Auto-Tune Pitch-Correction: How Does It Work and Is It Cheating?


The phrase “auto-tune” can have some negativity associated with it. There often seems to be some stigma attached to its use.

You will probably have heard people respond to a great vocal performance with, “yeah, but they’ve used auto-tune”, as if that’s cheating.

Vocalists can also sometimes react badly if you suggest using auto-tune, or if they find out that you did use it on their vocal track. It’s as if you are suggesting their pitch is bad and needs correcting.

This makes no sense to me. Auto-tune is a studio tool like many others that can help to make a track sound better. Also, much of the time it’s not actually being used for pitch-correction.

What is Auto-Tune?

Auto-tune has become the generic term for any type of pitch-correction, and the effect might actually be produced by one of a range of devices.

Auto-Tune (with a capital “A” and “T”) is the brand name of the best-known pitch-correction system produced by Antares.

Antares Auto-Tune was the first effective pitch-correction device. It was invented by a former oil company engineer who had been using sound waves to detect underground oil deposits.

It was originally built into hardware effects units and was designed to analyse audio signals and correct inaccurate pitches.

Cher Really Got Things Started

Auto-Tune was introduced in 1997 and within a year it came to the world’s attention after being used (as everyone knows) on the Cher track “Believe”.

It was used as on the Cher song as a vocal effect rather than for pitch-correction. You can watch the video below.

Believe – Cher

Apparently, the producers of Cher’s record discovered the effect by accident, and pretended it had been done a different way (using a vocoder) so no-one else could copy it.

You can hear this type of Auto-Tune vocal effect on a huge variety of tracks now. In fact, it would be quite hard to recognise some top singers and vocalists without it since the effect is such an important part of their sound.

Now Auto-Tune is available as a DAW plug-in and it is used widely by all sorts of vocalists and musicians. There are various versions that provide different levels of sophistication.

This varies from just automatically altering the pitch to the ability to manually edit pitch note-by-note.

Melodyne From Celemony

Another popular pitch-correction tool is Melodyne, which is produced by a company called Celemony.

Melodyne is designed mainly for manual, note-by-note pitch and timing correction (and more) rather than auto-tuning. This means that it’s less likely to be used for Cher-style auto-tune effects.

Other Auto-Tune / Pitch Correction Plug-Ins

Auto-Tune and Melodyne seem to be the big two pitch-correction tools for professional music production.

Several other companies make similar plugins, which can be less expensive than Auto-Tune or Melodyne. One of the most popular is the range made by Waves.

The range includes Waves Tune, for use with pre-recorded tracks and Waves Tune Real-Time, which can also be used during a performance.

There is also a free plug-in option, which is MAutoPitch by MeldaProduction. You need to download it as part of their free MFreeFXBundle, and you can find out more on their website at [https://www.meldaproduction.com/MAutoPitch]

Being able to used the auto-tune effect in real time during a performance can be useful, and I’ve heard that Timbaland insists on auto-tune being used when he’s recording his own vocals.

Stock DAW Pitch-Correction Plug-Ins

The DAW software you use will probably come with an auto-tune pitch correction plugin.

Apple’s Garageband has a quite basic pitch-correction tool, whereas Logic Pro X has a more sophisticated plug-in that lets you control various aspects of the process.

Logic Pro X also lets you do pitch and timing correction note-by-note, which is separate from the pitch correction plug-in.

Cubase offers a pitch-correction plug-in in all the main versions of the DAW; Pro, Artist and Elements. The note-by-note pitch and timing correction function, which is called VariAudio is only available in the Pro version.

I currently have version 9 of Ableton Live, and it doesn’t seem to have a pitch-correction plug-in. You could explore one of the auto-tune options above if this is the DAW you use. I could be wrong and I might have missed it though – sometimes it’s not obvious what a plug-in does.

Studio One doesn’t seem to come with a pitch-correction plugins. I really like this DAW but I don’t use it as often as some of the others, so again I’ll have to check to see if I’ve missed it.

How Does Auto-Tune Work?

As outlined earlier, there are two main ways that auto-tune effects work on notes in a recording:

  1. The notes are tuned automatically to the nearest note in a defined scale.
  2. The notes are manually adjusted and made to fit a defined scale.

1. Automatic Tuning

This is what most people think of when they hear the words “auto-tune”. The notes in a recording are automatically adjusted to fit perfectly with a defined scale. This can also work in real-time during a performance.

