In-Depth: Does Autotune Have Any Place in Eurovision?

From the scrapping of the live orchestra and language rule, to the recent use of pre-recorded backing vocals, the Eurovision Song Contest is constantly evolving and changing. But will autotune ever have a place in the competition?

Throughout January, Spain was gearing up for Benidorm Fest. 14 acts were set to compete for the chance to sing at the Eurovision Song Contest in Turin this May. Eurofans had heard the songs and were already compiling their rankings. A hyperpop song, ‘Voy a Morir’ by Luna Ki, was getting love from its listeners and fans were excited to see how it would fare in the first semi-final on 26th January.

Unfortunately they would never find out. On 23rd January, Luna Ki announced they were withdrawing from Benidorm Fest. ESC’s rules, established by the European Broadcasting Union, state that a song’s backing track “may contain backing vocals, but may not contain lead vocals, lead dubs, or any other voice that has the effect of unduly replacing or assisting to lead vocals during the live performance on stage“. This would mean that, should Luna Ki win Benidorm Fest, they would not be able to perform ‘Voy a Morir’ at Turin without autotune, which features heavily throughout. Arguing that the vocal effect was an integral part of the song, Luna Ki bowed out.

Luna Ki’s withdrawal immediately sparked debate among Eurofans with some outraged on their behalf: autotune is an instrument! You wouldn’t ask Alexander Rybak to perform without his violin so why is Luna Ki any different? On the other hand, some fans were glad of the rule: if we let performers use autotune at Eurovision, what’s to stop them using it to mask a terrible voice?

Debate around vocal effects at Eurovision is nothing new but will autotune ever be accepted? To find out we’re going to look at the history and evolution of autotune, the use of other vocal effects in the competition and what the fans think about its future in ESC.

A Brief History of Autotune

Autotune was invented in September 1997 by Ph.D. research engineer Andy Hildebrand, who had already had great success in the oil industry. When a colleague’s wife joked that a device should be invented to help her sing in tune, Hildebrand was inspired: what if he could invent a device that would allow off-key singers to sound as if they were perfectly in tune? It would revolutionise the entire music industry!

Before 1997, correcting vocal errors was no easy task. In the early years of recording music, it could only be achieved by hauling the entire band back into the studio to re-record the entire track. The invention of multitrack recording in the mid-50s made things a little easier, since musicians could now record their parts separately and put them together afterwards. If the singer was off-pitch they could simply go back to the studio alone and overdub the bum notes. However, while this cut down on studio time, it still cost serious money. And if the vocalist couldn’t sing live? Well, the only solution was for them to lipsync!

Autotune seemed to be the solution to many a record producer’s problem, offering them the chance to correct pitch in real-time, add harmonies without the need to hire back-up singers and it could even be applied to live performances if needed.

However, one day in October 1998, an experiment with autotune would change the face of music forever…

The Evolution of Autotune

Music producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling had been tasked to work with the ‘Goddess of Pop’ Cher. Their mission was to make a dance record that wouldn’t alienate her long-time fans so they began working on a modern-day disco number called ‘Believe’. Whilst in the studio, Taylor and Rawling began tweaking the use of autotune, discovering that by setting it “on its most aggressive setting, so that it corrected the pitch at the exact moment it received the signal, the result was an unsettlingly robotic tone.” The producers liked what they heard so they kept it on the track.

It was an instant success, with ‘Believe’ topping the charts in 21 countries worldwide. The effect was unlike anything listeners had heard before and everyone was desperate to know where that strange, synthetic sound had come from. Taylor and Rawling initially tried to keep it secret; they claimed the effect had been achieved using a vocoder, a device which synthesises the human voice and makes it sound robotic. However, soon their secret was out and all genres were experimenting with autotune. The phenomenon of distorting vocals quickly became known as ‘the Cher effect’. As Pitchfork contributor Simon Reynolds points out, “it always felt like a gimmick, something forever on the brink of falling from public favor. But autotune proved to be the fad that just wouldnโ€™t fade. Its use is now more entrenched than ever.”

However, while undoubtedly popular, this doesn’t mean autotune is without controversy. Rapper Jay-Z titled the lead single of his 2009 album The Blueprint 3 as ‘D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)’ with his lyrics attacking artists who used the software: “I know we facing a recession/But the music y’all making gon’ make it the Great Depression.” Others felt that autotune was cheating, arguing that it could make the most terrible singer sound good, with Time journalist Josh Tyrangiel dubbing it “Photoshop for the human voice.” Some argued that it took the soul and raw power from music, with producer Rick Rubin saying that  “Right now, if you listen to pop, everything is in perfect pitch, perfect time and perfect tune. That’s how ubiquitous autotune is.”

Autotune has certainly had its fair share of famous detractors

Autotune as an Instrument

One artist credited with popularising the heavy use of autotune in music is T-Pain. Not only did T-Pain use autotune on his own songs but he inspired a host of famous rap and hip-hop artists to do the same. In 2008, T-Pain was asked to consult Kanye West on how to use the technology on his upcoming album 808s and Heartbreak. Dealing with the recent loss of his beloved mother and the end of his relationship with then-fiancรฉe Alexis Phifer, West wanted a distorted, electronic sound to reflect his state of mind. In this way, autotune was as much of an instrument on 808s and Heartbreak as the titular Roland TR-808 drum machine.

T-Pain had used autotune from the beginning of his rap career to make his voice stand out, even when it drew criticism from his peers. Jay-Z’s aforementioned ‘D.O.A’ is rumoured to be directed at T-Pain and Usher once told him he had “f***ed up music for real singers”, spiralling him into a deep depression. However, it is unfair to say T-Pain is not a ‘real singer’, as anyone who has watched his NPR Tiny Desk Music Concert can attest to. In this footage, T-Pain performs with only a piano accompaniment, leaving his gorgeous, soulful singing voice to do the talking and proving his haters wrong. Therefore, like West, it is fair to say that T-Pain uses autotune as an instrument, not a cover-up for bad singing.

