So it is no surprise that after it launched its seventh series on Saturday night, ITV’s karaoke-style contest finds itself embroiled in another row as hundreds of viewers took to social networking sites to accuse the programme’s makers of "autotuning" the voices of contestants the judges favour to make them sound better than those set to be dropped.
Post-production technology had, the viewers claim, deprived the public of hearing the singing contest’s competitors as nature intended.
The row follows the broadcasting of the audition rounds – the annual stomach-squirming spectacle where genuine talent shines through while the hopeless are encouraged to embarrass themselves before a baying live audience.
Amid cries of "cheat" and "shame", the programme stands charged with deceiving viewers, with many registering complaints on the official X Factor Facebook site and on Twitter.
"OMG X Factor have autotuned mics turned on its such a shame, they have obviously picked a number of people that they want to get through," posted one Twitterer.
Another, venting frustration on Facebook, wrote: "Thank god I’m not the only one that’s noticed this. To be quite honest it shocks me how a ‘singing competition’ can deceive its listeners in this way."
"What a con," wrote another. "Do the producers think our ears are that easily lied to? The whole point is to disseminate the good from the bad."
Autotuning technology is used in studios to improve performances by correcting pitch and disguising off-key mistakes.
A spokesman for The X Factor, while not admitting the "autotune" charge, conceded that post-production work was necessary because the show used 48 microphones. It was, he said, for the viewers’ benefit and such sound techniques employed were "all quite usual". Furthermore, it did not affect the judge’s decision.
"The judges make their decisions at the audition stage based on what they hear on the day, live in the arena," he said. "The footage and sound is then edited and dubbed into a finished programme, to deliver the most entertaining experience possible for viewers."
One industry insider said that autotuning techniques were commonly used, especially in American TV talent shows. Normally an audience would not notice unless it was used in a particularly heavy-handed way, which may have been the case on Saturday.
Television viewers do not have the opportunity to vote at this stage of the contest.
Critics are unlikely to be placated. Some claim autotune was used on the Zimbabwean favourite Gamu Nhengu, as well as G and S singer Caroline, who was forced to ditch her partner, Peter, to scramble through to the next round.
Others believed it may also have been used on Shirlena Johnson, who, after delivering an extremely individual interpretation of Duffy’s Mercy, won through against the odds.
"Let’s just cheat all the time, shall we?" said one Facebook entry. Another added: "What a pile of crap is it not supposed to be a singing competition?"
One disgruntled viewer has now set up a rival Facebook page, called "X-Factor Stop Auto-Tuning The Vocals".
The disquiet follows the first of the audition shows, which attracted 11 million viewers – up from 9.9 million for the opening of last year’s series and proving the public is not jaded with the X Factor formula.
Last year miming was the hot issue, as Cheryl Cole, judge and Girls Aloud singer, confessed to "partly miming" her debut solo single Fight for this Love on the show in October. There was also controversy when fans took to online forums to complain that production staff were hand-picking "pretty" people for the best seats in the audience at the show’s auditions. And post-production technology also reared its head, with claims from technicians they were ordered to turn down the microphones when the Irish twins John and Edward Grimes – dubbed Jedward – performed Queen’s Under Pressure, to mask their voices with backing tracks.
Pitch perfect, but lacking soul?
Most pop fans will first have heard Auto-Tune in 1998 on the release of Cher’s international hit Believe. Though the wobbly effect on her vocals was attributed to the vocoder (the robot-sounding effect which had been used by acts from Kraftwerk to Michael Jackson), it was actually a more recent invention. Created by Andy Hildebrand, a US engineer for Exxon, Auto-Tune enables producers to manipulate vocals, sometimes to strange, space-age effect, as on the Cher record, but more often simply to remove bum notes. A singer can perform a song out of tune, and Auto-Tune will correct it by bending the pitch to the nearest semitone.
Manipulation of recorded sound is nothing new, but Auto-Tune has proved more controversial than old producers’ tricks such as multi-tracking vocals or stitching together dozens of takes into one perfect performance. Sonic perfection is now available at the touch of a button, making Auto-Tune vocals the norm on pop records – though Pete Doherty prevented his record label from releasing an Auto-Tune version of the ramshackle Babyshambles song Fuck Forever.
Many believe the ubiquity of Auto-Tune has led to a bland uniformity in modern pop by airbrushing out the imperfections that make a performance soulful. Last year Jay-Z released the song Death of Auto-Tune, a call to get rap music back to its raw basics, while Christina Aguilera wore a T-shirt with the slogan "Auto-Tune is for pussies" – although she later admitted she had used it on her own records.
As well as being lambasted by Rage Against the Machine, the single by last year’s X Factor winner, Joe McElderry, was derided by some for containing obviously autotuned vocals. The problem is one of authenticity. X Factor is meant to be a singing competition: if the contestants’ vocals are now autotuned, how can we choose between performances which are pitch perfect?