Is Pitch Correction Cheating?

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cheatA couple of weeks ago I wrote about Melodyne, the fantastic pitch correction (and manipulation) software from Celemony, and how I believe it to be the best way to touch up vocals. We had a healthy debate brewing about pitch correction, in general, over on my Facebook fan page and some interesting comments surfaced. Today I want to briefly touch on this debate and let you decide for yourself whether or not pitch correction is “cheating.”

The Argument Against It

One person, Monique, argued on my post that any kind of pitch correction is cheating. “As a vocalist/musician, Auto Tune and Melodyne should just go away. I believe it is offensive to all real musicians who have been working on their craft.” This sentiment is shared by many people, and I understand why.

Pitch correction software (and hardware) has enabled some vocalists who would potentially struggle in having consistently in tune performances to hang with those “more talented” than themselves. In a way (the argument goes) it removes the need for a lot of practice as well as the challenge of nailing a vocal take in the studio. I can identify with that last point, and in fact I wrote about it in my eBook The #1 Rule of Home Recording. I firmly believe that all the technology afforded us these days has a tendency to make us “lazy” when recording. We lose a sense of urgency and focus because heck, we can record a million more takes or “fix” it later…right?

Like Monique mentions, performing as a musician, even in the studio, is a craft that takes time to hone. If pitch correction makes us progressively more lazy, then music will inevitably suffer.

The Argument For It

On that same Facebook post, many fans were quick to defend pitch correction and gave a slew of reasons. “[Pitch correction]“, Joe says “is no more cheating than using reverb. Or should we all just record in a cavern to get that pure reverb effect?” Toby mentions, “After-the-fact pitch correction is a legitimate time-saving tool that allows for great performances without fussing over a few suspect pitches.”

As I mentioned on Facebook, I believe that there are primarily two reasons anyone would (and should) use pitch correction: to subtly correct pitch, or as an effect. Seems obvious, but here’s the point.

Everyone Needs A Little Help

Even the best musician needs some help in the studio. Whether you realize it or not, right now, in studios all across the world, top talent performances are being edited. What I mean is, drum fills are being tightened a bit, bass lines are being cleaned up, stray guitar hits are being pasted over. It’s a fact of life in the recording process. Even before digital recording, editing was happening. If it were that easy to record everything perfect, every time, there would be no need to edit at all!

But there is no conspiracy in having to edit a recording. It’s simply making it sound the best it can. We do it with movies, photographs, word documents, radio broadcasts, so why not with music? When when I have a vocalist in the studio and he or she is laying down some great takes of the lead but misses a note or two, I can be confident (and grateful) that Melodyne exists because I can keep that fantastic performance with it’s tone and emotional appeal, and then simply tighten up those stray notes so it’s not a distraction to the lyrics.

Using It Creatively

Then there’s the whole other reason to use pitch correction software, as an effect! Despite programs like Auto Tune being invented to fix a problem, it can be used instead to make an obvious (and non-human) effect. One that has clearly gained popularity over the years. If that’s what you’re going for, then I don’t see any reason to debate. It’s no different than using a chorus, phaser, or auto filter effect.

Decide For Yourself…And Then Move On

At the end of the day don’t spend much more than 20 minutes debating pitch correction…then make a decision and get back to creating great music. Melodyne and Auto Tune are simply tools. If you need them (or want them) then use them. If not, great…one less thing you need to purchase!

There is no right or wrong with pitch correction, as one of my readers mentioned on that post: “Perhaps this is more of a matter of doing what’s appropriate than a good vs. bad debate,” Akshay says. “For example, Damien Rice would sound a little strange with Auto Tune. It would detract from the raw and unfiltered mojo many have come to love. Auto Tune can have merit when utilized with artistic intention. When all is said and done, you have to do what is appropriate for the music.”

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13 Responses to “Is Pitch Correction Cheating?”

  1. Neil

    I think the last quote sums it up nicely. I personally don’t like autotuning, but I don’t disparage folks who do (and I’ve pondered using it to clean up background ‘bed’ vocals).

    I think the issue comes up big-time with live performance: we’ve all gone to see a band and thought ‘wow, I don’t know how that guy ever hit a pitch on the album’. It’s disappointing. Music fans are savvy enough to know that the backwards guitar lick or the lush string arrangement probably won’t show up in a live show (or will be sampled), but to see a singer screw up their own song feels like being cheated. Maybe fixing a bad note in an otherwise great take is OK, but IMO, if you can’t sing the song, just don’t bother recording it until you can.

