What is AutoTune and How Does It Work?

AutoTune is a digital technology that corrects pitch inaccuracies in vocal or instrumental performances, ensuring the tune stays in perfect harmony. It works by adjusting the pitch of a track to the nearest semi-tone or ‘note’ in a preset scale, hence, producing a well-tuned output.

In its most basic form, AutoTune was developed to polish over any off-pitch notes in a singer’s performance, subtly shifting the pitch to achieve an in-tune sound. The technology had humble beginnings in 1997, initially serving as a secret weapon for ensuring perfect pitch in recorded music.

Evolving through time, AutoTune’s influence has permeated beyond simply ‘fixing’ vocals. It has become a creative tool in its own right, often used to introduce unique elements in music production, even being instrumental in defining whole music genres.

AutoTune – At a Glance

  • AutoTune is a type of pitch correction software that has dramatically shaped the music industry since its creation in 1997.
  • The pioneering use of AutoTune to distort Cher’s vocals in “Believe” catapulted the software into the mainstream.
  • AutoTune works by analyzing the pitch of a performance, comparing it with the desired pitch, and then subtly adjusting the pitch to hit the correct note.
  • The technology is used in a multitude of settings, including recording studios and live performances, across a wide range of musical genres.
  • There are numerous AutoTune software and hardware options available, catering to diverse user needs, from professional music production to amateur experimentation.
  • The use of AutoTune has sparked controversy, with some critics labeling it as cheating as it allows performers to sound pitch-perfect without necessarily having the corresponding vocal skills.
  • Despite the controversy, AutoTune has had a significant and transformative impact on modern music, shaping sound aesthetics and influencing the evolution of various music genres.

Understanding AutoTune

AutoTune, widely known as pitch correction software, is a digital innovation that revolutionized the music industry. It stimulates the soul of music by rectifying pitch inaccuracies in both vocal and instrumental music, ensuring every note is perfectly in key. 

AutoTune operates by employing a phase vocoder to modify the pitch of a track. This software works on the basic principle of analyzing each note’s pitch in performance, comparing it with the desired pitch, and then manipulating the pitch to hit the ideal note. 

The beauty of AutoTune is its ability to perform these actions subtly and almost instantaneously, making it an ideal tool for enhancing recorded music and live performances alike. This technology maintains the natural rhythm and tone of the performance, solely focusing on the pitch. Therefore, while AutoTune may alter the pitch, it preserves the original artistic essence of the performance.

The Cher Song “Believe” Changed Everything

The inception of AutoTune is an interesting tale, marking a turning point in the music industry. Brought to life in 1997 by Dr. Andy Hildebrand, a geophysicist turned digital signal processing expert; AutoTune was initially conceived to assist oil companies in resource exploration. However, the serendipitous invention paved the way to correct pitch in music, forever altering the landscape of audio production.

When first introduced, AutoTune mainly served as a secret weapon in recording studios, quietly ensuring perfect pitch in final audio outputs. Its significant impact on the music industry was subtle yet substantial. It became an indispensable tool for music producers and sound engineers, enabling them to correct off-pitch vocals or instruments that before would require multiple takes or complex editing.

In 1998, Cher released her song “Believe”, which was the first song that openly used the autotune technique. The result was a mesmerizing yet robotic vocal sound that became popular with the name “the Cher effect.” 

Over the years, the sophisticated technology of AutoTune evolved, transforming from a straightforward pitch correction tool to an influential force molding the sound of contemporary music. Its application became more overt, shaping unique sound aesthetics and even characterizing whole music genres. Hence, the journey of AutoTune from inception to now shows its integral role in the continuous evolution of the music industry.

Today almost every artist, from Justin Bieber to Madonna, Snoop Dogg to Maroon 5, uses autotune every time they are in the studio or on the stage. Autotune also became the industry standard in some genres like R&B, hip-hop, K-pop, and reggaeton. But, there are still some artists totally avoiding it or only subtly getting the help of pitch correction software to enhance their vocals.

How AutoTune Works

Demystifying the mechanism of AutoTune provides clarity on how this software has revolutionized the music industry. At its core, AutoTune analyzes the pitch of vocal or instrumental input, identifies inaccuracies, and adjusts these to match the desired pitch. The simplicity and effectiveness of this process play a crucial part in producing polished musical outputs.

The technical process begins with selecting the correct musical key. AutoTune uses this as a reference point to evaluate and correct the pitch of the vocals or instruments. The accuracy of AutoTune’s pitch correction depends heavily on this selection. Musicians should ensure they pick the key that matches their song to prevent AutoTune from correcting the pitch to a wrong note.

Retune speed is another important factor in working with AutoTune. It determines how quickly AutoTune corrects pitch inaccuracies. Faster speeds result in a more immediate correction, often leading to the robotic, ‘tuned’ vocal effect popular in modern music, while slower speeds allow a more natural correction.

Moreover, AutoTune comes with different modes – the Auto Mode for real-time pitch correction and effects and the Graph Mode for detailed pitch and time editing. These modes offer diverse capabilities, opening the door to both minor pitch refinements and major tonal transformations. Understanding these technical aspects of AutoTune enriches the potential to enhance musical performances in various ways.

