Have you ever wondered if a singer can autotune their voice when singing live?
Perhaps you’ve recently been to a concert and noticed that the vocals sounded a little too perfect.
(Or, maybe you’ve been to a concert where the vocals were a little less-than-stellar, and wondered if they could’ve been artificially tightened up).
So, can autotune be used live?
Singers are able to autotune their voice during a live performance, either to subtly correct their pitch or for stylistic purposes. Live autotune is usually controlled by either a rack mount or a foot pedal, then turned off in-between songs.
While the technology behind using live autotune is not complicated, understanding why musicians use it (and how to do it tastefully) is really important.
In this article, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about how autotune works in a live setting, as well as throwing in some nifty examples for reference.
Let’s dive in!
How Does Live Autotune Work?
To kick things off, let’s take a look at the logistics of live autotune:
Autotune is a digital program that’s used to correct pitch. It works much in the same way that an automatic spellchecker works:
Autotune can be programmed to stay within certain parameters, such as a scale or a key. When the vocalist sings into the microphone, the program will morph the vocal track towards the nearest programmed note.
The speed at which the program adjusts an incoming note can also be calibrated:
A slow tuning speed will sound much more natural, whereas a fast tuning speed will sound digital and artificial.
How It’s Implemented Live
The biggest challenge of live autotune is that…well…it’s live!
In the studio, autotune is usually added after the vocal track has been recorded. This allows the engineer to manually tweak each note and make sure it’s perfect.
But that’s not exactly possible in a live setting…
Instead, live autotune will usually just be programmed to remain within a certain key. This allows the singer to add improvised sections without the autotune getting caught off-guard, giving more focus to things such as their stage presence.
In order to make sure the singer gets each note as close to the right one as possible, they’ll sometimes sing along to a guide vocal track that’s playing in their earpieces. This gives the autotune the best possible chance of correcting to the right note.
The two main methods of controlling live autotune are:
- Through a rack mount (controlled by a crew member)
- Using foot pedals (controlled by the artist)
The autotune is usually switched off in-between songs, allowing the vocalist to speak to the crowd naturally.
Why Do Singers Autotune Their Voice In A Live Setting?
If autotune has such a bad reputation, why would a musician use it in a live setting?
Well, it varies depending on what they want out of the technology:
1. It’s Their Signature Sound
Many musicians, like T-Pain, don’t use autotune as something to hide behind.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite:
When autotune is calibrated to tune notes very quickly, a characteristic electronic tone emerges from the morphed voice.
This technique is commonly used throughout electronic music (Daft Punk being one notable example of tastefully-autotuned vocals).
Live autotune can be a really fantastic effect for this genre; it really gives a sense of roboticized authorship behind the sound. Here’s an example:
2. Everyone Needs A Little Help Sometimes
Although some singers are rather obvious with their use of autotune, others use it to discretely tighten up their pitch.
Live performances are difficult, especially when a singer is in the middle of a tour and likely tired.
A gentle smidge of autotune to make these singers pitch perfect is not much different to having a teleprompter for lyrics or a click track playing in their in-ear monitors.
3. To Tighten Up Their Harmonies
Harmonies are super important to get pitch-perfect.
If they’re even a little out of tune, they’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
Very light autotuning can adjust each vocal line to make harmonies much smoother, allowing for a much more convincing performance. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for background singers to make use of live autotune.
Drawbacks of Live Autotune
Perhaps unsurprisingly, live autotune comes with a set of drawbacks:
1. It’s Not Always Reliable
Like any other technology, autotune is prone to mishaps and/or failure.
When it does fail, it suddenly becomes very noticeable, and can negatively impact an artist’s reputation. However subtle it may be, the illusion is still broken.
2. It Carries A Stigma
If an artist relies on artificially-enhanced vocals, some argue they might lose the knack and edge that their unmodulated voice might carry.
This is especially relevant in grass-roots genres such as country and blues, as well as more aggressive genres such as rock and metal.
Furthermore, one of the main points of controversy surrounding autotune is whether or not it’s authentic.
Part of the joy of live performances for some is the human element of hearing someone sing right in front of them.
In actuality, for modern artists, all of their vocals are tuned up and altered to some degree; so can autotune in a live setting really be called inauthentic?
Examples Of Live Autotune
This video shows a breakdown of live autotune’s benefits for a gospel band.
In this case, autotune is used to enhance the vocals of a group, making them cohere nicely and enhance worship:
In this case, Travis Scott’s autotune gets cut off by a DJ during a song.
It shows that during a live performance, there are sometimes too many technical components going on at one time to effectively incorporate autotune:
Some singers use a type of microphone that helps with autotune.
In this clip from Ellen, T-Pain breaks down how autotune can be employed live to great effect:
Live autotune can not only be a great standalone effect, but also a saving grace for many artists. If you’re interested in learning more about the technology, why not check out our full guide on the reasons why singers use autotune next?