by / February 2nd, 2009 /

A brief history of Auto-Tune

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’.

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