Different Ways to Use AutoTune

The versatility of AutoTune has led to its widespread application in diverse music scenarios. It serves as a useful tool in both recording and live music settings, enabling creators to achieve perfectly pitched vocals every time.

In recording scenarios, AutoTune can be utilized to correct any pitch inaccuracies in vocal tracks. This allows musicians and recording artists to produce pristine vocals without the need for repeated takes to capture the perfect pitch. This application has been vital in ensuring time and cost efficiency in the recording process. Today almost all recording studios use autotune software for vocal perfection.

AutoTune’s application extends to live music performances as well. By delivering real-time pitch correction, it provides artists with the confidence to perform to large audiences without the fear of hitting a wrong note. This function has revolutionized live music, enabling artists to deliver stellar performances consistently.

Furthermore, the application of AutoTune varies across different musical genres. In rap, for example, AutoTune is often used not just for pitch correction but also as a means to create a distinctive vocal effect. This effect has become characteristic of contemporary rap music, signifying the innovative ways AutoTune is being used in the industry. By embracing the versatile applications of AutoTune, artists are able to continuously push boundaries and innovate in the world of music.

Autotune Software and Hardware

With the wide popularity of AutoTune, multiple tools and autotune software have been developed to cater to the varying needs of music creators. These tools range from feature-rich plugins for professional music production to simpler versions suitable for hobbyists and beginners.

The main player in the industry is Antares Auto-Tune, the original inventors of the technology. Antares Auto-Tune provides a comprehensive suite of AutoTune plugins, each catering to a unique need and offering different levels of customizability.

For those who are just beginning to explore AutoTune, MAutoPitch is an excellent choice. It offers a simpler interface with fewer controls, making the software more accessible to beginners. Despite its simplicity, MAutoPitch delivers high-quality pitch correction that competes with more advanced plugins.

When choosing an AutoTune tool, factors such as your experience level, the genre you’re working in, and the specific features you need should all play a part in your decision-making process. Whether you require software for studio recording, a tool for live performances, or are simply experimenting at home, the perfect AutoTune tool is out there, ready to fine-tune your music to perfection.

Is Autotune Cheating?

As autotune made singing much more accessible for everyone, some unavoidable debates came to the music world: The question is that if autotune is cheating. With the integration of autotune in mainstream music, anybody can be a singer today without effort, which brings some questions.

So, the main argument against autotune is that it is the sonic equivalent of plastic surgery. It is a shortcut for lousy singers to go to the starhood without putting any effort into learning how to sing. There are some artists who even lack the knowledge of even the basic foundations of singing, but their recordings sound perfect.

Also, when people ask them to sing, the big difference between their real performances and their recordings comes to the surface, which also destroys the charisma and persona of these stars. For example, one of the recent examples is Taylor Swift’s duet with the amazing vocalist Stevie Nicks in the Grammy Awards. While they were singing the Fleetwood Mac song, Rhiannon, Taylor Swift, who is one of the biggest pop stars today and is known for her great voice, was singing extremely out of tune.

There are many examples like the previous one, as most popular artists use the shortcut of autotune to sing and do not put any effort into vocal performance. As with any muscle, vocal muscles require constant training and care to sing well and in tune. Here you can find more examples of disappointing performances from world stars.

So, my stand about autotune is that unless you’re using it as a creative effect, it should only be used subtly. When it is used to massage some notes to save time and not record the whole thing all over again, it is a great help to any artist. But, when it is used to correct every note, and the singing is done by machines instead of humans, for me, the music loses its authenticity.

I respect some artists that avoid autotune and try to enhance their singing by putting effort into it. Even though they are the minority today, names like Beyonce, Bruno Mars, Ariana Grande, and Ed Sheeran have not used AutoTune at least some of the time, or at least they use it so subtly that we can hear them singing.


In conclusion, AutoTune represents a remarkable blend of technology and music, transforming the musical landscape since its inception. This digital wizard strengthens and polishes vocal or instrumental performances by correcting pitch inaccuracies in real time, providing a valuable tool for artists and producers alike. 

From its secretive beginnings in recording studios to becoming an influential phenomenon in the music industry, AutoTune has commanded an evolutionary journey. Its versatile applications span various scenarios and genres, amplifying its impact and relevance in the music world. 

Although it is making the artists and producers lazy and transforming music to a more robotic sound for now, as with any development in music technologies, this is a process that will hopefully come to a good balance in the end.

Furthermore, a variety of AutoTune tools are available today, offering different features and levels of sophistication to match any musical need. As the melody proceeds, AutoTune continues to fine-tune the future of music, pushing boundaries and paving the way for continuous innovation.

Audacity 3.2.1 Featured Image by: cmglee, Audacity developers, GPL, via Wikimedia Commons

Berk Oztuna

Berk Oztuna

Berk Öztuna is a handpan player, percussionist, and guitarist. He has been playing multiple instruments over the last 10 years. He started his music career as a guitarist, playing with several bands before putting his main focus into playing the handpan.

Leave a Comment

Leave a reply

Musician Wave