Vocal Tuning – A Brief History

Do you remember the first time you heard a vocal tweaked with what has come to be known as “Autotune?”  If you’re over 30, you probably remember Cher’s song “Believe”, released in 1998.  If you’re younger than 30 I’m sure you have a pretty strong memory of the first time you heard a T-Pain song.

Do you believe in life after love?

Raise your hand if you believe in life after love.

T-Pain does.

I would wager that one or the other of those would be your answer, but you’d be wrong.  That might be the first time you thought you heard pitch correction, but in truth it was in use long before either T-Pain or Cher got their hands on Autotune software.  The dirty secret of recorded music is that some version of pitch correction has been in use since the 1940s (and became common in the 1950s), when a flubbed note would be fixed manually by slightly speeding up or slowing down the tape of the recorded vocal ever so slightly at the point where the note went wonky.  It was difficult and took a very skilled engineer to pull it off without the result sounding worse than the original offending note.

Early multitrack technology, circa 1948.

Early multitrack technology, circa 1948.

The mid and late 70s saw the introduction of studio hardware that could be used to bring “pitchy” notes into line, such as the Eventide 1745M (a digital delay module) and Eventide H949 (a digital harmonizer).  Then, in the 1980s, samplers became widely available and it was easy to “sample” a bad note and play it back while “bending” it with a pitch wheel so that it sat better and was less offensive.  Finally, software came along in the 1990s that led to easy manipulation of vocal pitch, which inevitably led to the Cher or T-Pain effect.

The Eventide H949 Harmonizer.

The Eventide H949 Harmonizer.

The Fairlight sampling system, used to tune vocals in the 80s.

The Fairlight sampling system, used to tune vocals in the 80s.

In other words, virtually every recording you’ve ever heard has had at least a few of the sung notes tweaked slightly.  Nobody discussed it, but it happened at all major studios and with all major artists.  And if the artist’s integrity led them to “object” to having their vocals corrected?  It would be done late at night, after the artist had left the studio for the day.

A good time to tune vocals is in the evening, when the artist is otherwise occupied.

A good time to tune vocals is in the evening, when the artist is otherwise occupied.

Many artists in the late ’90s also started using pitch correction in their live shows, setting the hardware to kick in and fix live vocals if they reached a certain threshold of “off-pitch”, a practice that is still in use today and will likely be in use until the apocalypse.  It’s just how things are done.

Now, before you start mourning the loss of artistic integrity and shouting from the nearest window that you, as an artist, would never stoop to such levels as to use pitch correction, it’s important to realize that until recently it was only used sparingly on recordings.  Back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, you only had a couple of options if an artist missed a note badly enough to call attention to itself.  You could  call the artist back into the studio to record that one word over again, which could unleash a whole host of other technical nightmares.  Or you could gently nudge the one or two notes that were out of line, preserving the overall emotion and feel of the vocal phrase.  It really wasn’t until the 90s that vocalists could record three minutes of tripe and have all the flubbed notes put in line after the fact.

As someone who has worked on thousands of vocal tracks through the years, I personally have no problem using software to nudge an errant note or two.  The end goal is always to preserve the best vocal take, to preserve the heart and emotion that makes a good lyric really connect with a listener.  I mean, which would you rather hear – a pitch-perfect performance with no heart, or a performance that hits you with honesty, soul, and feeling?

The bottom line?  Always strive to get the best performance, a performance with meaning and soul and heart as well as technical aptitude.  But if you have to choose between technically perfect performance and one delivered with emotion, go with emotion and let me nudge the notes into place for you.