Question: "What is the difference between the old blues and the new?"
—Albert Goldman interview with Jimi Hendrix, 1968
Faheem Rasheed Najm, the Grammy-winning producer, entrepreneur, and "rapper ternt sanga" known around the world as T-Pain, was flying to the BET Awards a couple of years ago when a flight attendant approached him to say that another passenger wanted to talk. The person was waiting in the galley, she informed him. T-Pain unfastened his seat belt and got up to investigate.
Standing at the rear of the plane was Usher.
“He said, 'Yo, man, I need to talk to you. I need to express something that's on my mind,” T-Pain recalls. “And it was like, 'Yo, you kind of fucked up music. Like, completely.'”
Yo, you kind of f****d up music. Like, completely.
Usher may not have much room to talk—after all, his own vocals were drenched with Auto-Tune on the 2010 #1 single "O.M.G"—but the world's most famous (and infamous) Pro Tools plug-in has earned its fair share of criticism since it was developed by Antares Audio Technologies in 1997. High-profile Auto-Tune skeptics include legendary rock producer Steve Albini, Daft Punk, and Jay Z, whose 2009 song “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)” included barbs like “My raps don't have melodies/This should make niggas wanna go and commit felonies.” That same year, indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie wore baby blue ribbons on their lapels to the Grammys in protest of Auto-Tune.
"Otherwise, musicians of tomorrow will never practice," bassist Nick Harmer told MTV News at the time. "They will never try to be good, because yeah, you can do it just on the computer."
When Auto-Tune is defended, it's usually in a backhanded way, with the assumption that digital pitch correction is inherently shitty. Headlines like “10 Auto-Tune Songs That Don't Suck” are not uncommon, or questions like “What happens when an entire industry decides it’s safer to bet on the robot?” With an impossible-to-deny reputation for enabling bad singing, Auto-Tune has come to stand for many related evils: the lack of talent in pop music, the lack of quality in pop music, the homogenization of pop music, hip-hop's rejection of authenticity in favor of pop, and the general decline of American culture.
Not only do these reductive takes on the technology ignore the different ways pitch correction software can be used, they also ignore all the innovation it has enabled. By giving hip-hop artists who aren't traditional singing talents a tool for making their music more melodic, Since T-Pain's 2005 debut album Auto-Tune has brought a mulititude of new voices into the realm of popular music and pushed hip-hop's most daring artists to try exciting new things—both intrinsic principles of the genre. It hasn't made hip-hop less authentic, but it has reshaped what authenticity in the genre means.
This is not the first time hip-hop artists have played with weird vocal effects. From early innovators like Afrika Bambataa, Rammellzee, and the Beastie Boys, who embraced the idea of “bugging out” to massive hits like 2Pac, Dr. Dre, and Roger Troutman's “California Love,” the Vocoder—a machine that turns the human voice into digital signals—has been a constant presence in a genre obsessed with putting new spins on the human voice. Developed by Robert Moog and used by artists as diverse as Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder, and Michael Jackson on "P.Y.T.," Vocoder technology became a staple among funk acts like Zapp, whose lead singer Roger Troutman was a master of the Talk Box, another variant on vocal manipulation that used a mouth tube to shape the sound. Hip-hop producers like Erick Sermon and DJ Quik brought the funk forward, and—hate it or love it—robotic vocals became part and parcel of the hip-hop soundscape.
In the same way that innovations like scratching records, making beats from samples, rhyming words, and 808 drum machines defined the sound of hip-hop in past generations, Auto-Tune has redefined it in the past decade, becoming the most important technological innovation in music along the way.
“I think it's the electric guitar of our age,” says Javier Valverde, who has served as T-Pain's longtime in-house engineer. Like the electric guitar in its early days, Auto-Tune has been repeatedly dismissed as unnatural, inauthentic, and a gimmick. Just like Bob Dylan's legendary decision to go electric at Newport Folk Festival in 1965 enraged folk purists, Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak polarized hip-hop audiences four decades later. Just as the electric guitar soon found its virtuosos in artists like Jimi Hendrix, Auto-Tune found its own virtuosos in artists like Future, who has often referred to himself as “Future Hendrix.”
