The death of pop and rock via Auto-Tune

June 19, 2021 • 2:30 pm

I’ve maintained many times, and still believe it, that rock music is not only most horrible, but reached its apogee in the Sixties and has been going downhill at an accelerating rate ever since. One of the reasons for the acceleration is the use of Auto-Tune: a program that can be used to change the note a singer sings and make it conform absolutely to the predetermined pitch. Increasingly, songs and instrumental notes are used to achieve this kind of “perfection”, which if overused (as it nearly always is these days), can make a song sound inhuman and robotic. It’s become a substitute for being able to sing properly. As the narrator notes in the video below, it’s enabled substandard singers to become rock/pop singers, since even pretty bad singers can sing on key when their voices are electronically adjusted.

Here’s a 14½-minute video by musician/engineer/producer/audio expert, etc. Rick Beato not only showing how Auto-Tune works to change recorded notes, but also how it homogenizes and ruins much of modern rock music. He hastens to add that he’s not opposed to the occasional use of Auto-Tuning to fix individual notes, but that most of the top ten tunes on music sites like Spotify are heavily autotuned. You know what this sounds like: a robotic, monotonic voice.

Beato’s thesis, with which I agree, is that the imperfections of the human voice are what makes non-autotuned music appealing. If notes are sung badly wrong, the way to fix it is not to electronically adjust the voices, but, says Beato, do it the old fashioned way: do enough takes until you get it right. 

h/t: Bryan

58 thoughts on “The death of pop and rock via Auto-Tune

  1. Hear, hear!

    I’m a recording engineer and I, too, endorse this message.

    And sure, do enough takes to get it right, but before you do that, how about take voice lessons and practice, practice, practice!

    One thing he said at the beginning jumped out at me — his bands can maybe get through five songs in five or six days. Hey, in classical music we make a whole 75-minute CD in three days, four days tops! That’s because classical musicians are professionally trained, and if they’re still at it by the time they’re ready to record, that’s because they’re good. Not like these pop music wankers.

    Notice, by the way, that on most of the examples he played, not only were the vocals digitized into little pitch-perfect, soulless boxes, all of the instruments were computers also. All you need to record today’s pop hits are an iPad and a microphone, since all the instruments are made out of digital sample libraries.

    I appear in this photo alongside some highly edumacated and practiced musicians — who made a great CD in three days.

    1. Not only do I endorse our host’s message, I endorse your comment, too, Peter. I’ll add my comment as a semi-retired classical singer who jobbed many recording sessions in my youth. Not only had we taking lessons and practiced, we had honed our skills so that we were excellent sight readers who could be counted on to maximize the producer’s time. We prided ourselves in doing the least amount of takes needed to satisfy the engineer and producer, even to the point of getting it done in one take. BTW, I’ve been a subscriber to Beato’s channel for several years. He upholds high musical standards, has a solid theoretical foundation, and admires classical music in addition to pop. He’s a big fan of Martha Argerich.

    2. … how about take voice lessons and practice, practice, practice!

      Last time I heard that line, I was a young buck on my first visit to Manhattan and stopped a local to ask for directions on how I could get to Carnegie Hall. 🙂

    3. Well, yes but was Elvis’s voice ‘better’ after his bel canto training? Different certainly and ‘It’s Now or Never’ is virtuoso but something was lost.

    4. Thankfully your opinion doesn’t actually affect anything and we still get wonderful new rock albums like Blue Weekend and New Long Leg or legendary 90s albums like Loveless and Heaven or Las Vegas.

      Everly Brothers are amazingly talented, but that is music for a planet that wasn’t (almost quite literally) on fire. Music is faster and higher pitched on average. The world moves faster now because we are speeding everything up.

      Complaining about modern forms of art is complaining about modern society at large. You basically just don’t like the generations after yours and that’s fine. Fortunately I get to like all the music ever recorded including hot new autotuned hyperpop nonsense and all the Aphex Twin and Oneohtrix Point Never my heart desires.

      1. You’re not only rude, but wrong; I like a lot of different music, including music of generations before mine: jazz, some pop (Sinatra), and so on. I also like some country music and a lot of folk music. Shouldn’t I like just the music of my generation rather than this other stuff?

        I am glad to you are so superior to me in your taste–so much so that you “like all the music ever recorded”, including lots of dreck.

        If you had read the posting rules before you posted, you would have seen that we want civility here. You not only are uncivil, but you’re arrogant, and, if you like “all the music ever recorded”, you have no taste, something you’re apparently proud of.

        You might consider that Beato has a point about autotuned music, but you make no argument against it.

