Kanye West’s use of Auto-Tune on his new album sparked an online war of words between the hip-hop star and his fanbase. But just what is Auto-Tune and why does it court controversy so?
The entries on Kanye West’s personal blog are mostly just pictures of expensive accessories. Recent posts include links to a solar-powered yacht, a designer bathtub, a pair of novelty socks and a picture of Melita Toniolo, the winner of Italian Big Brother. Aside from the bling and bands, however, West also used his blog to leak a number of tracks from his new album, 808s And Heartbreak, including the single -Love Lockdown’, the vocals on which came in for some severe criticism from fans.
Comments ranged from angry (‘drop the whole auto tune thing, it’s LAME!’) to resigned: ‘If 808s = Auto-Tune, that shit better be galactic Ye’¦ ‘Cause it ain’t even hot no more.’ Kanye responded almost immediately by posting ‘if you don’t like Auto-Tune’¦ too bad cause I love it’, and he wasn’t lying: 808s And Heartbreak has Auto-Tune on almost every track. So what is this studio device that sets so many hearts a-flutter and keyboards a-typing?
Auto-Tune was initially designed simply as a studio production tool for correcting the pitch of dodgy notes. Nic Bertino, a Sacramento-based producer, who also releases his own material under the name Melee Beats, calls this the ‘traditional method’. Auto-Tune ‘will take a note that might have drifted out of key, and slowly put it back into key, without the end user actually noticing.’ Its obvious application is on the music of artists who might – shall we say – be performing for reasons other than their innate musical talent.
The reality, however, according to Bertino, is that nearly every big pop or rock release will have been Auto-Tuned along the way. ‘It’s to make sure that it’s perfect,’ he explains. ‘Most of the time, it’s not going to be a big enough change to impact the musical or the creative aspect of it. It’s just to get it in tune and sounding consistent.’ Bertino estimates that the device is used in 95% of what he calls ‘radio-ready’ recording sessions. The idea is that you shouldn’t be able to tell.
For a long time, this worked. Auto-Tune was a well-kept producers’ secret. But it forced its way into the public eye on Cher’s -Believe’, released in 1998, the earliest song to utilise the -robot voice’ effect (although at the time, the producers were so keen to conceal the industry’s use of Auto-Tune that they claimed to have used an entirely different device). This effect is essentially the sound of Auto- tune gone wrong.
When playing live, many big-name artists put their vocal straight through Auto-Tune before it gets amplified. But if it’s not set up right, things can go horribly awry. If ageing MOR purveyor Billy Joel doing a T-Pain impression sounds unlikely, look him up on YouTube singing -The Star Spangled Banner’ at last year’s Superbowl. Nic Bertino calls this ‘artifacting’, which is what happens when the singer drifts way out and the Auto-Tune kicks in – sort of like the vocal equivalent of your emergency parachute. ‘It has to shift the tone [of the vocal]. And if the settings are off, you can hear that shift being made,’ Bertino explains. It’s that glitching sound that’s the giveaway – the electronic flick from note to note. If you adjust the device to do that intentionally – to trip instantaneously between tones, without any of the human voice’s natural slide – you get the robotic articulation that Auto-Tune’s product page, having wised up to its own success, now calls ‘the T-Pain/Cher-style effect’.