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Auto-Tune: T-Pain, Geophysicist Reinvent Pop Music

The WASHINGTON POST has a great article this morning, written by the unfortunately styled J. Freedom duLac, that presents an compelling overview of the influence of Auto-Tune software on the music industry. These days, it seems that the more Auto-Tune, the bigger the hit, and what was once a device to fix pitch is now becoming a front-and-center production effect. First making an appearance in the insufferable “Believe” by Cher, the Auto-Tune effect has rised to prominence through the efforts of one T-Pain:

T-Pain, whose given name is Faheem Najm, is careful to note the vocoder-and-talk-box-laced legacies of Roger Troutman (of Zapp) and Teddy Riley (Guy, Blackstreet) in “Karaoke.” But there’s no question that he’s become synonymous with the suddenly ubiquitous Auto-Tune effect, which adds a distinct, delirious and decidedly sticky sound to his songs — many of them enormously successful.

[…]

“I’ve heard [the criticism] since I came out,” says T-Pain, who just three years ago was a relatively unknown rapper who sometimes sang the hooks for his group, the Nappy Headz. “People were really hating on it. But I’m being accepted for doing it now. I’m actually being congratulated.”

And copied. Success breeds imitation in pop culture, and following T-Pain’s breakthrough, there’s been a full-fledged Auto-Tune explosion in hip-hop, as heard on Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop,” Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown,” Chris Brown’s “Forever,” Janet Jackson’s “Feedback” and G-Unit’s 50 Cent showcase, “Rider Pt. 2,” not to mention various songs that feature T-Pain himself, such as Ciara’s new single, “Go Girl.”

“You’re talking about bona fide hits by A-list artists, the biggest names in hip-hop,” says Dion Summers, a senior programming director for Sirius XM’s hip-hop and R&B channels. “The T-Pain technique definitely makes a song stand out. It sounds so cool, and it gives more rise to the record and makes it seem lighter. He really hit on a winning formula. It works; that’s why these other artists are doing it.”

Although apparently Lil Wayne gets a pass for being a Friend of Pain, T-Pain is pretty annoyed that everyone else is stealing his sound, and he’s being forced to change up to stay ahead of the curve. However, it’s definitely worth noting that T-Pain is awesome with or without heavy Auto-Tune.

Need proof? Take it to the chorus below…

Arguably, the most interesting part of this story is how the software got its start.

While pop music isn’t anything like rocket science, it took a geophysicist to figure out how to clean up wrong notes. Twenty years ago Harold “Andy” Hildebrand, who’d spent nearly two decades doing seismic data research in the oil industry, started a company, Jupiter Systems (since renamed Antares), that applied mathematical models and digital-signal processing technology to musical applications. Its first program was used to create seamless synthesizer loops.

The idea for Auto-Tune came during lunch one day, when Hildebrand was jokingly asked by the wife of a sales rep to come up with an algorithm that might make her singing sound better. “We were discussing what I should do next, and she said, ‘Maybe you could make a box for me that would make my voice in tune,’ ” Hildebrand says from his Northern California office. “And everybody just stared down at their lunch. . . . Everybody knew it was impossible and was therefore a stupid idea.” So of course, he says, he had to do it.

The result was a software plug-in that corrects a singer’s pitch, in a way that’s theoretically imperceptible to the untrained ear. “The automatic algorithm compares the pitch of the singer to a scale, then gradually moves the singer’s pitch toward the scale note,” Hildebrand says.

Introduced by Antares in 1997, the Auto-Tune application was revolutionary. It reduced the need for — and expense of — doing countless vocal retakes in pursuit of a perfect end-to-end vocal; it also allowed singers (J. Lo) with pitch problems (Britney) to sound somewhat palatable (Cassie).

[…]Is it cheating?

“I don’t engage in those conversations,” Hildebrand says. “I just make software.”

He laughs, then notes that he’s making money, too. Lots of it. “The industry’s going to have to make up its own mind [if] it’s a monster or not.” (And anyway, says Hildebrand, who earned union scale in a symphony orchestra while in high school and studied composition at Rice University’s Shepard School of Music: “Frankly, I don’t listen to pop music.”)

[…]In T-Pain’s hands, Auto-Tune is used as a tool, not a crutch — a sort of flavor enhancer that falls somewhere between sweet cream butter and MSG. To achieve the effect, the Auto-Tune’s “retune speed” setting is adjusted to zero; rather than moving a vocal toward the nearest correct note gradually, it’s processed almost instantly, resulting in an unnatural stair step in pitch that makes human vocals sound unhuman. “It really wasn’t meant to be used that way,” Hildebrand says, “but it’s becoming really popular.”

So much so that Antares is releasing a discounted, stripped-down version of Auto-Tune this month to coincide with the release of T-Pain’s album. Whereas Auto-Tune plug-ins typically sell for more than $300, Antares is offering the Auto-Tune EFX for $99 through Guitar Center — “for the guy who wants a simple T-Pain effect or simple pitch correction,” Hildebrand says.

This, of course, means more T-Pain copycats are inevitable. Some will be more famous than others: Sean “Diddy” Combs has already announced that his next album will feature a heavy dose of Auto-Tuned vocals, which actually sounds like an upgrade, given how monochromatic the mogul-rapper’s voice tends to be in recorded form. Christina Aguilera — a bona fide belter who doesn’t need the help — has hinted that she might experiment with the effect, too.

Whatever. This style is already becoming overexposed and played-out, and its main practitioner is already moving on. But his glory shall remain. Just like RZA will always be the pioneer of using soul samples in hip hop, so will T-Pain long be revered for taking the Auto-Tune effect to the top of the charts.

Sweet article, J. Freedom. But that name, dude…

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About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

One Response to Auto-Tune: T-Pain, Geophysicist Reinvent Pop Music

  1. Pingback: Quezi » Do famous singers use electronics to “fix” their off-notes?

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