Auto-Tune is an audio processor created by Antares Audio Technologies which uses a proprietary device to measure and alter pitch in vocal and instrumental music recording and performances. It was originally intended to disguise or correct off-key inaccuracies, allowing vocal tracks to be perfectly tuned despite originally being slightly off-key.
The processor slightly bends pitches to the nearest true semitone (to the exact pitch of the nearest tone 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. The overall effect to the discerning ear can be described as hearing the voice leap from note to note stepwise, like a synthesizer.
Auto-Tune is available as a plug-in for professional audio multi-tracking suites used in a studio setting and as a stand-alone, rack-mounted unit for live performance processing. Auto-Tune has become standard equipment in professional recording studios.
Auto-Tune was initially created by Andy Hildebrand, an engineer working for Exxon. Hildebrand developed methods for interpreting seismic data and subsequently realized that the technology could be used to detect, analyze, and modify the pitch in audio files.
In popular music:
Auto-Tune was used to produce the prominent altered vocal effect on Cher's "Believe". Recorded in 1998, "Believe" was the first commercial recording to use the software for this purpose. In an early interview the producers claimed they had used a Digitech Talker FX pedal, in what Sound on Sound's editors perceive as an attempt to preserve a trade secret. After the success of "Believe" the technique became known as the "Cher Effect".
While working with Cher on the song "Believe" in 1998, producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling discovered that if they set Auto-Tune 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.
--Greg Milner (2009)
According to Chris Lee of the Los Angeles Times, "Believe" is "widely credited with injecting Auto-Tune's mechanical modulations into pop consciousness." The use of Auto-Tune as a musical effect was bolstered in the late-2000s by R&B singer T-Pain, who elaborated on the effect and made active use of Auto-Tune in his songs. He cites New jack swing producer Teddy Riley and funk artist Roger Troutman's use of the Vocoder as inspirations for his own use of Auto-Tune. T-Pain became so associated with Auto-Tune that he has an iPhone App named after him that simulates the effect, called "I Am T-Pain". Auto-Tune has since been used in other urban artists' works, including Snoop Dogg's single "Sexual Eruption",Lil Wayne's "Lollipop", and Kanye West's album 808s & Heartbreak. In more contemporary rap music, Auto-Tune is used in a different way than artists like T-Pain or Kanye West used it in the past. Rappers like Chief Keef and Future have recently been using Auto-Tune.
According to the Boston Herald, country stars Faith Hill, Shania Twain, and Tim McGraw all use Auto-Tune in performance, calling it a safety net that guarantees a good performance. However, other country music singers, such as Allison Moorer, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill, Garth Brooks and Martina McBride, have refused to use Auto-Tune.
Auto-Tune the News:
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 Auto-tune 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.
At the 51st Grammy Awards in early 2009, the band Death Cab for Cutie made an appearance wearing blue ribbons to protest 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 far too many people had jumped on the Auto-Tune bandwagon, and that the trend had become a gimmick.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 said that Auto-Tune wasn't bad if 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, UK's 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 transposing 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 British television reality TV show The X Factor admitted to using Auto-Tune to improve the voices of contestants.Simon Cowell, one of the show's bosses, ordered a ban on Auto-Tune for future episodes. Also in 2010, Time magazine included Auto-Tune in their list of "The 50 Worst Inventions".
Neko Case in a 2006 interview with Pitchfork Media gave an example of how prevalent pitch correction is in the industry:
"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 Madonna and Snoop Dogg to Britney Spears, the use of 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."
Big band singer Michael Bublé criticised Auto-Tune as making everyone sound the same - "like robots" - but admits he uses it when he records pop-oriented music.
Despite its bad 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 crutch for poor vocals--its originally designed purpose--some musicians intentionally use the technology to mediate and augment their artistic expression. "It's neither a fight with technology nor love of it; it's more like glossy coexistence, a strange new dance of give-and-take," writes Jayce Clayton. "The plug-in creates a different relation of voice to machine than ever before. Rather than novelty or some warped mimetic response to computers, Auto-Tune is a contemporary strategy for intimacy with the digital. As such, it becomes quite humanizing. Auto-Tune operates as a duet between the electronics and the personal. A reconciliation with technology."
T-Pain, the R&B singer and rapper who reintroduced the use of Auto-Tune in pop music with his album Rappa Ternt Sanga in 2005, says "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 writes 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."
In other words, Wayne's use of Auto-Tune allowed him access to melody, which popularized his music on mainstream radio. Finally, 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 writes, "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." Also, in both R&B and Hip-Hop the overuse of Auto-Tune as a way to make their sound more appealing to the masses or even make their not so melodic voices sound better creates this unique sound that transcends these genres.