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-pitch.
Starting with Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe”, producers began to use Auto-Tune as a sound effect, to deliberately distort vocals.
By 2018, 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.” The term auto-tune has become a generic term to describe audible pitch correction in music regardless of the method.
Auto-Tune was created by Andy Hildebrand, a geophysicist and former musician who had developed complex algorithms for Exxon to interpret data generated by a seismic wave to find underground oil deposits. Hildebrand discovered that his methods for interpreting seismic data could be used to detect, analyze, and modify the pitch in audio files. His method for detecting pitch involved the use of autocorrelation and proved to be 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 industry engineers had previously considered the use of autocorrelation impractical because of the extremely large computational effort required, but Hildebrand found a “simplification [that] changed a million multiply adds into just four.
Hildebrand had come up with the idea for a vocal pitch correction technology on the suggestion of a colleague’s wife, who had joked that she could use a device to help her sing in tune. Originally, Auto-Tune was designed to discreetly correct imprecise intonations, in order to make music more expressive, with the original patent asserting that “When voices or instruments are out of tune, the emotional qualities of the performance are lost.”
According to Chris Lee of the Los Angeles Times, Cher’s 1998 song “Believe” is “widely credited with injecting Auto-Tune’s mechanical modulations into pop consciousness”. Cher’s producers used the device to “exaggerate the artificiality of abrupt pitch correction”, contrary to its original purpose.
In an early interview, the producers of “Believe” claimed they had used a DigiTech Talker FX pedal, in what Sound on Sound’s editors felt was an attempt to preserve a trade secret. After the success of “Believe” the technique was initially referred to as the “Cher Effect”. In the year 2000, the single “Naive Song” performed by Mirwais Ahmadzai from his album Production was the first ever track using Auto-Tune on the complete vocals.
The use of Auto-Tune as a vocal effect was bolstered in the late 2000s by hip hop/R&B recording artist 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 Talk Box as inspirations for his own 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, called “I Am T-Pain”. Eventually dubbed the “T-Pain effect”, the use of Auto-Tune became a popular 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, riding on the wave of Auto-Tune’s popularity, The Black Eyed Peas’ number-one hit, “Boom Boom Pow”, made heavy use of Auto-Tune and other artificial sound effects to create a futuristic sound.
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.
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.
Used by stars from Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne to Britney Spears and Cher, 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 Ke$ha 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.
Big band singer Michael Bublé criticized Auto-Tune as making everyone sound the same – “like robots” – but admits he uses it when he records pop-oriented music.
Although Auto-Tune is used by a variety of artists, Regina Bradley states it can be particularly useful for black artists to have more control of their voice’s sound and change it to fit the mood of the song.
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, says “My dad always told me that anyone’s voice is just another instrument added to the music.
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?