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December 20, 2009

Auto-tune the puuuuuke

Rob @ 8:17 PM

My pal Rusty asked in his blog whether all use of Auto-tune was really "evil," citing an example which he enjoyed. In typical me fashion, I started typing a short reply that became a really long-winded and tedious lecture. I thought I'd blog it myself as well, since I really do love the metaphorical sound of my own textual voice that much.


Back when the synthesizer was new, there was lots of hooha about how it wasn't a "real" instrument and using it was "cheating." This argument was inadvertently bolstered by the fact that once the synthesizer became cheap enough for creators of bad music, a lot of really bad music was made with it really quickly.

Some people used it as a way to try and fake the gravitas which an actual string orchestra (or whatever) would give their work, without considering whether it was really all that good an idea.

TV scores, once the sole domain of actual orchestras of humans, could now be banged out more cheaply by some guy with a keyboard, and not always with listenable results. Compare the iconic incidental music by Dudley Simpson and the BBC orchestra in 60s and 70s Doctor Who to Keff McCulloch and his synthesised hand-claps in the McCoy era, or the jazzy stock music of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Scooby Doo with, well, almost any 1980s toons.

This flooding of the market with synth music which really wasn't worth a damn helped form the public's opinion of synth music is in general; people would immediately associate synthesizer sound with crap from TV commercials and elevator speakers they wouldn't have liked anyway. There was a huge backlash against the synthesizer in general.

Eventually the music world settled down and the debates mostly faded once people realized that like any other instrument, synthesizers could be used to make some really awesome stuff by those talented enough, and the music should be judged on its own merits just like any other music rather than what was used to make it. Talented bands like Queen (whose liner notes to A Night at the Opera famously bore the slogan "No synthesisers!") began to see the potential of the device, and incorporated it into their work, and new synth-based acts arose who could use the damn things properly.

We're seeing the same thing now with Auto-tune. Bad producers are using the hell out of Auto-tune to cover up mistakes and lack of talent in their studio acts like an audio equivalent to Photoshop, gimmicky acts are applying Auto-tune in ways that don't actually improve things just for the "me-too" factor, and the market is being flooded with so much autotuned crap that it's relatively hard to find usages of the technology which don't make a discerning listener want to pop their own eardrums with a mechanical pencil.

Like every new fad, once the general public gets sick of the stuff and stops actually buying the bad stuff, the smoke will clear and the good stuff will come into its own.

2 Responses to “Auto-tune the puuuuuke”

  1. gus says:

    Like Autotune The News! Which is a really *inspired* way to use it. It's stuff like that which will make auto-tuning into its own art form, rather than a plastic band-aid. *I* think, at least.

  2. Rob says:

    @gus: Trufax! Although, part of what makes "Auto-Tune the News" so brilliant is how effectively they are spoofing the crappily over-autotuned stuff in the first place, so it all gets sort of meta where that show's concerned.

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