Amid the star-studded tributes to Michael Jackson on the BET Awards, Jay-Z’s big premieres for his new single, “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” — a live performance during the show and a premiere of the video after the show — were somewhat obscured. But still, the song — in which Jigga rails against artists who use the ubiquitous pitch-correction software in their songs — has had a lot of people asking, Just what is Auto-Tune?
The technique used these days is actually a software program created in 1997 as a means of audio processing. When a singer’s voice is filtered through Auto-Tune, the pitch is tweaked depending on what tone is pre-programmed into the software. The result the robotic-sounding effect familiar from Cher’s 1990s hit “Believe” and later pushed into more common usage by T-Pain.
Pitch correction isn’t new, however. In the ’70s, artists experimented with a tool called the vocoder (a hybrid of “voice” and “encoder”). The vocoder turns the human voice into synthesized tones that can be further manipulated via keyboards or other instruments. Styx notably used the vocoder on “Mr. Roboto,” and funk band Zapp made their mark in the ’80s by using voice synthesizers, including vocoders and talk boxes (which is the same gadget Peter Frampton used to make his guitar speak on Frampton Comes Alive! and Aerosmith used on “Sweet Emotion”). Zapp frontman Roger Troutman re-entered the pop consciousness in 1996 when he was featured on Tupac and Dr. Dre’s classic single “California Love.”
Though Auto-Tune is all over the charts these days (from Black Eyed Peas to Lady Gaga to Kanye West), the Jay-Z single sparked a big debate among artists about the merits of the technology — Jay said he felt it jumped the shark when he saw it used in a Wendy’s commercial. Though T-Pain said he wouldn’t stop using it, he agreed that it is grossly overused. Wyclef Jean also proved he stood in the anti-Auto-Tune camp when he released “Mr. Autotune” (a collaboration with Nick Cannon), which featured the hook, “I’m Mr. Autotune/ If you sing off-key/ For a small fee/ I can make you a celebrity.”
But a number of stars have come forward in defense of Auto-Tune, including Mary J. Blige and and the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am, who said he understands Jay-Z’s point. “I like Auto-Tune, but too much Auto-Tune is like mad weird.” Fergie added, “Will really does [Auto-Tune] tastefully.”
Kanye West — who was one of the artists absolved by Jay-Z for using Auto-Tune well — commented that he has removed all traces of the technology from Hova’s upcoming album Blueprint 3, which West co-produced.
And the trend isn’t just popular among hip-hop and pop stars, either, as several country artists (including Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts) have used it Auto-Tune on record and in concert.
Either way, despite the controversies — and for better or worse — Auto-Tune remains one of the defining sounds of this era.