Auto-Tune is said to be the biggest-selling plug-in of all time. How does the new version shape up against the competition?
Some items of technology have acquired such an iconic status that the product name has become a verb. The classic example is the Hoover vacuum cleaner, but in the world of music technology, the same thing has happened with Auto-Tune. Revolutionary when it first appeared in 1997, the brand name has become synonymous with pitch-correction, and many producers will now simply ask the engineer or Pro Tools operator to ‘Auto-Tune it’ — meaning, of course, to apply pitch-correction — when they think a vocal has intonation issues that require attention.
Of course, just as Hoover have plenty of competition when it comes to sucking up dust from your floor, Auto-Tune is now far from the only game in town when it comes to pitch-correction. Almost every top-end DAW includes its own pitch-correction tools and, as summarised in the Alternatives box, there are a number of very creditable third-party options also. Auto-Tune is, however, still an industry standard, and the new version 8 includes a number of new features.
Auto-Tune derives its name from its ability to automatically correct the pitch of monophonic audio such as vocals. This can be simply a case of tweaking a few key settings to taste and then letting the plug-in work its magic, and if your vocal is reasonably solid to start with, Auto-Tune’s Automatic Mode will just tighten the intonation up as much (or as little) as you require.
However, if a ‘set and forget’ approach doesn’t get the job done, then Auto-Tune also offers a Graphical Mode. Since the Evo release (in essence Auto-Tune 6, reviewed in March 2009: www.soundonsound.com/sos/mar09/articles/atevo.htm), Graphical Mode offers you the choice of three means of controlling the pitch: curves, lines or notes. While only one of these tools can be active at any point on the timeline, you can mix and match them as required within a single editing session in order to craft the best result.
For a number of iterations, Auto-Tune has also offered the ability to adjust formants, and has featured basic throat modelling that allows you to shift the gender character of the voice, as well as global pitch transposition and the ability to adjust timing in some fairly surgical ways. Add in various MIDI-related features and we have a pretty sophisticated tool set.
You might, then, be wondering exactly what else there is left to do in terms of basic pitch-correction. Well, manipulating the pitch and timing of vocals while still managing to create a natural-sounding result requires complex digital signal processing, and Antares have continued to refine and improve the core technology that underlies Auto-Tune — to the point where if you have projects based upon Evo (v6) or earlier, Auto-Tune 8 will not open them. You can, however, run version 8 and earlier Auto-Tune versions side-by-side in the same project, so this is not a significant issue to work around.
Core processing algorithms aside, Automatic Mode has two new headline features. First, a new Flex-Tune option has been added that, rather like some MIDI quantise systems, allows you to apply pitch-correction only when the pitch is close to a scale note; other audio is left unprocessed. Second, Auto-Tune 8 introduces a new low-latency mode which allows a singer to monitor his or her performance in real time with Auto-Tune 8’s automatic pitch-correction applied.
In Graphical Mode, Auto-Tune 8 brings a number of operational enhancements. For example, all the editing tools are now active during playback, and when you move Note objects, you can hear a pitched tone as you drag a note up or down to assist you in selecting the required pitch. There are also some new hide/show options that can de-clutter the Auto-Tune window or make it more compact.
While Auto-Tune’s Automatic Mode can produce brilliant results, it is seldom completely transparent even on a very good vocal performance. If you want the pitch-correction to go unnoticed to even the most discerning of ears, the obvious thing to do is to automate the plug-in’s bypass button and only engage the automatic processing on those sections that need a little help. You can then configure the Tracking, Retune Speed and Humanize controls to suit just those sections where correction is to be applied.
However, in Auto-Tune 8, you get a new option that can refine this automatic process even further: the Correction Style control. This runs from Classic at one end to None at the other via Flex-Tune and, depending upon where you set it, Auto-Tune applies its pitch-correction somewhat differently. Classic does what Auto-Tune has always done, applying pitch-correction to every note with the degree and speed based upon the Tracking, Retune Speed and Humanize controls, while None is self-explanatory. With Flex-Tune, meanwhile, you can configure the pitch-correction so that only notes close to a scale note centre get correction applied. Other elements of the singer’s performance (and which may contain significant pitch variations used for expressive purposes) can be left unaltered.
I have to say I was quite impressed with this new option. It does take a little time for your ears to detect what’s going on, but the ability to dial in as much or as little of the Flex-Tune option as you wish means you can specify how wide a range around the scale note centre you want pitch-correction to be applied. This is probably a tool that would actually be of more benefit to a better singer, as audio close to scale notes get tightened up so they are ‘on pitch’ while the more expressive (and hopefully intentional) flourishes are left well alone, immune from the artifacts that automatic pitch-correction might otherwise induce.
If Automatic Mode can’t quite nail it, you have to get down and dirty with some Graphical Mode pitch manipulation. As before (and with competing products such as Melodyne), this requires the program to first ‘track’ or analyse the pitch of the audio to be processed. Auto-Tune then provides you with a combination of curves, lines and note objects that you can manually edit to achieve maximum control over the end result.
As with any manual pitch-editing process, this can be a protracted task depending upon how much correction and/or manipulation is required. Thankfully, in version 8, the most tangible changes in Graphical Mode are aimed at speeding this process up. For example, all the editing tools are now active during playback, so you can tweak notes, curves or lines while looping through a section of your project, hearing the results instantly as you work. I found this a very useful change, particularly when at the stage of adjusting Note objects. However, it is best done with Auto Scroll disabled otherwise things can get a bit graphically distracting, even with the scrolling behaviour adjustment available in the Options dialogue.
