The Surprisingly Long History of Auto-Tune, the Vocal-Processing Technology Music Critics Love to Hate

In the fall of 1998, pop music changed for­ev­er — or at least it seems that way today, a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry lat­er. The epochal event in ques­tion was the release of Cher’s come­back hit “Believe,” of whose jagged­ly frac­tured vocal glis­san­do no lis­ten­er had heard the likes of before. “The glow-and-flut­ter of Cher’s voice at key points in the song announced its own tech­no­log­i­cal arti­fice,” writes crit­ic Simon Reynolds at Pitch­fork, “a blend of posthu­man per­fec­tion and angel­ic tran­scen­dence ide­al for the vague reli­gios­i­ty of the cho­rus.” As for how that effect had been achieved, only the tech-savvi­est stu­dio pro­fes­sion­als would have sus­pect­ed a cre­ative mis­use of Auto-Tune, a pop­u­lar dig­i­tal audio pro­cess­ing tool brought to mar­ket the year before.

As its name sug­gests, Auto-Tune was designed to keep a musi­cal per­for­mance in tune auto­mat­i­cal­ly. This capa­bil­i­ty owes to the efforts of one Andy Hilde­brand, a clas­si­cal flute vir­tu­oso turned oil-extrac­tion engi­neer turned music-tech­nol­o­gy entre­pre­neur. Employ­ing the same math­e­mat­i­cal acu­men he’d used to assist the likes of Exxon in deter­min­ing the loca­tion of prime drilling sites from processed sonar data, he fig­ured out a vast sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the cal­cu­la­tions the­o­ret­i­cal­ly required for an algo­rithm to put a real vocal record­ing into a par­tic­u­lar key.

Rapid­ly adopt­ed through­out the music indus­try, Hilde­brand’s inven­tion soon became a gener­ic trade­mark, like Kleenex, Jell‑O, or Google. Even if a stu­dio was­n’t using Auto-Tune, it was almost cer­tain­ly auto-tun­ing, and with such sub­tle­ty that lis­ten­ers nev­er noticed.

The pro­duc­ers of “Believe,” for their part, turned the sub­tle­ty (or, tech­ni­cal­ly, the “smooth­ness”) down to zero. In an attempt to keep that dis­cov­ery a secret, they claimed at first to have used a vocoder, a syn­the­siz­er that con­verts the human voice into manip­u­la­ble ana­log or dig­i­tal sig­nals. Some would also have sus­pect­ed the even more ven­er­a­ble talk­box, which had been made well-known in the sev­en­ties and eight­ies by Earth, Wind & Fire, Ste­vie Won­der, and Roger Trout­man of Zapp. Though the “Cher effect,” as it was known for a time, could plau­si­bly be regard­ed as an aes­thet­ic descen­dant of those devices, it had an entire­ly dif­fer­ent tech­no­log­i­cal basis. A few years after that basis became wide­ly under­stood, con­spic­u­ous Auto-Tune became ubiq­ui­tous, not just in dance music but also in hip-hop, whose artists (not least Rap­pa Ternt San­ga T‑Pain) used Auto-Tune to steer their genre straight into the cur­rents of main­stream pop, if not always to high crit­i­cal acclaim.

Used as intend­ed, Auto-Tune con­sti­tut­ed a god­send for music pro­duc­ers work­ing with any singer less freak­ish­ly skilled than, say, Fred­die Mer­cury. Pro­duc­er-Youtu­ber Rick Beato admits as much in the video just above, though giv­en his clas­sic rock- and jazz-ori­ent­ed tastes, it does­n’t come as a sur­prise also to hear him lament the tech­nol­o­gy’s overuse. But for those will­ing to take it to ever-fur­ther extremes, Auto-Tune has giv­en rise to pre­vi­ous­ly unimag­ined sub­gen­res, bring­ing (as empha­sized in a recent Arte doc­u­men­tary) the uni­ver­sal lan­guage of melody into the lin­guis­ti­cal­ly frag­ment­ed are­na of glob­al hip-hop. As a means of gen­er­at­ing “dig­i­tal soul, for dig­i­tal beings, lead­ing dig­i­tal lives,” in Reynolds’ words, Auto-Tune does reflect our time, for bet­ter or for worse. Its detrac­tors can at least take some con­so­la­tion in the fact that recent releas­es have come with some­thing called a “human­ize knob.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Evo­lu­tion of Music: 40,000 Years of Music His­to­ry Cov­ered in 8 Min­utes

How the Yama­ha DX7 Dig­i­tal Syn­the­siz­er Defined the Sound of 1980s Music

What Makes This Song Great?: Pro­duc­er Rick Beato Breaks Down the Great­ness of Clas­sic Rock Songs in His New Video Series

The Dis­tor­tion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Cre­at­ed “a McDonald’s Gen­er­a­tion of Music Con­sumers”

How Com­put­ers Ruined Rock Music

Bri­an Eno on the Loss of Human­i­ty in Mod­ern Music

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Kevin says:

    It’s not just crit­ics that hate auto­tune. Give me the imper­fec­tions, the crap­py Bob Dylan singing of lyrics that mean some­thing, over the com­put­er­ized sound that’s per­fect­ly on pitch.
    This Thanks­giv­ing day the Macy’s parade was painful to hear, every­thing sound­ed like Alvin and the Chip­munks.
    There’s a rea­son that many peo­ple have turned back to the songs of their youth and live shows, they were human sound­ing, warts and all.
    Speak the truth, even if your voice breaks.

  • blogspulse says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing jour­ney! ‘The Sur­pris­ing­ly Long His­to­ry of Auto-Tune, the Vocal-Pro­cess­ing Tech­nol­o­gy Music Crit­ics Love to Hate’ — Ready to dive into the evo­lu­tion of this con­tro­ver­sial yet impact­ful tech­nol­o­gy. Music and tech his­to­ry com­bined – intrigued!

  • fieryflora says:

    Can’t wait to explore! ‘The Sur­pris­ing­ly Long His­to­ry of Auto-Tune, the Vocal-Pro­cess­ing Tech­nol­o­gy Music Crit­ics Love to Hate’ — Curi­ous about the back­sto­ry of a tech­nol­o­gy that’s made waves in the music indus­try. Let the explo­ration begin!

  • fieryflora says:

    Great job, very use­ful.

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