If Photoshop is the solution to (and cause of) all the minor and major visual flaws in print advertising, then Auto-Tune is the equally controversial panacea for the pitch-based diseases of the music world.
It’s a fact that modern music is tweaked, fixed, overdubbed, and otherwise adjusted before ever hitting the ears of listeners. Spoiler alert: even in so-called “live” recordings it’s common practice for the artist to go back and re-record tracks, re-adjust the overall mix of instruments and add in stock recordings of crowd noise. Rule of thumb: if you’re hearing it on the radio, it’s been through the hands of countless sound engineers and the circuits of thousands of dollars of equipment.
(Oh, don’t look so shocked. You knew that George Martin was mucking about with Beatles tracks long before you read this blogpost.)
Usually, recording engineers and record producers strive for a behind-the-scenes approach to these tweaks – to use the best take of a guitar solo, adjust the rhythm of the kick drum and so forth – but lately there seems to be an emergence of one specific tool as a cure-all for both good and bad vocal tracks: automatic pitch correction, or Auto-Tune.
Don’t know what auto-tune is? Yes, you do. Unless you were hiding under a rock – in a cave – at the bottom of a glacier – on Mars – for all of 1999, I’m sure you can’t forget Cher’s undeniably catchy, yet incredibly annoying, song “Believe”. This song seemed to spark the emergence of auto-tuning vocals in pop music as continued more recently by Imogen Heap, T-Pain, and Kanye West. You might think this effect is the result of new advances in recording technology, but the truth is quite the opposite.
Auto-tuning is a type of phase vocoder, which, in some form, has been around since 1928. The vocoder started out as a machine to emulate human speech, and has been used in various applications ever since. Some of the first musical applications of the effect were contributed by electronic music pioneers Wendy Carlos and the late Robert Moog, as heard in Carlos’ Switched-On Bach and the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange. Other artists have used this effect to a great extent, such as Laurie Anderson’s haunting electronic song “O Superman”, as well as songs by Alan Parsons Project, Electric Light Orchestra and Styx.
What’s this all leading to, you might ask? None other than a solution for making the evening news palatable to younger audiences: using auto-tune to map the voices of people on screen to a specific key, then adding a snappy R&B beat and some extra on-screen musical commentary. The result: nothing short of brilliant.
And move over T-Pain featuring Lil’ Wayne, it’s Carl Sagan featuring Stephen Hawking in the house. Hawking’s been using vocoders since before you were born, son.