Sound Field

S3 E1 | FULL EPISODE

In Defense of Auto-Tune

Thanks to artists like T-Pain, Cher, and Kanye West, Auto-Tune went from being an industry secret to an industry staple. But it didn’t happen overnight. In this video, our hosts Linda Diaz and Arthur Buckner, uncover how Auto-Tune became THE in-demand tool for recording studios, helped artists find their artistic selves, and evolved popular music.

AIRED: November 17, 2021 | 0:11:37
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TRANSCRIPT

- I know what you're thinking.

In Defense of Auto-Tune, what is there to defend?

Sure, we may think we know how Auto-Tune works,

and it's practically an industry staple these days,

but there's more to it

than making someone sound like a robot.

- So you're singing over a piano sample

I recorded in F sharp minor. - Okay.

- And so once you sing, we'll have your vocals preserved,

there's no Auto-Tune running through it,

and then I'll apply the Auto-Tune and we'll see,

compare how it sounds.

I am Elijah Fox, I am a pianist, producer, and songwriter.

I'm based in Los Angeles right now.

Me and Linda both met at Oberlin Conservatory.

- Yes. - Where we graduated in 2017.

♪ Na na na na na na ♪

- [Narrator] The use of Auto-Tune has become so common

since it launched in the late '90s,

that it's easy to forget that it caught

so much flack throughout the 2000s.

Many were concerned that it was making music inauthentic.

- In this video, we're gonna talk about how Auto-Tune

became the in-demand tool for recording studios,

helped artists find their artistic selves,

and evolved popular music.

And be sure to stay for the end

where we will create an original track using Auto-Tune.

This is "In Defense of Auto-Tune."

♪ Like summer in the fall ♪

♪ I shouldn't have cared at all ♪

- Auto-Tune was first released in 1997,

but let's first set the stage for pop music at that time.

(upbeat music)

Let's go back to the 1980s,

the decade that saw an increase in recording studios

using digital recording and non-traditional instruments

like drum machines and synthesizers,

and let's not forget the birth of MTV.

- [Narrator] All of these things helped to transform

pop music into what we know it as today.

With artists like Madonna, Whitney Houston,

Michael Jackson, and Prince

serving as inspiration for future stars.

- Pop stars were becoming larger than life

and their performances had to reflect that.

Choreographed dance routines, wardrobe changes.

Pop artists were now expected

to put on full productions with their music.

So lip syncing became more common in arena concerts

in the late '80s and onward.

- Well girl, you know it's True,

it can only mean Milli Vanilli.

- This all came to ahead in 1989

when Milli Vanilli were performing their hit single

"Girl You Know It's True" live

and the chorus of the track kept repeating.

♪ Girl you know it's ♪

♪ Girl you know it's ♪

♪ Girl you know it's ♪

- The Milli Vanilli controversy,

as well as general pushback against artists lip syncing

during live performances

played a part in why Auto-Tune wasn't widely promoted

when it first came out.

Something its own inventor noticed, too,

sharing in a 2016 article,

"Studios weren't going out and advertising,

'Hey, we got Auto-Tune!'

Back then, the public was weary of the idea

of fake or affected music.

What they don't understand is that the method used before,

doing hundreds of takes and splicing them together,

was its own form of artificial pitch correction."

Those are the words of Andy Hildebrand,

an engineer, a mathematician, a former flute player,

and of course, the man behind Auto-Tune.

- [Narrator] Launched in September, 1997,

Auto-Tune was the result of Hildebrand

fusing math with music,

with some inspiration from a colleague

who joked about wanting a device to help her sing in tune.

- What Auto-Tune does is it automatically corrects

the note you're singing

towards the closest version of that note

that's tuned to A440 or standard tuning.

So that means if you sing a note that's close to a D sharp,

it's gonna move it down to a D sharp

'cause that's in that key.

But if you sing a note that's in-between,

it's gonna have to pick whatever you were closest to

and then auto-tune it to the notes from that scale.

- Cher's "Believe" is the song

that made Auto-Tune known throughout the world,

but not for the pitch correcting reason it was made for.

Notice how Cher's voice sounds inhuman, robotic-like.

♪ Ooh, do you believe in life after love ♪

- This is because of Auto-Tune's retune speed feature.

Can you explain what the retune speed function is

and what it does?

- Definitely.

Retune speed is basically on the interface of the Auto-Tune,

there's a Retune button, which is basically telling

the software how fast you want the notes to transition

while it's kind of reading your vocals.

So to put that kind of more easier,

it's just like you can go from a retune speed,

which is really low, which is literally zero.

Or you can go to a higher retune speed of 50, 70,

where you probably wouldn't even detect it at all.

- [Elijah] This is the vocal completely dry.

♪ Ooh, na na na na na na ♪

- [Elijah] So I'll put an Auto-Tune.

♪ Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah ♪

- [Elijah] And let's see what it does.

Here we go.

♪ It rains, it rains so rarely here ♪

- So it sounds absolutely terrible

because we haven't set the key yet.

So here I'm gonna go F sharp, scale minor,

then I'm gonna put it so that the retune speed is slow.

So this will be the most realistic.

And then I'm gonna set humanize to the max.

So now we've got

♪ Ooh na na na na na ♪

- [Elijah] And you can see the notes that Linda's singing

are showing up here.

♪ It rains, it rains ♪

- [Elijah] So if I do retune speed fast, it's that classic.

♪ But in my mind the clouds don't ever clear ♪

- Auto-Tune could not only be used to correct notes.

