|Original author(s)||Dr. Andy Hildebrand|
|Developer(s)||Antares Audio Technologies|
|Initial release||September 19, 1997|
|Operating system||Microsoft Windows and macOS|
Auto-Tune (or autotune) is an audio processor introduced in 1997 by the American company Antares Audio Technologies. It uses a proprietary device to measure and alter pitch in vocal and instrumental music recording and performances.
Auto-Tune was originally intended to disguise or correct off-key inaccuracies, allowing vocal tracks to be perfectly tuned. The 1998 Cher song "Believe" popularized the technique of using Auto-Tune to distort vocals. In 2018, the music critic Simon Reynolds observed that Auto-Tune had "revolutionized popular music", calling its use for effects "the fad that just wouldn't fade. Its use is now more entrenched than ever."
Auto-Tune is available as a plug-in for digital audio workstations used in a studio setting and as a stand-alone, rack-mounted unit for live performance processing. The processor slightly shifts pitches to the nearest true, correct semitone (to the exact pitch of the nearest note in traditional equal temperament). Auto-Tune can also be used as an effect to distort the human voice when pitch is raised or lowered significantly, such that the voice is heard to leap from note to note stepwise, like a synthesizer.
Auto-Tune was developed by Andy Hildebrand, a Ph.D. research engineer who specialized in stochastic estimation theory and digital signal processing. Hildebrand conceived the vocal pitch correction technology on the suggestion of a colleague's wife, who had joked that she could benefit from a device to help her sing in tune.
Over several months in early 1996, he implemented the algorithm on a custom Macintosh computer and presented the result at the NAMM Show later that year, where "it was instantly a massive hit". Hildebrand's method for detecting pitch involved the use of autocorrelation and proved superior to earlier attempts based on feature extraction that had problems processing certain aspects of the human voice such as diphthongs, leading to sound artifacts. Music engineers had previously considered autocorrelation impractical because of the massive computational effort required, but Hildebrand found a "mathematical trick" to overcome this, "a simplification [that] changed a million multiply adds into just four".
According to the Auto-Tune patent, the referred implementation detail consists, when processing new samples, of reusing the former autocorrelation bin, and adding the product of the new sample with the older sample corresponding to a lag value, while subtracting the autocorrelation product of the sample that correspondingly got out of window.
Originally, Auto-Tune was designed to discreetly correct imprecise intonations to make music more expressive, with the original patent asserting: "When voices or instruments are out of tune, the emotional qualities of the performance are lost." Auto-Tune was launched in September 1997.
Use in music
Auto-Tune was popularized by Cher's 1998 song "Believe". While Auto-Tune was designed to be used subtly to correct vocal performances, the "Believe" producers used extreme settings to create unnaturally rapid corrections in Cher's vocals, thereby removing portamento, the natural slide between pitches in singing. In an attempt to protect their method, they initially claimed the effect was achieved using a vocoder. It was widely imitated and became known as the "Cher effect".
While Cher's song "Believe" has become famous for achieving the exaggerated Auto-Tune effect, it was not the first popular song to use it. Released two months prior to the album "Believe", the Kid Rock song "Only God Knows Why", off his "Devil Without a Cause" album, was the first popular song to utilize the vocoder-like Auto-Tune effect, and also used it to a greater extent.
The English rock band Radiohead used Auto-Tune on their 2001 album Amnesiac to create a "nasal, depersonalized sound" and to process speech into melody. According to the Radiohead singer, Thom Yorke, Auto-Tune "desperately tries to search for the music in your speech, and produces notes at random. If you've assigned it a key, you've got music."
