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Auto-Tune: The Great Debate on Perfection’s Place in Music

Mo Thornton

Mar 18, 2024

While Auto-Tune may have a permanent place in the industry, it is the authentic voices that endure and stand the test of time.

Imagine for a moment a world without Tracy Chapman’s voice coming through your car speakers, those rough, urgent notes warning us, “We better leave tonight or live and die this way”. If Auto-Tune had been around in 1988 and used to pitch correct Chapman’s outlier contralto voice, the artist in her authenticity might never have been recorded.


Chapman recently made history as the first Black woman to win a Country Music Association award for her smash hit “Fast Car”. She could well have been one of thousands of talented musical artists who never reached an audience beyond their hometown, and I daresay the music world in general, and Luke Combs, in particular, would be the poorer for it. In case you missed the news, Combs’ cover of Chapman’s “Fast Car” was awarded Country Music Association’s 2023 “Single of the Year”.


Credit: Getty Images

A full decade after Tracy Chapman’s award-winning and now history-making release, Auto-Tune arrived on the scene. The technology was invented in 1997 by geophysicist and engineer Dr. Andy Hildebrand, who applied mathematical algorithms to interpret sonar-generated data to help oil companies locate fuel deposits, an endeavor that made him quite wealthy.

A Seismic Shift

In 1989 Hildebrand left the lucrative field of seismology and launched his own company, Antares Audio Technology. As the story goes, he asked colleagues what should be invented. Someone jokingly said the world needed a machine to give her the ability to sing in tune. It was a eureka moment for Hildebrand: the same math that he used in oil exploration could be applied to pitch correction.

“When voices or instruments are out of tune, the emotional qualities of the performance are lost,” the patent for Auto-Tune stated. That was quite a bold and sweeping assertion, one that has proven divisive in audio entertainment circles ever since.

Ed Sheeran, Celine Dion, Bruno Mars, and, yes, even pop icon superstar Taylor Swift, are among the famous artists who refuse to use Auto-tune live. On the other side of the fence, Grammy-winning Rapper T-Pain, Nicki Minaj, and Cher are in favor of using the vocal modification software and other synthesizing techniques. In fact, Cher’s 1998 comeback megahit “Believe” is often cited as the first major commercial use of Auto-Tune.

“The Cher Effect” has become synonymous with the over-exaggerated application of the software that creates an interesting combo of human and robotic vocals. Clearly this was not an attempt to mask Cher’s real voice but rather was an obvious and ear worm-creating technique that successfully contributed to the singer’s career reboot.

Local Musicians Weigh In

While the debate continues to rage on and play out on the international stage, local musicians also weigh in on the pros and cons of Auto-Tune.

Mike Ball, who plays multiple instruments and performs with The Bubbanauts, a country band out of Huntsville, Alabama, says he uses pitch correction to ensure his voice is in tune before tackling certain songs.

Mike Ball (Credit: Karen Ball)

“I’m not against the use of the technology, but I am against hypocrisy,” says Ball, president of The Huntsville Traditional Music Association. “Auto-Tune is a tool but, in my opinion, should not be used as a crutch or a cheat-sheet in place of talent. In music, like anything else in life, if one person is too far out of tune, it’s going to create chaos rather than harmony.”

Another Huntsville-based musician and songwriter, Ricky j Taylor, who has played rock, bluegrass, and folk music, among other genres, says he doesn’t see the benefit of creating an expectation of perfection when music is an art and expression of the human condition.

Ricky j Taylor (Credit: MoonTown Photography)

“These are my sentiments only,” Taylor says, “but some of the most expressive music is born from struggles and hard times, and I don’t know why that should be stripped of human qualities—human imperfections.”

A physicist as well as a musician, Taylor does see the advantage of Auto-Tune for post-production adjustments in studio recording.

“No doubt, Auto-Tune is a time- and money-saving tool,” he says.

When used to correct a note here and there or adjust for something like a mic that was repositioned during recording, few refute the technology’s value.

Sophie Buck is a multi-instrumentalist who performs solo and with groups that play old time, folk, Celtic, and roots music. A senior at Middle Tennessee State University, Buck is tech-savvy, like many of her generation. She says pitch correction technology is a powerful tool that, when applied, can be constructive or destructive.

Sophie Buck (Credit: Valeri Buck)

“I think it all comes down to the goal of the individual artist,” Buck says. “If the goal is to capture raw, human authenticity with the [inherent] imperfections, Auto-Tune might strip the music of that essence. However, if the goal is to create a highly polished or computer-generated project, the software is an asset.”

“Sure, Auto-Tune has its place,” Taylor agrees. “But it can be a slippery slope when it becomes so widely accepted that live performers rely on it.”

Taken to the extreme, if the software enables anyone to sing perfectly in tune, why not have that singer be a hot Urban Cowboy or Barbie Doll 10 in looks? And who decides what is “hot” and who is a “10”? And what exactly constitutes “perfect”?

Is perfection hitting a note and holding it, or is it finding a thread of emotion that runs through the veins of everyone listening to a vocal cry of need, loss, love, hope, or grief that elevates it beyond the individual to the universal?

Imperfectly Perfect

Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” testify to the commercial appeal of imperfectly perfect voices. If that reference feels too lost in the mists of history for today’s music scene, just look at one of many viral video clips from the 2024 GRAMMY Awards ceremony of Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs performing together. Two incredible talents who differ in age, music genres, race, and orientation seem to have found something that defies differences and creates connection. That something is the fact that “Fast Car” is a timeless song.

Though Auto-Tune may have a permanent place in the music industry, it is a comfort to know authentic voices, like Chapman’s, have an enduring place in the human expression that is music.


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