Also like the electric guitar, Auto-Tune was never intended to cause a musical revolution. It was originally created as little more than a simple improvement on existing technology. When Les Paul introduced his solid-body electric guitar, he may not have foreseen what Pete Townsend or Kurt Cobain would do with it. Just as generations of innovators twisted the electric guitar's sound in new ways with all manner of effect pedals, bottle necks, and whammy bars, Auto-Tune's greatest breakthroughs haven't stemmed from a lack of talent, as most people assume, but from tireless trial-and-error innovation and deep engagement with how the technology works.
Auto-Tune was invented by an engineer named Andy Hildebrand in 1996. Hildebrand grew up playing the flute and became a professional studio musician, specializing in symphonic music, by the age of 16. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in digital signal processing, a branch of electrical engineering, and worked as a geophysicist for Exxon Mobil for a number of years, using sound waves to search for fossil fuels. Eventually he returned to his passion and began working in signal processing for music.
A few years into his new career, he was having lunch with a singer who asked if he could make a box that would make her voice in tune. Nobody else at his table seemed drawn to the idea—they were embarrassed for the singer because they assumed it couldn't be done—so he let it go. But Hildebrand knew the math wasn't any different from any other application of signal processing. The trick was to adjust a sound’s pitch without changing its playback speed After mulling over the idea while he worked on a different project, he returned to it a year later and spent a month building a prototype that he could present at a trade show. The response was instantaneous.
“People were ripping it out of my hands,” he recalled. “Producers wanted it badly.”
The software plug-in for the popular digital production suite Pro Tools hit the market in 1997, and was an immediate success. For engineers, it was revolutionary, a massive time-saver. Using studio tricks to adjust pitch and get vocals in tune wasn't a new concept, but Pro-Tools transformed the once-laborious process of manually adjusting notes or splicing together various vocal takes to make sure every note was right. Suddenly, it was possible to smooth out the mistakes in a recording in minutes instead of hours, "It completely changed how studios work,” says Hildebrand.
People were ripping it out of my hands, Producers wanted it badly.
Auto-Tune has since become a standard studio necessity, used in the majority of records made in nearly every genre of music for years. It has two modes: a graphical mode that lets engineers adjust pitch note-by-note and an automatic mode that pegs each sharp or flat to the nearest correct note. Newer versions have a Live mode that was introduced so singers could record with Auto-Tune already turned on, which is what artists like Future and T-Pain do.
Pitch correction was designed to be so subtle as to be unnoticeable, an effect achieved by gradual changes to the "adjustment time." Any setting below 15 or so begins to sound unnatural and robotic, according to Seth Firkins, an audio engineer whose primary client is Future. What people generally mistake as the singer being particularly off-key—the robotic, pronounced style of Auto-Tune made famous by T-Pain—is actually made by setting the adjustment time to zero, making the shift so abrupt that it's obvious. To some, that sound has become a sort of audio punchline, signifying mediocre artistry at work, or gags like Auto-Tuning the news. The technology may make it easy for anybody to hit a note, but using it properly and creatively is another matter.
The most common mistake made by Auto-Tune rookies comes when the tool isn't set to the same key as the instrumental track. “It's not as much of a crutch as people think it is,” T-Pain says. “It's more of a corrective tool, just like reverb or delay or any kind of equalizer or compression.” Contrary to popular belief, Auto-Tune won't automatically make a song fit any desired melody; it will only peg what you sing to the closest in-key note. “If you want two or three notes up," T-Pain advises, "you're going to have to sing that.”
Hildebrand is unwilling to take responsibility for all that his technology has wrought. He compares his invention to building a car that other people then chose to drive down the wrong side of the highway, and argues that a vocalist using Auto-Tune properly is no different than a musician investing in a well-made instrument that's easier to tune. Firkins explains that even the most talented singers need it some of the time and would be arbitrarily holding themselves back to abstain from using it.
“It's gotten such a bad name for so long because it's like 'Oh, you use Auto-Tune?' Yeah, of course you use Auto-Tune,” he says. “You're singing into six-, seven-thousand-dollar microphones, they didn't have those in the '60s… If technology comes along that improves a sound, that improves workflow or performance or overall feel, then you use it. It doesn't mean you're not talented. It means you're talented and somebody has the foresight to apply some great technology to your project. That's not a bad thing; that's a good thing.”