    Reply
  2. Graham

    You’re right, when it comes to live pitch correction things get a little sketchy. To be fair however I think it’s pretty tricky to get live Auto Tune just right :-)

    Reply
  3. Cody @ Captive Records

    I’m way behind on this post, but I wanted to throw in my two cents. I just started using Melodyne and it seems GREAT. I see why people think that it could be cheating, but here are a few reasons why I think it can be helpful:

    1. What if you’ve edited the rest of your song and now, your perfect vocal track is not perfectly in sync with the slightly edited guitar part, for example. Maybe it clashes slightly with the new perfect piano part you just laid down. Try to duplicate the exact sound you had recording vocals the previous day or week? Try to get the band you’re recording back into the studio? Maybe you only notice the slight mistake days or weeks later and recreating the exact sound/mood/vocal tone just isn’t going to be possible without clashing with the rest of the take. Rerecord the entire flawless vocal take? I say just tweek it.

    2. Also, I think it can be used as a great guide. Say you’re having trouble on parts, but want to nail them. Record the take as best you can on a quick take, fix it in Melodyne, then rerecord using the edited part as a guide. Maybe it’ll help you practice until you’re able to hit the notes on your own.

    I find that my song writing ability and my ideas progress faster than my actual talent. I get an idea I can’t execute, then I practice it until I can. By writing songs just out of my ability to perform, I get better as a musician. Melodyne could help is this process.

    3. Finally, I think it could be an invaluable songwriting tool. Mabye you’re having trouble finding that perfect hook for the chorus. Maybe you’re having a few different ideas. Throwing down a quick scratch track and then playing with the melody in Melodyne seems like it could really open up some new possibilities creatively.

    It’s almost like, how when you pick up a guitar, sometimes you tend to start playing the same chords you always play. But maybe writing on a piano makes you look at the songwriting process differently. Same with this. You might be used to the same runs or vocal styles you always use. With Melodyne, you could remove it from yourself. You’re just listening and not actually using the muscles. May it’ll open up some new ideas.

    Reply
  4. Chris (Trinity Church, Brentwood, England)

    Is it ethically/morally wrong to correct the pitch of a recording? I would say it depends on your motive and there’s being no single, correct answer. Therefore, I think it would be foolish to adopt a polarised position in this debate.

    There’s a spectrum of reasons for loving or hating pitch correction soft/hardware starting from “Lets make everyone sound great” to “If you need pitch correction, then you’ve failed as a musician”. In my opinion however, both extremes of this spectrum are wrong – one side is fraudulent and the other side arrogant.

    I work a lot with amateur musicians and kids – neither of which groups have sufficient musical dexterity to control their performance. In this case, Melodyne is an invaluable tool for me because I can rescue a take that I know is never going to get better, no matter how many times we try. In this situation, I use Melodyne to bring the pitch and timing in line just enough to stop the listener from squirming in their seat, but I never make it so perfect that its mathematically correct – simply because no human can sing that way.

    Last week at church, the pianist hit one wrong in an otherwise great live performance, so I used Melodyne DNA to tweak that one note. In live performances there is no “take 2″; so here, I thinks its perfectly valid to correct a bum note.

    I’m fully aware that if you take a vocal track sung by a well-meaning, but otherwise poor singer, you can easily build the false impression that that singer is much better than they really are – and you will potentially create for them a real problem if they ever got into a live performance situation.

    Using pitch correct tools with this motive is, in my opinion, fraudulent, because you’re deliberately trying to fool the audience (and possibly also the singer) that their performance is better than it really is. Having said that, this approach is widely taken in the industry. I specifically remember hearing a live performance of Lady Gaga at the final of the UK TV show X Factor. Her pitch was, well… a lot less than perfect.

    On the other hand, if you get a really talented singer who can shape their pitch, timbre and dynamics in any way they choose, then there seems little reason to alter the performance. If you still think correction is necessary, then I’d ask what sort of “ideal sound” is being sought that the singer could not achieve? And is this a realistic goal?

    Here, I think there is a significant risk of trying to create a sound that is too perfect. To me, such mathematically perfect pitch looses its humanity and therefore its appeal.

