To Autotune or not to Autotune?

Melodyne

In my free ebook, The Art of Music Production, there is an entire chapter on “Editing”.

Editing is the part of the production process that comes right after recording, and just before mixing. The primary components are:

  • Comping together the best takes of your recordings
  • Fixing the timing and tuning of your recorded tracks.

Today I want to share some thoughts on vocal tuning. It can be very tricky to get it right, and can even be somewhat controversial, depending on who you talk to.

So let’s start our discussion right from the top:

Is it ok to Autotune my vocals?

First off, what is autotune, anyway?

“Autotune” is a confusing term, because it means a few different things. There is actually a piece of vocal tuning software by Antares which is named Autotune.

But when I say autotune, I’m really just referring to the act of taking a vocal track (or any track for that matter) and nudging the pitch of each note to be closer to the desired pitch. This can be done automatically, or manually using software such as Antares Autotune, or Celemony’s Melodyne.

Ok, so that’s what it is. But should you do it?

Well, that depends on a few things:

Genre

Sometimes, heavy autotune is actually a desirable effect. Some genres, such as electronic and some pop, make heavy use of autotune. Other genres, however, prefer no autotune at all.

I personally find that a happy medium is usually best. I use tuning to enhance a track, and fix some minor issues. But I try not to go over the top, usually.

Preference

Some people do not feel comfortable with autotune. They think it’s “cheating”. Maybe that’s you, and in that case, it’s ok. However, I would propose to you that at a fundamental level, it does not differ vastly from any other digital processing, such as EQ, Compression, or Reverb. In each case, we’re digitally affecting the track, altering the original performance, in order to make the production better.

But, if you or your vocalist truly don’t feel comfortable with autotune, then don’t worry. You don’t need it. In fact, if you’re working with a vocalist, you may want to ask him or her about their views on autotune, so that you don’t offend them by using it. Be sure to remind them that you are not using it to fix a bad vocal, but to enhance a good one. Which leads me to…

The Golden Rule of Autotune

Record your tracks as if autotune doesn’t exist.

Actually, this goes for comping and timing fixes as well. Record as if you can’t edit later. Make the recording and performance as good as possible.

If the vocalist makes a glaring mistake, don’t say to yourself “oh I can just fix that later with autotune”. Record the best performance you possibly can. Then, tuning software will enhance it, which is the goal of the editing process. You don’t want to be hacking away in Melodyne trying to fix a bad performance. It’s no fun, trust me.

How to handle lead vocals

Alright, so that’s the theory, now let’s get into some practical stuff. How do we actually go about tuning the lead vocals?

First of all, I’m going to assume that you have some sort of tuning software. Many DAWs come with a basic tuning plugin (Logic X has FlexPitch and I believe ProTools comes with Elastic Pitch). If you want something more advanced, I would personally recommend Celemony’s Melodyne. I’ve been using it for years and it sounds fantastic.

Production Club
HSC Production Club

If you don’t have tuning software, then you’re not out of luck. There is a way to do some basic tuning by slicing your waveforms and altering the pitch of each segment. It’s more labor intensive, and I’m not going to get into all of the details here. This is the method that Joe Gilder teaches in his Production Club course (affiliate link). Fantastic course, by the way. If you want to get really deep into the production process and watch a pro work his way through an entire song, step by step, then it’s definitely worth checking out. It’s not cheap, but I can tell you from experience, it’s probably the best money I’ve ever spent on my studio.

So, all that said, how do we go about tuning those lead vocals?

Well, as always, it depends greatly on the source, but I like to approach lead vocal tuning as follows:

  • Keep it subtle – People are listening intently to the lead vocal and will notice if you overdo it.
  • Make it close enough – Again, people are listening intently, and an out-of-tune vocal can be very distracting.
  • Minimize artifacts – In other words, if you can hear the effects of the tuning process, you might want to compromise so that it’s more transparent.

In reality, some slightly off-pitch notes and imperfections actually make the music feel more human and less robotic. So be careful not to autotune the life out of it.

My approach is as follows. As I mentioned, I use Melodyne as my tuning software. I will typically take the vocal track, one phrase at a time, and run a loose quantize at around 40-60%. This means that it will take each note and nudge it 40-60% closer to the desired pitch. This will fix a lot of the small issues. After that, I listen through and fix any other issues that bother me, always trying to do the minimum amount of tuning that works.

What about background vocals?

Background vocals are very different from lead vocals, as far as tuning strategy goes.

In this case, I find that the ear picks up on imperfections and poor tuning much more quickly. This is where a heavier “autotune” can really come in handy. A nicely tuned background vocal will blend and glue together with the lead vocal really well, and the artifacts are not nearly as noticeable. A poorly tuned background vocal can quickly make your track sound unprofessional or “off”.

So my approach is pretty similar to lead vocals, except that I will do a much more aggressive quantize. Usually 70-80%. This locks the background vocal tighter onto the desired pitch without being 100% quantized. Then, of course, I’ll go through and manually fix any remaining issues.

A note of caution here: this is for background vocals that are buried in a dense mix. If the mix is more sparse and the background vocals are more up front, you may need to be a little more gentle with them.

Conclusion

So here are the important tips to take home:

  1. It’s ok to tune a vocal, but if you or your singer don’t feel comfortable with it, you absolutely don’t have to.
  2. When you record your tracks, make it your goal not to have to edit them. Record the best performances you possibly can.
  3. Be easy on the lead vocal. If you overdo it, people will notice.
  4. Crack down on the background vocals. It will make them fit nicely.

Good luck! Go make some great music today!

Let me know what you think. Do you tune your vocals? Have any other tips or strategies? Leave a comment!

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2 thoughts on “To Autotune or not to Autotune?

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