The Options page also lets you toggle on/off an option to hear a pitched tone as you drag a note up or down to assist you in selecting the required pitch. This is a simple sine-wave tone and is very useful, but the default volume caught me by surprise when I first tried it; a means of adjusting the level would be a welcome addition.
As well as options for resizing the plug-in window, Antares have also added a couple of new layout options for streamlining the interface and making it more compact. For example, you can turn off the waveform display in the main edit area if you find it distracting (although I found it automatically reappeared if I then engaged the Show Lanes option). Perhaps more likely to be useful is the option to toggle on/off the separate envelope display pane which appears below the main edit pane, especially if you are working on a smaller laptop display.
As mentioned earlier, Antares have not only added new features, but have also continued to improve the underlying algorithms used in Auto-Tune for both its pitch and time correction processes. Some comments on the current state of play on this front are therefore required. I’ve always liked the combination of simplicity and transparency (relative to most alternatives) that Auto-Tune’s Automatic Mode achieves. It is as easy as basic pitch-correction gets, and if all your vocal needs is a gentle nudge in the right direction, it is a great tool for the job. I regularly turn to Auto-Tune 7 for that kind of task.
However, over recent years, when I’ve had any significant manual editing of pitch to do — whether creative or corrective — I’ve got into the habit of reaching for Celemony’s Melodyne instead. The reasons have been twofold. First, to my ears, I thought I could push the pitch-shifting in Melodyne that bit harder before obvious audio artifacts appeared. And second, I found the workflow within Melodyne to be a little more streamlined than the combination of curves, lines and notes found in Auto-Tune.
However, having run through a few different vocal-processing tasks with Auto-Tune 8, I’m beginning to think I might have cause to change my habits. Although the Graphical Mode workflow improvements mentioned above have certainly helped — particularly the ability to edit during playback — I think the key changes are the underlying engine improvements and what seems to me a gradual maturing of how the Antares tool set functions.
While you can get involved with the line and curve editing, and these options are still great to have, I was particularly impressed with just how far I could go in using Note objects to manually correct or creatively adjust the pitch of my vocals, and how quickly I could do it. When you shift Note objects, small pitch-corrections are, of course, pretty much transparent; but when I wanted to restructure a melody line, shifts of several semitones were often possible before things got too extreme to be natural, and even then, selectively applying a touch of the formant/throat modelling could help a little. What particularly impressed me with these more radical pitch changes, however, was how well Auto-Tune 8 automatically handles the transitions between Note objects. And, if you resize these objects so that their ends butt up against one another on the timeline, you can get some remarkably smooth results without needing to go near the more detailed line or curve editing options.
Of course, like Melodyne, Auto-Tune’s Graphical Mode also offers tools for adjusting the timing of a performance. Yes, you can move whole words forwards and backwards in time, but the most impressive element is how easy the Move Point tool makes it to select a word or short phrase and to then adjust its relative internal timing (for example, to stretch one a syllable while compressing another so that the whole word occupies the same overall length). As with the pitch manipulation, the processing algorithm used here is top-drawer.
Melodyne may still have some areas that it can claim as its own, such as polyphonic pitch-correction, but in terms of automatic (easy) correction, Auto-Tune has always been the market leader. However, I think with this release, for pitch manipulation of monophonic audio such as vocals or instrumental melody lines, Graphical Mode editing has reached a point where, both in terms of ease of use and the naturalness of the results, it can slug it out toe-to-toe with Melodyne.
I’m not sure Auto-Tune 8 will have existing Melodyne users involved in a mass migration but, if you haven’t given Auto-Tune a look for a little while, version 8 is a very impressive piece of software. Leaving aside the arguments over whether pitch-correction this sophisticated is a desirable thing for the music industry, Auto-Tune deserves its iconic status but, equally, it remains at the cutting edge. Whether it’s for automatic pitch-correction duties, the delights of the ‘Auto-Tune effect’ (yes, it can do that) or more detailed pitch and time manipulation, Auto-Tune 8 is still a classic.
Almost every major DAW now includes pitch-correction/manipulation tools within its feature set. However, when it comes to specialised third-party alternatives, the obvious competition to Auto-Tune 8 is Celemony’s Melodyne; the popular Editor version is currently €399, but there are less expensive options available. Melodyne lacks the true automatic mode found in Auto-Tune, but its graphic editing options for both pitch and timing are hugely impressive, and the polyphonic editing offered by the Editor and Studio versions is jaw-dropping. Further options include Waves’ Tune and iZotope’s Nectar 2 Production Suite, which includes not only sophisticated pitch-correction/manipulation options but also a range of other vocal production tools, including very intuitive auto-harmony generation features.
One of the two new Automatic Mode features is perhaps aimed at the less experienced singer, but will also prove invaluable to those who deliberately use Auto-Tune as an effect. If you monitor a live vocal through Auto-Tune 8 with the Low Latency option switched off, unsurprisingly, there is a short processing delay, and if you are also listening to the unprocessed vocal, the effect is not unlike a very short slapback echo. Engage the Low Latency option and that delay pretty much disappears completely, to the point where if you monitor both dry and processed signals, all you are left with is the faintest of phasing between the two signals. Kill the dry signal and I suspect that the majority of vocalists who feel the need for a bit of Auto-Tune moral support during tracking wouldn’t even notice the processing delay in their headphone monitoring mixes.
Providing you don’t get too extreme with the Tracking and Retune Speed controls, the results are fairly transparent and, if this gives a vocalist a bit of extra confidence, might help them to leave their inhibitions behind to focus on getting the emotional side of the performance right. Perhaps this feature is not something a more experienced or technically proficient singer might need, but I can see how it would be useful when working with a less confident performer.