More than not, when recording a project I find myself with the task of tuning vocals and editing drums, which is not my favorite thing to do in the world, but its given me an interesting perspective that I'm sure many audio engineers share.
Tuning vocals is not always just for the faint of heart. A good vocalist finding their way through a song can be a bit more risky in the studio. It is generally a safe environment for them, since through the process trust has been built, and as a result some notes can come out that were never intended, that the public will never hear. And then there are happy accidents. Sometimes, the texture and approach of a phrase comes out in a way that is surprising and amazing and real, but may be slightly out of tune. Here lies the ethical question: Do we keep the take and tune it? Or do we try to recreate that moment again and sing it tuned up? Also a third option being; vulnerably letting the public hear your creative/organic vocal as it would have been heard on a live broadcast.
As I have conversations, most people think of autotune as an effect, or something that the entire vocal is processed through. While that is possible and heard in the likes of Cher and T-Pain, It is also possible to avoid certain parts of the phrase or note and zero in on, and tune little pieces of a performance. And you would never know that autotune had been used. Over the years I've gotten better at choosing my battles. Generally as I listen to a take I (subjectively) know right away what I'll keep and what can and can't be tuned. The pitch or note being sung is relative to the key(s) of the song. I think that the approach to the intended note is what sets a good vocalist apart from an average person that can sing in tune. I think this is a direct parallel to what makes a good drummer, but we'll hopefully get to that later unless I start to fall asleep, which hopefully you aren't doing now What is it about vocalists that make us turn our heads? What is it that sets someone apart from someone else?
There's something interesting that happens in the studio. Its a process that I've grown very fond of. A singer sings a song all the way through 3 or 4 times and I keep all four passes. Then they take a break and I 'comp' the vocal, which is simply compiling (again subjectively) the best phrases, words, breaths, notes and utterances into one super track. The thing about this super track is that all of it, every single thought thats captured is them. The best version of them. Most of the time they've never sounded that good all the way through the song ever before in their life. And for good reason.. they could run out of breath or maybe breath in the wrong place to be able to land a run that they wanted to do. But whats interesting to me is that they'll take the comp home, listen to it over and over, and it becomes part of their vocabulary. Recording in the studio gives an artist such an advantage of finding special things and moments about themselves that they never knew were there, and add them to their repertoire.
Ok, back to our dilemma of tuning. So here we are with this amazing super track of a vocal that is entirely the vocalist and there are a few moments that didn't quite reach the note intended. Could they have sung that note in tune? If they are a good vocalist, definitely. Will they the next time? Probably. Will it have the same texture, timing, approach and magic that was captured in the emotive moment of risk? Probably not. So, I would choose to tune, not in an auto mode of course, but tune just the note that was intended to be landed upon, while avoiding the accent to that note and the rise or fall away from it. Right or wrong, I believe that this process makes a vocalist better. When they can hear the final result it pushes them to be mindful of how and when they are breathing and to be intentional of the notes they choose.
I will say, there are times when being out of tune doesn't matter and creates the atmosphere needed for the song.
Granted, some vocals are just hurt and are in need of repair, while some are beyond repair and tuning is not an option. Of course unless you Want to sound tuned and have light sabres coming out of your vocal chords. ..hmm, maybe thats why its cool? (sarcasm noted. As tone of voice doesn't always translate through the written word. And lets be honest, I'm not the greatest writer!)
So what is it that sets a good vocalist apart from the rest? The approach. The rise and fall to and from a note. Listening to a good drummer, who plays in and around the click, instead of a perfectly-in-time drum machine is a similar concept. I love the human-ness of people, and am thankful for technology that saves a little time and money.