  2. My wife and I were both commenting just a couple days ago that we were fortunate to have grown up (as teenagers) in the 60s … the greatest music era, in our humble opinion. We were watching videos of The Association, The Turtles, CSN, Linda Ronstadt, Everly Brothers, and others singing live … no autotune. I was born 11/30/1949 which as I recall is within a month of when our fearless leader, PCC, was born.

  3. Jerry to be fair, I would say this happened mostly after the mid 1980s. All downhill from there with exception to some bands and singers. I know singers who refuse to use Auto-Tune. Today it’s all over and that not the only problem with music. Indie rock bands are okay, but Pop music is just awful. lol

      1. Well, you know what musicians used to say – “Give me the stoner’s ears until he’s 21, and I’ll give you the man.”

  4. To be fair Jerry, I think this really began mid 1980s. Auto-Tune in rock. Pop. Yes. I know singers who would never use Auto-Tune and I’ve seen a lot of gigs over the years. It’s been all downhill since the mid 1980s with exception to some bands. But Pop music outside the indie alt rock circuit has more problems than just Auto-Tune.

  5. … the imperfections of the human voice are what makes non-autotuned music appealing …

    Heck, it was the tendency to start a note a half-tone off and slide into a the proper pitch — a technique he picked up from jazz instrumentalists — that helped give Frank Sinatra his signature sound.

  6. Rick Beato is always interesting – he’s probably a little more open-minded about some aspects of modern music than I am, which can also be instructive. When it comes to the ubiquitous overuse of autotune I think we’re all on the same page, though!

      1. I like grunge, too — though I still think of that as “the new stuff” (even though it’s — what? — three decades ago).

          1. Groovy. Dodgy sub-Nehru jackets on a horizontally-challenged lead voxist. Girlies in the A-line frocks doing the swim in the background do it for me, though but.
            Actually, by Garage I was referring to to the 90s sub-electronica dance-stuff. Couldn’t dance to it. Double-speed percussion on fewish beats per minute intrudes on the joy of empty space. It doesn’t make it more exciting:just unnecessarily manic, & spoiling what could be a decent ballad. Not that it could ever spot a melody to save its life.
            Reminds me. Most people think of Rock Steady as reggae: I could swear, brought up on Stax, Atlantic, Motown etc., that Rock Steady referred in the first place to Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd, Muscle Shoals etc. Imagine ‘You can’t do that’ slowed down by 10 b.p.m.: that’s Rock Steady.
            I’ll see yours and raise you this little Garage/BubbleGum groover. “I’ve written a great little pop song.” “OK, let’s get a very angry, hungover Bugs Bunny to sing it.”

          2. Where the twain meet is the album Toots in Memphis — the result of the pilgrimage Toots Hibbert (of Toots and the Maytals reggae fame) made to the Stax/Volt studios to cover some of the great R&B tunes by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd, et al.

          3. Nice one, Ken. I’ll check it out.
            This reminds me of an 80s pub gig: The Metal Doughnut Band. Line-up: bass, drums, singers, lots of others banging various bits of industrial metal. Entire room blacked out: band in the nude, with fluorescent paint on them. Couldn’t see them except these flashes of silk-screen type colour. Dance music entirely in percussive tuning.
            What did they cover? ‘Knock on Wood’. Good joke, mad gig.

  7. It’s really a bigger problem than just auto-tune. The songwriting is auto-tuned as well. There is good music out there though. It’s just pop music that sucks. Rick Beato is great.

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by autotuned songs, Paul, but you could argue that ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, with its analogue-tape-mangling key-change is one big autotune. Even earlier, you’ve got ‘Rain’ by the Beatles, recorded faster than, so in a different key to, the final mix.
      Just goes to show it’s about talent: and, golly, did the Beatles practise until they got it right.

      1. … golly, did the Beatles practise until they got it right.

        They spent a lotta nights in The Cavern Club and in Hamburg workin’ on their chops.

      2. I meant that the songwriting was formulaic and boring. I have no problem with the use of auto-tune as a sort of special effect. Any sound manipulation can be used in an artistic manner. Even auto-tuned cats can be fun: It’s auto tuning to correct bad vocals that is the problem. It’s a red flag that usually means there are lots of other problems too.

        1. Yes, Paul, it’s the dishonesty which is the problem. But. On my synth I could program any melody or rhythm I can imagine on any instrument I desire, even though I can’t play the hundreds of instruments on it. I would never autotune my own singing: but I’m not as sexy as, say, Ariana Grande. These people have millions of dollars invested in them. Get the best session musicians, bend a couple of notes. Result.
          A friend, a fantastic – and attractive – classical pianist, obviously more talented than I. “Why can I not make any money at this game?” Me: “Are you as good as, say, Alfred Brendel?” She: “No.” Me: “So people prefer AB to you,” It’s just the way it is, and I suspect there is very little she or anyone can do about it.

