Auto-Tune is the reason why some pop stars sound amazing on a record but terrible in real life. It corrects pitch in a vocal performance and disguises off-key inaccuracies and mistakes. As well, it makes artists like T-Pain, Ke$ha, and The Black Eyed Peas sound special.
The use of technology to alter the pitch of a voice is not a new occurrence. In the 1930’s, research physicist Homer Dudley, at Bell Labs, created the Vocoder, which found its way into the music industry but was originally intended to transmit voices over copper phone lines to decrease the cost of long-distance calls. It was, however, imprecise. Technology progressed and during World War II, Bell Laboratories was commissioned to develop a machine that would distort the voices of high profile military and political figures.
Music artists first began experimenting with the Vocoder in the 1970’s. Wendy Carlos used the Vocoder in her interpretation of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the film A Clockwork Orange. Artists adopted it soon after to turn their voices into synthesized tones, which could in turn be manipulated further through the use of a keyboard controller or other digital instruments.
While the Vocoder came to be widely used in the music industry, it was an expensive technology. A more cost-effective solution was sought, and in 1997 Andy Hildebrand developed Auto-Tune. It quickly became popular with record labels and producers. The device, used to hide slightly flat or sharp notes in an artist’s vocal performance, can also distort a singer’s voice creating a desired robotic-sounding effect. Auto-Tune software has become less expensive today and users can easily download it for their personal home use.
The use of Auto-Tune has spurned a debate in the music community. Does it belittle true talent, allowing pop-music factories to churn out teenyboppers with mass appeal? Or does it simply perfect an artist’s voice, and enable distortion as a means of expression?
Recently, some artists and industry professionals have called for the end of Auto-Tune. Jay-Z penned a single called “D.O.A” (Death of Auto-Tune) and, in a similar vein, Wyclef Jean released the single “Mr.Autotune”. Alternatively, some artists have come forward in defense of the technology. Mary J. Blige recently stated that she supports singers for their artistry and creativity, regardless of whether they use Auto-Tune. Other proponents hail the technology as a way to cut down on costs and solve logistical problems. For example, an artist may have to leave the studio with no opportunity to return and correct one or two off pitch notes. For many, Auto-Tune is merely another tool that musicians use, just like a guitarist uses a pedal.
As Auto-Tune becomes more affordable and accessible, it is used for effect in social media. Moreover, the evolution of music making is a function of technology and the meaning of the word ‘artist’ has evolved in tandem with the development of our production tools. Hitting the right notes has become easier, but it has to be remembered that recorded music has been served for long anyway with a bag of tricks.