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Auto-Tune is getting way too popular nowadays, as can be read in this part of Wikipedia:

In 2009, Time magazine quoted an unnamed Grammy-winning recording engineer as saying, "Let's just say I've had Auto-Tune save vocals on everything from Britney Spears to Bollywood cast albums. And every singer now presumes that you'll just run their voice through the box."

The American television series Glee has become noted for regular use of the system in its songs. E! Online's Joal Ryan criticized the show for its "overproduced soundtrack", in particular, complaining that many songs rely too heavily on the software.

In 2010, there was controversy when British television reality TV show, The X Factor had been accused of using Auto-Tune to improve the voices of contestants, especially Gamu Nhengu. Simon Cowell ordered a ban on Auto-Tune for future episodes.

Wikipedia - Auto-Tune - Criticism

Having grown up with Auto-Tuned pop songs it's hard for me to recognize if Auto-Tune has been used for a recording, in some of the tracks of Glee I clearly hear glitching due to overuse of the Auto-Tune effect. But when it isn't used that extensively I have no clue how to figure out if it has been used or not.

From an Audio Production perspective it would be nice to know the difference between a normal recording and an carefully Auto-Tuned recording, how can I recognize this difference rather than being deceived?

Is this effect needed to compete with the current top songs,
or are there songs that don't use Auto-Tuning in the charts?

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+1 - I don't know if Kanye West has ever done a song without Autotune, and he uses it poorly –  Mark Henderson Dec 9 '10 at 3:21
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The fact that people are beginning to think that AutoTune is necessary in a recording makes me sad. –  Rich Bruchal Dec 9 '10 at 16:42
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Does it matter? You can use or overuse pretty much any effect or filter. Most of us probably apply effects like reverb, flange, distortion etc. You could argue that's cheating too -- it does something to the sound that wasn't originally there. Any effect can be used as a subtle enhancement or as a very prominent artifact. For example, I might add a little tube distortion to a vocal or an acoustic guitar because the added harmonics make it sound "warmer". Or I might crank it to the max to distort the sound for effect. Same thing with AutoTune -- from enhance the performance to Cher gimmick. –  Kim Burgaard Dec 10 '10 at 1:38
    
@Kim: I think the problem is that some people work very hard to be good singers, and they feel cheated when someone covers up their poor singing with autotune and gets credit for their singing. It's the same reason that steroids are banned in sports. –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Apr 5 '11 at 2:12
    
@BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft but singing isn't a competitive sport. –  slim Jan 10 '12 at 16:28
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3 Answers 3

Personally, I think the best way would be to train your ear so you can recognize when something is offpitch. Even the best singers cannot perfectly reproduce every note, and you'll know something's not autotuned when you hear pitch variation. To start this, I recommend interval training.

There are technical methods also. In a frequency plot of a vocal track, you should be able to see that there is no data or little data in frequencies that aren't exact notes. In a waveform where frequency is plotted as if it were amplitude, the track would look like a series of lines at different heights; without autotune, there should be variable curves between lines of different heights (representing the singer shifting from note to note). With autotune, there will be straight vertical lines (no shifting, just jumping to the note) or "perfect" curves (deterministically-produced curves to decrease the unnaturalness of the jump, with no variability).

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As for your secondary more subjective question: Real singers don't need it. While the roles are not mutually exclusive, auto-tune is used by performers, not singers, so that their fans don't run away holding their ears. Random example: When singing a "performance" song like I Kissed a Girl, Katy Perry sucks without autotune. When singing a beautiful and somewhat vocally challening song that she obviously finds meaningful, like Thinking of You, she sounds amazing without effects. –  Matthew Read Dec 9 '10 at 3:32
    
I can hear the quick, linear jumps in pitch. Check any Glee performance and you'll get a good idea of what it sounds like. Those perfect shifts from root to a perfect fifth that a natural performance will slide to a settle on are executed perfectly, almost instaneously by an auto-tuned vocal track. –  Ian C. Dec 9 '10 at 5:11
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Keep in mind that pitch correctors (like Autotune) don't do quick linear jumps if you don't have them set to! You can have it slowly creep in over some time. What you're describing is correct for more extreme settings but a more subtle application will escape this kind of scrutiny. –  Warrior Bob Dec 9 '10 at 21:10
    
I just listened to 2 become 1 by the Spice Girls (don't ask...) and the lack of autotune was extremely apparent. The vocals weren't exactly out of tune, but they were wobbling around and missing the mark in a natural way (the Spice Girls weren't the greatest singers), which just doesn't happen on 2010 pop music. –  Daniel Earwicker Dec 17 '10 at 16:03
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Autotune (and pitch correction in general) is an effect, and like any other effect, often the best way to identify it is just to be familiar enough that you know what it sounds like! Listen to recordings known to have it and not have it, in a variety of settings. In short, train your ear. Having a good sense of pitch seems to help.

If possible, get your own copy and try it out on vocal or instrument tracks that may have variable pitch (beginner cellos work well for this) and experiment with the settings. Listen for the telltale artifacts and see if you can make them more or less extreme.

The effect is usually described as a warbling or a slightly electronic-sounding distortion that occurs as pitches are changing. I would describe it as sounding kind of like an extremely high-resolution vocoder.

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Its hard to recognize if used well. A Lot of professionals Automate the correction amount and Speed Based in the Source material to get a melodyne like effect. Then you can not hear the effect because its finetuned.

If it is used as a Chere effect you can hear the pitch jumping in steps. Also the sustained Vocals will sound robot alike.

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