The Sound Of Auto Tune

by Thomas Brett

You know the Auto Tune sound when you hear it: it sounds artificial, electronic, not quite human enough, too perfect.  Auto Tune is everywhere today, from TV commercials to hip hop to country music.  It’s the Photoshop of the musical world.

The technology was conceived by Andy Hildebrand, an engineer for Exxon who developed methods for interpreting seismic data through sound to help discover ocean oil reserves.  Hidebrand realized that this frequency-analyzing technology could be used in the context of digital sound recording to correct off-pitch singing.  So in 1997, he released the Auto Tune software as a plug-in for computer recording applications.  Auto Tune was used moderately at first, until Cher released her severely auto-tuned Song “Believe” in 1998.  The rest is fast-moving history of a musical technology spreading meme-like through almost every kind of music making, from Cher to the recent best-selling Auto Tune iphone app, “I Am T-Pain” that enables anyone to sound like a well-tuned robot.  Simply put: Auto Tune (and of course its predecessor, the vocoder) changed how we think about voice–the musical voice, but also just our regular speaking voices and their (hitherto hidden) musical potentials.

Just as I began browsing YouTube for videos on Auto-Tune I stumbled upon a very thoughtful, informative and very entertaining video produced by, of all people in the musical universe, “Weird Al”Yankovic.  The video is part of the series “Know Your Meme” and is titled: “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Helps Explain Auto-Tune.”  But he does much more than this, providing a concise history of the technology, its musical uses, and its circulation as a musical meme over the past thirteen years.  The video traces what it calls the four stages of Auto Tune: 1. introduction, 2. overexposure, 3. parody and remix, and 4. equilibrium.  You can watch the video below:


Of the many insights of Yankovic’s video is the idea that whenever a new technology is introduced everyone rushes to explore the extremes of what it can do in order to unlock its transgressive/expressive potential.  For instance, when stereo sound was invented, musicians overused the ability to pan instruments to extreme left and right positions in the stereo field.  (Listen again to those old Beatles recordings …)

Where is Auto-Tune taking us?  What has it done to the grain of the voice?  Is this just an elaborate cover up for our imperfect singing or something with rich expressive potential?  Or both?  I leave you with Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek”:

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