AI: Autotune Intelligence

17 03 2011

Autotune has been around for donkey’s years. Every now and then it stirs up into mainstream media and everyone seems disapointed for 5 minutes that it’s been done to their favourite pop star or Glee actor. Then it’s all forgotten again the next day.  I would say, although I have no proof really, that every single pop/rock track released in recent times has some sort of pitch correction on vocals and the majority use Antares Autotune.  It’s not really a bad thing when used right, I have no objections to Autotune being used to help good singers get it perfect. Often it’s the tone, feel and emotion that makes a singer unique or marketable, not his/her ability to pitch 100% perfectly.

My issue is that slowly, over time, we are conditioning the listening public to not notice the Autotune and therefore we are getting braver and making it more obvious and it goes around in cycles.  Hell, we’re even conditioning ourselves to ignore it.  In casual conversation with various people (as I’m inevitably asked about it every time it’s in the news) I have found that many people now believe the artifacts caused by obvious Autotune as just part of some peoples singing voice!  “Doesn’t he just sound like that?” when referring to T Pain is one that springs to mind.

There are two main artifacts to look out for when using Autotune. The first and most obvious one is the clicking or blipping sound made famous by Cher and often now used as an effect. Heard here:

The second one is subtler and in someways is more guilty when it comes to duping the public. It’s a synth like tone that becomes noticable on longer notes as it seems to take over the natural voice. Heard here on the “yeah”:

I am going to discuss a couple of feature of Antares Autotune and how you can use it invisibly to improve your vocalists performance without robotizing it!

Retune Speed

This dial is the culprit of the blipping artifact when turned up too fast. The fear that some engineers may have is that if it’s too slow the Autotune won’t have time to tune the shorter notes. Although this is true to some extent it is often enough to just have a note moving towards the right pitch and never quite getting there rather than having it switch quickly and causing the jump blip.  My advice is to er on the side of slower.

Know your Key and Input Type.

I’ve seen these two really useful features overlooked to bad effect.  Autotune defaults the key to a chromatic scale, meaning it will retune the voice to the nearest semi-tone. This is fine if the singer is always within 25 cents (quarter tone) of the correct pitch. If they slip over 25 cents towards the next semitone then the odds are Autotune will retune the vocal to a note that is not in the correct key and it’ll sound awful. By selecting the correct key you’ll reduce Autotunes options when it’s selecting the retune note. If your singer is still over halfway towards the next note (likely 50 cents) in the scale then he’s not very good… but you’ll have to get in there and edit in in the graphical mode.  At least you know that every note Autotune thinks he’s trying to sing will be in key and sound superficially fine.

Input type is even easier to overlook (it’s in the top left corner, by the way). By selecting the right input you change the algorithm that Autotune uses to analyse the input and will greatly improve it’s chance of retuning naturally and accurately. Incidentally; notice the bass instrument option? Autotune on bass is a great idea for tightening up that rhythm section.

Here I’d also like to mention the “Targeting Ignores Vibrato” button, I nearly always click this on.  As it allows the singer some tolerance in performance. The natural wobble of notes can matter a lot to the feel of a song, particularly an emotive song.

Create Vibrato

This is designed to remove the droning tone I spoke about earlier on longer notes by creating a vibrato after a certain length of time.  Having a delay before the vibrato starts helps it feel more natural as it won’t vibrato quick notes and will come in after the longer notes have settled in.  But there is a massive problem: I once heard a Rhianna track (I tried to find it for an example but she’s released thousands over the last 3 years!) that had this very feature enabled. It wasn’t an obviously Autotuned song, but the vibrato came in at exactly the same point note after note after note, gave the game away… which leads me onto my next point.

Automation

This is where you can really get clever to make your Autotune invisible and your singer great! By automating the onset delay, shape and amount of vibrato the engineer can make it feel much more natural as it’s constantly changing every note. It doesn’t take long, and you don’t even have to be accurate, just change the settings around as it plays through.  This isn’t where automation stops helping Autotune though, try changing the retune speed to suit the lengths of the notes currently being sung.  A faster speed can be used throughout a sequence of shorter faster notes and then slow the speed down for the big long ones in the chorus.  The posiblities are endless, but there’s one more thing you should think about automating.  The bypass.  Sometimes I have found sections of vocals where no matter what else I do the Autotune can be heard, so I’ve simply excepted the natural sound on that sequence of notes and automated it back on later.

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2 responses

17 03 2011
Tom

Great article! I’ll definitely be trying the automation features the next time I use AutoTune!

18 03 2011
Graeme Rawson

Thanks Tom. I’m glad you liked the ideas.

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