In this case the plug-in application compares the pitch with the reference tone in the selected and it adjusts it to match the reference.

Many pitch-correction plugins offer other features but Antares (who produce the Auto-Tune plugin) have recognised that this is all that many music producers want.

The Auto-Tune Access plug-in provides the most basic auto-tune features in an easy to use (and understand) package. We’ll use this as an example here.

Auto-Tune Access pitch-correction plug-in

You Need to Know What Key You Are In

Something that surprises a lot of people when they start using auto-tune is that you need to know what key your music is in. In the image above you can see where you select the key at the top of the plug-in window.

This can sometimes be a problem if you have used loops produced by other people to produce your track. The singer will usually just sing over the loops and you may not know what key the track ends up in.

Fortunately, Antares produce another plug-in called Auto-Key that can work this out for you.

Retune Speed Makes the Auto-Tune Effect More or Less Obvious

The main control to be adjusted on auto-tune plug-ins is the retune speed. You can see this on the lift of the Auto-Tune Access image above. This lets you control how quickly the note is corrected to the standard pitch.

Slow retune speed produces a more natural sound as the note is gradually pulled towards the standard pitch. This is something that singers actually do while they’re singing so the pitch-correction can sound quite transparent.

Fast retune speeds pull the note to the standard pitch almost immediately, which can produce a very unnatural effect. This is what produced the characteristic “Cher” sound that has become so popular.

Many singers use this fast retune speed when using auto-tune to produce a signature sound. This effect used to be quite obvious, but now people like Halsey use it routinely and it just feels like a natural part of her sound.

You can hear the effect on “Without Me” by Halsey in the video below.

Without Me – Halsey

Most auto-tune devices also have a display that shows the pitch that has been detected and a pitch-change meter that shows how much (and how quickly) the pitch detected is being retuned. This is in the middle of the Auto-Tune Access image above.

2. Manual Note Adjustment

This is the type of pitch-correction that Melodyne is best known for.

It enables producers to go through a vocal performance recording and adjust the pitch and timing of each note individually.

The image below shows this being done on a vocal track with the Flex-Pitch facility in Logic Pro X.

Logic Pro X Flex-Pitch
Logic Pro X Flex-Pitch

The horizontal bars superimposed on the audio waveform indicate the pitch that has been detected at each point. It also gives an indication of how close to that pitch the note sung actually is.

In addition to the vertical positioning that relates to pitch, the timing of each note can also be detected horizontally on the display.

You can then adjust the pitch and timing of each note until you get the vocal performance sounding just they way you want it.

It used to be the case that producers needed vocalists to produce a performance that was emotional with correct pitch. Now they just need to get an emotional performance and the can correct the pitch later.

This type of pitch-correction wouldn’t normally be used to produce Cher-style auto-tune effects.

Is It Cheating to Use Auto-Tune?

So, is it cheating to use auto-tune pitch-correction? That depends on who you ask.

Some people seem to have a big problem with vocal performances being edited. They would say that it is cheating to use pitch and timing correction software.

You wouldn’t really want to hear an electric guitar played without effects. Imagine St Vincent, Van Halen, David Gilmour, The Edge or Jack White playing guitar without effects.

I can also remember people saying that it wasn’t real music if it was played using electric guitars, as if it was the guitars producing the music themselves.

Similar things were said about synthesisers. The band Queen used to have a little note on their album covers to say that no-one had played any synthesizers. So maybe they thought that was cheating too.

People who have a problem with pitch-correction probably forget that any vocal performance probably has a number of effects applied to it.

Reverb effects are applied to most, if not all, vocal tracks. Compression is also used on almost every vocal recording. Equalization (EQ) will also be used to reduce the level of some frequencies, while emphasising others. The vocal may also have a de-esser applied, which helps to reduced the volume of sibilant “s” sounds.

All of these effects can change the sound of the vocals quite dramatically, and few people would say that this is cheating.

Auto-Tune Is a Big Part of the Sound Now

Also, we’ve seen that the auto-tune effect has become a big part of the sound of pop music now. They even use it in genres where you might not expect auto-tune to be welcomed as an effect.

I heard a country music producer say that auto-tune is often used so that there is almost no pitch-correction. Even though no pitch correction (or almost none) is taking place it still introduces some of the auto-tune sound.

So IMHO using auto-tune isn’t cheating. It’s not making people who can’t sing sound like they can. It’s just another tool that helps you to produce the best sounding music possible.

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