      3. The Beatles recorded their first album in one day long session. John’s voice on Twist and Shout sounds that way because it was basically finished from singing all day.

        1. And it grabs the listener – the sound is expressive, and makes them want to hear it again to answer the question “what WAS that?”

        2. For “Oh Darling” on Abbey Road, Paul came into the studio each day for a couple of weeks to sing that song, then, when his voice was rough enough, it was recorded.

          The Beatles first album was essentially half of their live set.

        3. John once said it altered his singing voice forever, all those sets in Hamburg spent screaming the lyrics to “Twist & Shout.”

      4. “you could argue that ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, with its analogue-tape-mangling key-change is one big autotune.”

        One could, yes. I’m not sure how that would help.

        This is a cool account of SFF :

        1. Not really, since it wasn’t used to correct bad singing, but for a different reason.

          There is a difference between using technology creatively and relying on it as a crutch.

          Boston’s first album made a big point of technology and so on, with main man Tom Scholz being a technology geek. By the time of the second album, they made a point of saying that neither computers nor synthesizers were used.

          1. [ I’m pretty sure we are in agreement ]

            The basic question becomes :

            Is the artist using the technology, or is the technology using the artist

            If we are listening to the Cher song over again to check how weird the unusual sound is – as opposed to the human voice expressing a human feeling – I would argue that would be the latter condition.

            I add in general, since artists now do not have to worry about their pitch sounding like a grade school band, they have less on the line – and I seem to sense it in the recordings. What IS driving the bus? The image – how the artist looks, acts, and what they say – which isn’t new of course, but what is new is all they need to do is show up to record.

          2. I remember reading an interview with a 1990s starlet, who was clearly the product of the producer. In response to the question how much input she has in the studio, she replied that she is usually present. 😐

  8. Well, as someone who has actually had to aututune the singer in my group during the mixing and production process, I admit it felt terrible. The producer asked, “What is he trying to sing?” I admitted, after listening to the phrase over and over, that I had forgotten, so we worked out some entirely new notes on guitar.
    Another mate swears that you can tell autotuning a mile off, but not to my ears you can’t – unless it’s an extended passage and little else in the soundscape to distract from the vocal line.

  9. XM’s Underground Garage, Ch 21. (Favorite listening hours, M-F 7 Central to 10.) The best rock and soul of all time, PLUS the best of NOW.

    It restored my faith in RnR.

  10. Oh for goodness sake, here we go again with the “it was better in the olden days” BS. Pop music is garbage but there is so much more to modern mucic than that, just seek it out, be curious. And don’t forget your sample bias, most of pop in the 60s/70s/80s/ etc was also crap, get over it….

    1. Agree 100%. Whenever someone says “the best music was in [pick decade]” they’ve rarely actually listened to much music.

      There is great stuff out there now, enhanced by much of it being live performed/recorded.

    2. Totally with you. I find a lot of the commercial stuff to be dreary anodyne crap, but if you got to gigs and festivals (hopefully, will be able to do that again soon), there’s lots of really good music out there.

  11. It is a little ironic seeing a Beato vid linked here. 90% of his channel is discussing great music not from the 60’s. Whenever I hear someone say “the best music was from [pick a decade]” it’s always someone who doesn’t actually listen to much music. Rick’s channel is a great antidote for that.

    But even I’m also not a big fan of recent pop. Recently Rick’s been doing rundowns of Spotify top 10 and the like. He points out what’s good as well as not so good. Definitely opened my mind a bit, even though I don’t go there much.

  12. I agree music without imperfections is dull, but dull sounds, even when created with Andy Hildebrand’s autotune, can be used in a creative way like f.i. in Amnesiac from Radiohead.

    The most important period for forming musical taste are between the ages of 11 and 16 (in general), it might be a natural thing to dislike current taste in music. For my daughters rock is something from a previous century, but my mother was completely crazy about it.

    I assume 90% of all music currently produced is still completely crap, just like in the old days.

  13. Agreed that 90% of everything is crap in all decades, and that there is good stuff around now, just not in the mainstream (e.g. try some Otoboke Beaver).

    However, I think you can make a case that the 60s were uniquely creative and interesting, and that this good stuff had massive mainstream success.

    In the 50s-80s new technology allowed people to create new sounds, whereas more recently new technology has allowed people to copy pre-existing sounds. That’s the big difference I think.

  14. It is not clear to me either how simple vibrato fares in this Auto Tune treatment.

    Sometimes the pitch is bent around like Eddie Van Halen going wild, but vibrato is a fine art, and Auto Tune might fail, or worse – make vibrato itself anodyne and as expressive as a gas-powered chainsaw.

