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Death of Auto-Tune

The software has had its successes, but it won’t last forever

If you turn on the radio these days and switch to a Top 40 station, you’ll notice that all the songs sound the same. Well, they do at least in one crucial category: Every pop singer has amazingly perfect pitch. Of course, the trend doesn’t come from a sudden influx of talent but from software. Auto-Tune, created by Antares Audio Technologies, can re-tune a singer’s pitches so that a tenor’s high A sung a quarter-tone flat lands at a perfect 440 Hz.

On the surface, Auto-Tune sounds like trickery, and it is to some extent. But while attempts to stop the use of technology have failed in the past, the industry’s obsession with Auto-Tune will eventually fade, and there are signs that that day is nearly here.

Most people know of Auto-Tune through the work of artists like T-Pain, who exaggerate the effect to achieve a distinct sound, or from comedy clips like “Auto-Tune the News,” which apply the technology to flat speech to give the impression that the person is singing. Fewer realize that the technology also is responsible for the remarkable pitch of nearly every pop record of the last decade and a half, or that live music at concerts is often filtered through software boxes that ensure a pitch-perfect performance.

The original Auto-Tune algorithm was devised in 1996 by the creator of an oil-surveying technique, and it uses a mathematical trick involving autocorrelation functions to correct the pitch of sound waves. Almost immediately, mild doses of Auto-Tune were used to fix mistakes and avoid doing extra takes of songs, but the 1998 Cher song “Believe” became the first major hit to exhibit the characteristic “yodel” effect that occurs when the algorithm is cranked up to full-strength and the retune delay is set close to zero milliseconds.

Auto-Tune unquestionably degrades the art of singing, largely because it makes pitch control a matter of a few mouse clicks rather than a challenge that once took many years to master. Worse, a generation of listeners accustomed to the centered pitches of Auto-Tuned recordings might have trouble enjoying jazz and blues singers, who often slide in and out of notes for effect.

However, to say that AutoTune takes talent out of the equation is an exaggeration. The technology can’t make your little sister’s shower singing sound like Aretha Franklin. An average singer using AutoTune simply sounds like an average singer who has amazingly perfect pitch placement (see Katy Perry’s entire oeuvre).

Auto-Tune may have lowered the bar for pop hits, but it only caps a half-century of movement away from conventional notions of talent and musicianship. Rap already showed that you can have a popular record without any singing at all, just rhythm and a story. Furthermore, aside from rare exceptions like Mariah Carey, pop singers of the past 30 years or so have become famous because of their style and their dance moves, not their dulcet tones, and AutoTune doesn’t make it any more or less true.

It’s hard to imagine that, had Auto-Tune existed in the 1980s, the music of Madonna or Duran Duran would sound much different. If anything, Auto-Tune can be credited with bringing melody and songwriting back to the pop charts. If performers like Ke$ha want to use pitch-correction software to add a simple melody to the chorus of their rap songs, so be it.

In addition, while AutoTune appears ubiquitous in the rarefied world of the Billboard Top 40, it hasn’t had nearly as big of an impact in other genres where musicianship has traditionally been more important, such as jazz. Furthermore, contestants on American Idol regularly serenade viewers without the software, and their pitch problems don’t seem to faze the show’s voters.

After the auto-tuned comedy segment at the Oscars last month, I’m confident that the public is now aware enough about Auto-Tune that it is no longer a sneaky deception but simply a tool at an artist’s disposal. The comments that Auto-Tune blurs the line between reality and artifice could easily be made about digital editing, which allows engineers to create Frankenstein versions of vocal tracks cobbled from multiple different takes or even different singers. Yet no one would write songs about the “death of editing” the way Jay-Z urged other recording artists to stop using Auto-Tune.

As music continues to grow and evolve, obsession with perfect pitch will eventually subside. After all, it is boring to hear song after song where every pitch is perfectly centered. Untalented celebrities will always rely to studio magic to truss up their singles, and engineers may quietly use pitch correction algorithms behind the scenes to avoid doing additional takes. However, a new wave of artists who eschew pitch-correction will soon rise, just as punk emerged as a backlash against over-produced disco hits.

That is, until some new technology emerges that can remove the need for talent altogether.

Adam R. Gold ‘11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a physics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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