In the late 2000s, the hip hop artist T-Pain used Auto-Tune extensively. He cited the new jack swing producer Teddy Riley and funk artist Roger Troutman's use of the talk box as inspirations for his use of Auto-Tune. T-Pain became so associated with Auto-Tune that he had an iPhone app named after him that simulated the effect, "I Am T-Pain". Eventually dubbed the "T-Pain effect", the use of Auto-Tune became a fixture of late 2000s music, where it was notably used in other hip hop/R&B artists' works, including Snoop Dogg's single "Sexual Eruption", Lil Wayne's "Lollipop", and Kanye West's album 808s & Heartbreak. In 2009 the Black Eyed Peas' number-one hit "Boom Boom Pow", made heavy use of Auto-Tune on their vocals to create a futuristic sound. The use of Auto-Tune in hip hop gained a resurgence in the mid-2010s, especially in trap music. Hip hop artists like Future, Playboi Carti, Travis Scott, and Lil Uzi Vert used Auto-Tune to create a signature sound.
The effect has also become popular in raï music and other genres from Northern Africa. According to the Boston Herald, country stars Faith Hill, Shania Twain, and Tim McGraw use Auto-Tune in performance, calling it a safety net that guarantees a good performance. However, other country music singers, such as Allison Moorer, Garth Brooks, Big & Rich, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill and Martina McBride, have refused to use Auto-Tune.
At the 51st Grammy Awards in early 2009, the band Death Cab for Cutie made an appearance wearing blue ribbons to protest against the use of Auto-Tune in the music industry. Later that spring, Jay-Z titled the lead single of his album The Blueprint 3 as "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)". Jay-Z elaborated that he wrote the song under the personal belief that the trend had become a gimmick which had become far too widely used. Christina Aguilera appeared in public in Los Angeles on August 10, 2009, wearing a T-shirt that read "Auto Tune is for Pussies". When later interviewed by Sirius/XM, however, she clarified that Auto-Tune could be used "in a creative way" and noted her song "Elastic Love" from Bionic uses it.
Opponents of the plug-in have argued that Auto-Tune has a negative effect on society's perception and consumption of music. In 2004, The Daily Telegraph music critic Neil McCormick called Auto-Tune a "particularly sinister invention that has been putting extra shine on pop vocals since the 1990s" by taking "a poorly sung note and transpos[ing] it, placing it dead centre of where it was meant to be".
In 2009, Time magazine quoted an unnamed Grammy-winning recording engineer as saying, "Let's just say I've had Auto-Tune save vocals on everything from Britney Spears to Bollywood cast albums. And every singer now presumes that you'll just run their voice through the box." The same article expressed "hope that pop's fetish for uniform perfect pitch will fade", speculating that pop-music songs have become harder to differentiate from one another, as "track after track has perfect pitch." According to Tom Lord-Alge, the device is used on nearly every record these days.
In 2010, the reality TV show The X Factor admitted to using Auto-Tune to improve the voices of contestants. Also in 2010, Time magazine included Auto-Tune in their list of "The 50 Worst Inventions".
I'm not a perfect note hitter either but I'm not going to cover it up with Auto-Tune. Everybody uses it, too. I once asked a studio guy in Toronto, 'How many people don't use Auto-Tune?' and he said, 'You and Nelly Furtado are the only two people who've never used it in here.' Even though I'm not into Nelly Furtado, it kind of made me respect her. It's cool that she has some integrity.
Used by stars from Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne to Britney Spears and Cher, Auto-Tune has been widely criticized as indicative of an inability to sing on key. Trey Parker used Auto-Tune on the South Park song "Gay Fish", and found that he had to sing off-key in order to sound distorted; he claimed, "You had to be a bad singer in order for that thing to actually sound the way it does. If you use it and you sing into it correctly, it doesn't do anything to your voice." Electropop recording artist Kesha has been widely recognized as using excessive Auto-Tune in her songs, putting her vocal talent under scrutiny. Music producer Rick Rubin wrote that "Right now, if you listen to pop, everything is in perfect pitch, perfect time and perfect tune. That's how ubiquitous Auto-Tune is." Time journalist Josh Tyrangiel called Auto-Tune "Photoshop for the human voice".