    A specific example of this is a group called The Port Isaac Fishermen from the UK. These are a group of guys from the small village of Port Isaac in Cornwall, England who, with no formal musical training, have been singing sea shanties together for about 20 years. I’ve been listening to them for the last 14 yrs or so, so I know exactly what they sound like. Its a somewhat raw sound, but its full of life and vitality because its sung with expression (and years of practice). These guys recently signed a £1 million record deal, and the producer of their album decided that 100% pitch correction was required…

    Oh dear… the sound on the album is now so “in tune”, so “perfect”, that it is only a feint representation of their vibrant, live sound…

    Nonetheless, there are plenty of situations in which tools like Melodyne are useful. For instance, if you specifically want to be experimental and are looking to obtain sounds that lie beyond the bounds of human capability, or if you need to multi track a take after the singer has gone home.

    No one would ever accuse the Kings Singers of being “a little pitchy”, but a few years ago, they recorded a set of madrigals in which they specifically wanted to use modern technology to multi-track their voices – and the results were superb.

    At the end of the day, Melodyne and Autotune are simply tools, and as with any tool, the possibilities are always there for it creative use or its abuse.

    Judge each situation on its own merits.

    Reply
    • Graham

      Chris… I think you pretty much summed up my view on pitch correction in a super articulate way. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

      Reply
  5. Nathan

    I know this is an old post, but I wanted to add my thoughts on the subject.

    The way I view recording is the process of taking an idea in my head and transforming it into something material (well, recorded sound waves anyways…) that others can listen to and now have something similar in their head to what was in mine that inspired me to write the song. In that sense, writing music is a very colorful and powerful tool of communication.

    I feel like pitch correction can play a part in this process of transforming the idea of a song to the recording of a song. As Graham points out often, what is of utmost importance is getting that great take with the emotion and feel that you want, the right inflections, emphasis, and of course melody. I don’t think you should have to trash an otherwise great take for a few slightly out of key notes that distract the listener from the groove of the song, or punch in to correct those notes and risk having a slightly different sound from the rest of the take.

    I don’t listen to music to be dazzled by the technical perfection of the artist. When listening to less than perfectly tracked albums (say an underground band’s recording or something), I make a practice of trying not to let out of key notes or slightly off drums distract me from getting the vibe/message of the song that the writer/performers wanted to give. That said, not all people listen this way and will be turned off by varying degrees of imperfection in a song. If you fix those stray notes or drum beats, then those who would otherwise dismiss it as amateur may give the song a shot.

    [Enter the population of anti-pitch-correctionists] “But pitch correction is cheating and diminishes those who have a talent or have practiced for years to sing in pitch manually.”

    What I say is that music is not a competition. Recording is, again, about transforming an idea into a recorded song (with, of course, experimentation along the way). Pitch correction does not help you cheat in writing a great song and formulate an amazing arrangement of parts and vocal melody. Its just a tool to help you better realize that goal of transforming an awesome idea to a recording, or as someone above has said, to help in the experimentation process as a creative tool.

    0.02

    Reply
  6. Graham

    Nathan,

    I think you put it best my friend. It’s not a competition, but rather transforming an idea into a recorded song. Great comment!

    Reply
  7. Nick

    I’m a vocalist who has worked his socks off for the standard of voice I have, and I’m all for pitch correction. I do a lot of vocal tracks. As in I write entire arrangements purely for voices and record them. Pitch correcting all the different parts of the track, and setting a response time of between 30ms-40ms works utter wonders and these tracks sound fantastic when everything in perfectly in tune without obvious correction. It actually gives the pieces more personality! If I listen to tracks without the correction on they bland and dull and can sound lazy and boring, and generally not very good, as something in one of my 5 of 6 tracks will be dropping the whole thing slightly. I’ll also usually record with the correction on so I don’t drop when singing which is also very useful! I’ve noticed you still have to perform with pitch correction, otherwise you end up worse than you were to start with. I usually have a pretty high response time on main vocals, but if you get a perfect take with one slightly bum note, you can keep it as said. It’s live performances where it becomes an issue. Autotune live on stage isn’t a performance… The way I see it, is it’s coming from your headphones, the entire thing is sort of, meant to be artificial, and we can do whatever we want with the sound to make it sound as good as we can.

    Reply

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