It could also be used as a creative tool

to change one's voice entirely.

But the use of Auto-Tune wasn't welcomed by all.

- At what point did you see

that Auto-Tune was like, oh, this is tight, this is cool.

Like who was the artist that turned it on for you?

- Well, definitely I'm not gonna lie,

the first artist that really turned it on for me

was back in the day watching "106 & Park", T-Pain.

As soon as his music came on,

it just was something totally...

At least for people of my age and it was pretty new.

♪ I like the bartender ♪

♪ Yeah, if you're lookin' for me ♪

- From the mid to late 2000s,

T-Pain became synonymous with Auto-Tune.

He popularized the effect in R&B and Rap,

giving way to hit singles like Lil Wayne's "Lollipop"

and Kanye West's "808s & Heartbreak" album.

♪ How could you be so heartless ♪

♪ How could you be so heartless ♪

- Auto-Tune became more well-known

for distorting vocals than fixing them.

With auto-tuned hits like Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow"

and Kesha's "Tik Tok"

being some of the decade's biggest songs.

♪ Tick-tock on the clock ♪

♪ But the party don't stop, no ♪

- Because of this, the tool became a target

by those who thought it was making music artificial

and fake, like the lip-sync debacle of the 90s,

Auto-Tune was facing a similar moment.

- Jay Z called for Auto-Tune's death

on his 2009 song, "D.O.A." "Death of Auto-Tune,"

where he condemned the overuse of the effect.

♪ This is anti auto-tune, death of the ring-tone ♪

♪ This ain't for iTunes ♪

- Although Jay clarified

that the song wasn't directed at T-Pain, West, or Wayne,

who we all saw as good examples of using Auto-Tune,

T-Pain took it personally.

In an interview with Netflix,

T-Pain recounts a time where Usher

told him that he ruined music.

- [Narrator] That is the very moment,

and I don't even think I realized this for a long time,

but that's the very moment

that started a four-year depression for me."

- [Caller] Hey man, look you're well missed, man.

I wish you would have never disappeared.

You disappeared when Jay Z came out with damn record.

I wish you would've stayed, you made good quality music.

- Well, the flack directed at Auto-Tune and T-Pain

didn't age well.

For starters, the artist is actually a very good singer

as he showcased in his 2014 Tiny Desk performance.

♪ Yeah, ooh ooh ohh, ooh ooh ♪

♪ We in the bed like ♪

♪ Na na na na na na na ♪

- And what you used is not what Roger used.

- No, Roger used a vocoder.

- What's that? - Roger used a vocoder.

- Vocoders use synthesizers to alter a singer's voice

and musicians have been using them since the 1950s.

Listen to Herbie Hancock use a vocoder

in the 1978 track "I Thought It Was You."

♪ Thought it was you ♪

♪ I thought it was you ♪

- Auto-Tune isn't just a tool for pitch correcting,

but a spiritual successor to previous inventions

used for vocal experimentation.

Auto-Tune and similar products like Melodyne

are still being used for pitch correcting

and vocal experimentation.

Some producers even use them in tandem.

- Can you tell us the difference

between Auto-Tune and Melodyne and like how you would use.

- Yeah.

So what Melodyne does is it doesn't actually correct

any of the notes, but it shows you how many

since you were sharp or flat for each note,

and then lets you adjust.

So, with Melodyne, you can kind of go halfway sort of,

but Auto-Tune is just gonna directly tune it

to standard tuning.

(device beeping)

- Linda, what's up, how you doing?

- Good, it's good to see you.

- Yes, always great seeing you.

So Auto-Tune (imitates Auto-Tune)

the effect. - Yeah, yeah! (laughs)

- I was always doing that when I was a kid,

so I'm glad that we spent some time with it.

- Yeah, me too.

- How much experience do you have with Auto-Tune?

- To be honest, I always knew that it was like

different than what the general public perceived it to be.

And I think that's kind of like, you know, for a long time,

the music industry was hiding the fact

that people even used Auto-Tune.

I think a lot of people have a misconception

about like how vocalists use their voices

and about what Auto-Tune necessarily means.

Like they think of it as like slap the Auto-Tune filter

over everything you sing, and that's Auto-Tune, you know?

And it's a lot more nuanced than that.

I think sometimes people will watch

these like live performances and they'll be like,

see, this person doesn't need any Auto-Tune,

and it's like, that mic was auto-tuned.

- People have no idea like how much it's actually used

in the industry.

- In LA, for every session that I was in,

the mic automatically had Auto-Tune on it,

and I had never experienced that, yeah.

- So now it's time to apply our own flavor to Auto-Tune,

and make an original song using the effect.

I think I'm ready to hear this track.

- [Linda] Yes, okay.

- Here goes nothing.

♪ It rains, it rains so rarely here ♪

♪ But in my mind ♪

- I'm thinking about what I could do with this.

What I would do with it?

A boom-bap kind of thing, it feels too forceful.

I'm thinking like sparse samps.

- Mm-hm. - You know what I'm saying?

- Like little brushes.

- Ah! I need that. (laughs)

- [Linda] That's what I was thinking.

- I need that!

No, let's do it!

♪ It rains, it rains so rarely here ♪

♪ But in my mind the clouds don't ever clear ♪

♪ Without a smile, I am so out of place ♪

♪ So I can try to put one on my face ♪

♪ It feels like summer in the fall ♪

♪ I shouldn't have cared at all ♪

- Hmm.

Yes, yes.

Fire, yes.

(gentle music)

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