has been collecting musical instruments all his life. As his wife, Jill, keeps on saying, "You're very good at buying nice instruments, but terrible at selling them!".

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