Auto-Tune? I Never Needed It When I Produced The Smiths

Following complaints from viewers, The X Factor has banned the use of auto-tune.

Here, producer Stephen Street – who has worked on albums by The Smiths and Blur – says it’s about time, since the effect has ruined modern pop

The X Factor auto-tune scandal has brought the technology to people’s attention. But the fact is, it’s been over-used in the industry for years, especially in the R&B field, and people like me – people who care about the unique character of the human voice – have been getting increasingly teed off by it.

I watched the X Factor clip that people complained about [Gamu Nhengu’s audition] and I couldn’t believe it. The use of auto-tune was so blatant.

But it’s used everywhere now – and it’s making vocalists sound interchangeable. I struggle to tell the difference between, say, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, or Rihanna. Auto-tune is making modern pop sound increasingly robotic and homogeneous.

It’s got to the point, especially in pop and R&B, where record labels expect producers to deliver albums that have been auto-tuned. I think it’s really sad.

The reason it’s so misguided is that it erases the imperfections that would normally give a voice its character. I never would have used auto-tune on Morrissey’s voice for example, [Street produced The Smiths’ final album ‘Strangeways, Here We Come’] because then he wouldn’t have sounded like Morrissey.

Historically, people with the most interesting vocals, say Siouxsie Sioux or John Lydon, they’re not pure tone singers. Take a song like ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)’ by Steve Harley And Cockney Rebel. The pitching is off, but that’s what gives the song its appeal.

OK, I’ve used auto-tune myself, but only in a very subtle way. On an album like Babyshambles’ ‘Shotter’s Nation’, generally I’d record five or six vocal takes and then comp together the best bits. And if there was still a note that was a little off, I’d go in and tweak it. But I’d never use the effect on a whole lead vocal.

This is an important issue, and I’m glad people are starting to pick up on it. People need to understand what these production techniques are doing to singers’ voices.

Real human voices glide between pitches; they don’t flip between them suddenly. A piece of software, no matter how sophisticated, will never be able to replicate the idiosyncrasies of the human voice.

John Robb: Why the fuss over auto-tune? Every band cheats in the studio