  15. I do believe this way of thinking is quite harmful. I’ve grown up in a family of singers, quite frankly. My mother graduated college with a degree in vocal performance. Both of my sisters have made honors in state, one in choir and one in vocal jazz. We have all grown up receiving vocal training from our mom, and have each been classically trained in a separate instrument, with mine being classical guitar. Safe to to say, I hope, that I do know what I’m talking about when it comes to music. But my voice sucks. I don’t want to say that it’s the worst you’ve ever heard, but it’s certainly nothing remarkable. Even though I’ve taken lessons, I still can’t get my voice to sound the way I want it to. That’s where auto tune comes in. I write, record and produce my own music in my bedroom, but my biggest problem is my voice. Not only does it sit at a very rumbly and unpleasant frequency, but I find it difficult to achieve the results I wish through mere practice and multitudes of vocal takes. I’ve experimented in hip hop, dance, EDM, pop, and rock, and for all of them I’ve used auto tune to enhance my performance. It simply allows me to get my music sounding the way I wish. I view it as a tool to achieve the sound I want, almost like I’m a writer who hands a piece of music off to a more decorated and capable singer. The difference is, as I keep the status as the artist, I also get recognition as the songwriter and producer, instead of that detail typically getting lost in the translation among a more casual audience. And while I understand that another singer may simply be a better vocalist, they don’t necessarily deserve the right for songs to be handed to them to claim as their own (there is an exception in jazz as most songs are classics that EVERYBODY sings). Another quite broad and blanketing statement is that auto tune turns voices into robots with no emotion. As I’ve heard it, the emotion isn’t in the pitch, but is more represented in the tone and volume that follows the melody. You can still have a very emotional performance with auto tune, you just have to be a good performer, which is something that I feel is becoming less and less defined, and more boiled down to bouncing on a stage. While I agree that these concerts are fun, there is something to be said about performing among an orchestra with a more intimate setting that is somehow being lost more and more. However I’ve seen a few less talented vocalists give more interesting and emotional performances with auto tune than several undoubtedly great vocalists without it. And while auto tune does give a certain quality to every voice, it is the artists’ job to make sure that they don’t get lost among the crowd. I think that discouraging the use of auto tune simply because you think it’s ruining a genre is destructive to the new generation who is growing up with access to many more high quality audio tools. Instead of arguing why older music is better because it wasn’t made with such and such that made it easy, understand that there are more opportunities to make enjoyable music and that truly everyone can learn to enjoy creating. While not everyone will be good at it, it is much more accessible and I don’t think there is any shame in using tools to help you reach an end goal that you may have envisioned in your mind. Not everyone is born with the greatest voice, and not anyone can write a beautiful or amazing song, but the people who do shouldn’t have to give it away just because of someone else’s face structure and vocal chords.

    In conclusion, I believe that auto tune is a useful tool that has allowed talented people to be appreciated for their work, as well as instilling confidence in those who love to perform and create who know that they don’t have the nicest of voices. That’s why I don’t think it’s ruin rock, and as for why I think pop doesn’t qualify as a musical genre, well, that’s an argument for another time.

    1. First of all, you’ve exceeded the word limit by 25%; please read the Roolz on the sidebar.

      Second, harmful to who? I am simply asserting that rock music that is Auto-tuned is in general worse than rock music that isn’t, and enables mediocre singers to produce songs that, while they may be decent songs, sound like they were sung by robots. Sorry, but I am not willing to have you tell me to shut up about Auto-tune if I think it leads to worse music, just because it is more “inclusive”. Anyone is welcome to use it and compete with everyone else, but it’s not going to make me think that the program is a boon to rock music.

      1. I understand that my tone came off a little aggressive but I didn’t mean to say you were wrong. I simply wanted to bring up a different point of view. I’m sorry if I offended you.

        Also I think that I meant to comment on someone else’s comment but I don’t think it worked.

    2. The scope of the argument was specifically to cover what is generally considered popular music, or popular artists, as represented by the most played Spotify/etc. lists or the Grammys, as is compares with historical records thereof – “The Oldies” – etc.

      There was not one personal criticism, let alone of the vast majority of musicians out there doing their own thing with little recognition, and there was no anti-Auto Tune argument made.

    3. Thought auto-tuning was created to do satires — schoyoho’s brilliant Auto-Tuning the News; It made perfect sense for that.

  16. If you can’t sing in tune then maybe you need to find another career. Call me old-fashioned but I’ve always thought you should learn to sing and play BEFORE you start a band.

  17. When helping to record “Tears Are Not Enough” in 1985 (Ethiopian famine relief single) with a bunch of other Canadian artists, Neil Young was asked by the engineer to redo a vocal bit since he said it was a bit flat. Neil replied, “That’s my style, man.”

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