One of the more typical takedowns of contemporary vocal recordings is the auto tune argument. While the use of auto tune has become all the rage, and can be used to discredit or delegitimise singers, few actually understand the intricate processes behind autotune and pitch correction, specifically, and vocal processing, in general.

In crude terms, vocal processing is the process employed post the raw recording process in the music production chain, where the recorded vocal signal is manipulated so that it conforms to the contemporary standard of what is considered sonically pleasing. Moreover, it is the process which makes the vocal signal correspond appropriately to other instruments, in a track, both in terms of pitch and tempo, and also, according to the dynamic requirements of a composition so that the vocals can be heard separately, in the mix, as well as sit in amicably with the rest of the music ensemble.

The process of vocal tuning entails fixing the individual notes sung by a vocalist according to the universal pitch standard, demarcated by the A=440Hz pitch standard, whereby notes which are out of scale are automated to sound in scale. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to vocal tuning, and different intensities, slight or harsh, can be used. Technically, this involves fixing the modulation, formants, pitch drift and the pace of the automation etc. so that the processed signal sounds as close to the human voice, as possible. Too much vocal tuning can make a singer sound mechanical. This reality might emerge due to the singer being off key, or circumspect mixing choices by the producer. However, in some specific contexts, harsh autotune can create a specific kind of a chipmunk tone, such as the type popularised by Cher’s song ‘Believe,’ in 1998, which took the music industry by storm, and put Autotune on the map of the world. In 2017, every established singer gets pitch corrected - no one is above it. Quite literally.

Now, in most recording contexts, auto tune can be a blessing for the mix engineer – it saves time, and makes the track tighter, especially if the singer’s having an off day, or is untrained. Singing on a mic requires techniques very different from the skills required to sing live. Condenser mics used for vocals these days give hyperreal details in the recorded signal so the singers need might need to readjust the throw, delivery styles and breath articulation styles for modern recordings. Keeping in mind that there is always a paucity of time, the best available takes are chosen, and vocal tuning is added prudently to other virtual effects, such as compression, delay, reverb, chorus, equalization, amongst other things, as the goal becomes to reflect the singer, and the track, in the best possible light – keeping in mind the sonic requirements of the customer, product or the organization that is funding a project. The mix engineer’s listening ability is the key variable in these situations, as he/she knows best how processing could impact the final mix. Sometimes, mix engineers work in pairs, as one person alone might not be able to discern between what could pass of as acceptable. Popular tools for vocal tuning include Celemony’s Melodyne, Antares’s AutoTune, as well as the WavesTune package. Contrary to popular belief, while there is a lot of talent involved in learning how to tune vocals better, the best way to learn pitch correction is the right kind of active practice and training one’s ear to predict how the mixed audio might sound on different devices – such as car audio, headphones, mobile phones, as well as PA systems and large speakers, amongst other things.

Now keeping these realities in mind, a lot of the criticism on singers that comes from the anti-autotune brigade seems to the practitioner, unmerited. Keeping in mind, obviously, that music criticism ought to remain a democratic exercise, and people have the rights to their opinions, it might make more sense if people were saying things they actually knew about, as opposed to throwing around technical terms without having a clue about the processes which they entail.

Does Momina Mustehsan sound heavily auto-tuned in her recording of Afreen Afreen with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, in Coke Studio 9? Probably. However, most Coke Studio 9 songs sound heavily auto tuned; infact, it can be safely asserted that almost every song on Coke Studio Season 10, even, required pitch correction. However, to be fair to Momina, if her vocals on Afreen sound autotuned to the critic, it might actually also be the mix engineer/producer’s folly – keeping in mind that there is nothing like a perfect vocal take in the contemporary context, where the audio signal is quite literally reduced to numbers and averages, and therefore, clinical precision.

Autotune eventually becomes a stylistic choice, and that overarching reality of the necessity of standardisation in music production cannot be overlooked. Even trained classical vocalists, such as Shafqat Amanat Ali – the scion of the Patiala gharana, and one of the key game changers in the post 2000 Pakistani music context, in terms of finding the right kind of balance between classical vocal melodies and appropriate Western pop/rock arrangements with his band, Fuzon, require tuning. In fact, in one of his more memorable renditions of Fuzon’s Aankhon Ke Saagar on Coke Studio Season 2, titled Saagar, there are instances where the use of very heavy autotune can be heard in glaringly obvious manners, especially at 2:20-2:25. Interestingly enough, the original version of the song comparatively employs much lesser vocal processing, where he sings the same run as silky and smooth as ever, leading his uncle, the khyaal maestro, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan to praise him for singing on such a high difficulty level, like a hot knife through butter. Whether the Coke Studio gaffe was the mix engineers’ fault or Shafqat was having an off day and his vocal health was not spot on remains a (somewhat) important question in history.

What is the established truth is that we need to carefully differentiate between what’s the consequence of being human, and what’s the consequence of modern mechanical reproduction, and appreciate the deep skill and intricate human labour required on part of the mix engineer, as well as the performing artist, that is required to produce good music these days.

The author is a freelance columnist.

Now keeping these realities in mind, a lot of the criticism on singers that comes from the anti-autotune brigade seems to the practitioner, unmerited.