T-Pain famously uses autotune in his songs despite boasting an incredible voice without it

Luna Ki: Conscious Choice or Camouflage?

Following news of their intent to withdraw from Benidorm Fest, Luna Ki released a YouTube video where they made the following statement: “For me autotune is part of the aesthetics of the song and not just a technical support. Try to think of a song that is written on an electric guitar and is suddenly forced to be played by an acoustic one. It would be pointless. Its aesthetic, rhythm and dynamics would be lost. I donโ€™t want something like that to happen to my song.” Fans have pointed out that ‘Voy a Morir’ belongs to the genre of hyperpop, noted for its use of heavy distortion and processed vocals. If this is the case, autotune could be said to be as intrinsic to hyperpop as the electric guitar is to rock.

So Luna Ki withdrew because they didn’t want to change an important aspect of their song for Eurovision. Seems reasonable, right? However, some have argued that Luna Ki’s decision might be covering up an inability to sing live, with several Eurofans pointing out that they were the only artist to not sing a snippet of their song in RTVE’s live reveal of the artists in Benidorm Fest. Instead, they chose to recite ‘Voy a Morir’ as if it were a spoken word performance.

The plot has further been thickened by Spanish YouTuber and blogger Odi O’Malley who claims that Luna Ki wanted their own technician to be in charge of their performance instead of the technicians RTVE provided. This would mean that their technician could potentially upload the playback track to ‘Voy a Morir’, which allegedly also features the use of Melodyne. This is a software, similar to autotune, which is used by music producers to tune notes and separate unpitched notes from those that are pitched. If this were the case, the use of such software would definitely flout the EBU’s rules.

However, this is speculation at this point and Luna Ki has rejected claims they were unable to sing live, saying in their statement: “I know there are many people who will say I canโ€™t sing without it. I honestly tell you that Luna can sing. But Luna Ki cannot.

Vocal Effects in Eurovision

Nowadays most songs willfeature some form of pitch correction, including the studio versions of Eurovision songs we know and love. However, no competing acts have used autotune live at the contest, although other vocal effects have been used. In 2000, Danish act Olsen Brothers won the contest with their song ‘Fly on the Wings of Love’. In the song’s final chorus a vocoder is used, giving the vocal a robotic effect. Russia, the runners-up, protested the win but Denmark were found not to be in breach of any rules and their win was upheld.

Olsen brothers - Denmark - Stockholm 2000 - Eurovision Song Contest
Olsen Brothers’ use of a vocoder arguably secured their win in 2000

In 2017, Norway’s JOWST used vocal samples in his song ‘Grab the Moment’, despite live backing vocals still being required in ESC at the time. In a lengthy statement on his Facebook page, JOWST argued that these samples were a “digital instrument” and did not count as vocals. He was permitted to keep them in and placed 10th in the final.

On the other hand, in 2018 Israel’s Netta was forbidden from using a looper onstage during her performance of ‘Toy’ as the EBU deemed this a live instrument, which are not allowed to be played onstage during ESC. However, this did not deter Netta and she instead used live backing vocalists in the looper’s place, going on to win the competition.

Netta and backing dancers performing 'Toy' live at the 2018 Eurovision... |  Download Scientific Diagram
Netta used live vocals to replicate the looper she was forbidden from using onstage

Finally, of course, the use of pre-recorded backing vocals was permitted in 2021 due to ongoing concerns as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read all about this decision, its benefits and its drawbacks in AJ’s brilliant article here.

Autotune in Eurovision: Yay or Nay?

We’ve seen that the use of autotune sparks debate among musicians, producers and fans alike. What do Eurofans think about its potential future in ESC? In a Reddit thread sparked by Luna Ki’s withdrawal, they did not seem keen on the idea. LN_TheDudess said, “I think the problem is, although some people may use the autotune for stylistic choices, there’s going to be others who abuse the autotune to help them out. People already hide behind live and pre-recorded backing vocals so they probably would hide behind autotune as well if they can’t sing.” Others agreed, with user bo-tvt saying, “The title is ‘song contest’ but it’s also a singing contest and to do that you have to actually sing the song. No autotune please.”

Some of our very own Eurobuzz writers were more positive about the potential for autotune in future contests. Sophie argued that “Autotune is a part of modern music, and we now see more and more artists in the charts use it as a stylistic approach rather than to hide any vocal mishaps! Eurovision has done a brilliant job of modernising in the last few years or so but this is a huge stumbling block for the EBU. To really turn into a modern contest they need to find a way to include these types of vocals.” AJ agreed, saying that “Plenty of songs use autotune as an effect – it doesnโ€™t mean that the artist in question is covering up their lack of ability. I think we could see some potentially interesting songs in the contest if they allow the use of autotune.”

Liv was also happy to see autotune have a place in ESC as long as it is “a stylistic choice and not one to cover up bad vocal ability.” She feels “there needs to be some regulation around it so that it doesnโ€™t start being over-used or used in an attempt to push people who canโ€™t sing live well to sound ‘better’. At the end of the day Eurovision is a live music contest; if youโ€™re not great live then itโ€™s just unfortunate and autotune or pre-recorded vocals shouldnโ€™t be used to cover that fact.”

What do you think? Would you welcome the use of autotune in future ESC entries if it was a stylistic device or should it stay far away from Eurovision? Have your say in the comments and keep the debate going by following Eurobuzz on our socials.

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