Ellie Goulding and Ed Sheeran have called for honesty in live shows by joining the "Live Means Live" campaign. "Live Means Live" was launched by songwriter/composer David Mindel. When a band displays the "Live Means Live" logo, the audience knows, "there's no Auto-Tune, nothing that isn't 100 per cent live" in the show, and there are no backing tracks.
Despite its negative reputation, some critics have argued that Auto-Tune opens up new possibilities in pop music, especially in hip-hop and R&B. Instead of using it as a correction tool for poor vocals—its originally designed purpose—some musicians intentionally use the technology to mediate and augment their artistic expression. When French house duo Daft Punk was questioned about their use of Auto-Tune in their single "One More Time", Thomas Bangalter replied by saying, "A lot of people complain about musicians using Auto-Tune. It reminds me of the late '70s when musicians in France tried to ban the synthesizer... What they didn't see was that you could use those tools in a new way instead of just for replacing the instruments that came before."
T-Pain, the R&B singer and rapper who reintroduced the use of Auto-Tune as a vocal effect in pop music with his album Rappa Ternt Sanga in 2005, said "My dad always told me that anyone's voice is just another instrument added to the music. There was a time when people had seven-minute songs and five minutes of them were just straight instrumental. ... I got a lot of influence from [the '60s era] and I thought I might as well just turn my voice into a saxophone." Following in T-Pain's footsteps, Lil Wayne experimented with Auto-Tune between his albums Tha Carter II and Tha Carter III. At the time, he was heavily addicted to promethazine codeine, and some critics see Auto-Tune as a musical expression of Wayne's loneliness and depression. Mark Anthony Neal wrote that Lil Wayne's vocal uniqueness, his "slurs, blurs, bleeps and blushes of his vocals, index some variety of trauma." And Kevin Driscoll asks, "Is Auto-Tune not the wah pedal of today's black pop? Before he transformed himself into T-Wayne on "Lollipop", Wayne's pop presence was limited to guest verses and unauthorized freestyles. In the same way that Miles equipped Hendrix to stay pop-relevant, Wayne's flirtation with the VST plugin du jour brought him updial from JAMN 94.5 to KISS 108."
Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak was generally well received by critics, and it similarly used Auto-Tune to represent a fragmented soul, following his mother's death. The album marks a departure from his previous album, Graduation. Describing the album as a breakup album, Rolling Stone music critic Jody Rosen wrote, "Kanye can't really sing in the classic sense, but he's not trying to. T-Pain taught the world that Auto-Tune doesn't just sharpen flat notes: It's a painterly device for enhancing vocal expressiveness and upping the pathos ... Kanye's digitized vocals are the sound of a man so stupefied by grief, he's become less than human."
YouTuber Conor Maynard, who has received criticism for his use of Auto-Tune, defended the audio processor in an interview on the Zach Sang Show in 2019, stating: "It doesn't mean you can't sing ... auto-tune can't make anyone who can't sing sound like they can sing ... it just tightens it up ever so slightly because we're human and we are not perfect, whereas [Auto-Tune] is literally digitally perfect".
Impact and parodies
The US TV comedy series Saturday Night Live parodied Auto-Tune using the fictional white rapper Blizzard Man, who sang in a sketch: "Robot voice, robot voice! All the kids love the robot voice!"
Starting in 2009, the use of Auto-Tune to create melodies from the audio in video newscasts was popularized by Brooklyn musician Michael Gregory, and later by the band the Gregory Brothers in their series Songify the News. The Gregory Brothers digitally manipulated recorded voices of politicians, news anchors, and political pundits to conform to a melody, making the figures appear to sing. The group achieved mainstream success with their "Bed Intruder Song" video, which became the most-watched YouTube video of 2010.
In 2014, during season 18 of the animated show South Park, the character Randy Marsh uses Auto-Tune software to make the singing voice of Lorde. In episode 3, "The Cissy", Randy shows his son Stan how he does it on his computer.
- Audio time stretching and pitch scaling
- Melodyne, a similar product
- Overproduction (music)
- Robotic voice effects
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