A Brief History of Auto-Tune

T Pain, in 2011 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Often seen as the scourge of modern music, you don’t really hear nearly as much about auto-tune anymore though it hasn’t gone away – not by a long-shot.

Auto-Tune is an audio processor that has lent its name to the technique of the same name and what it does is that it can adjust the pitch of a human voice or musical instrument on a piece of music.

Initially, it was used to cover up slight imperfections in a recorded track but has gone on to become its own thing ever since becoming popularized by rapper T-Pain who used Auto-Tune in much the same way that artists in the 1960s and 1970s used vocoders to give their voices a unique sound.

Created by Andy Hildebrand, a Ph.D., Auto-Tune was never intended to become a kind of musical genre unto itself but it has since being popularized in the 2000s and early 2010s.

In fact, many people look at Auto-Tune as a revolutionary piece of software for music as it allows for levels of post-production quality that were previously impossible.

But there are some negatives associated with Auto-Tune and those tend to dominate the headlines more than the many positives associated with it.

Since becoming popularized, artists and lay people have noticed that Auto-Tune can also be used to transform normal speaking voice or even completely untalented singers into something approaching a song.

As you can imagine, this has led to a plethora of parody songs using Auto-Tune, such as on the Andy Samberg Saturday Night Live song “I’m On a Boat” (coincidentally featuring T-Pain).

None of this has necessarily given Auto-Tune a bad name, but its perceived use in elevating mediocre singers to the level of stardom is perhaps its single most controversial contribution, as well as being nearly ubiquitous as “reverb gated drums” were in 80’s pop music.

Though this is largely a perception and overestimation of Auto-Tune’s abilities, a lot of people in the popular press and beyond consider music that features Auto-Tune vocals less than that of a track without it.

Further, older stars who never had the benefit of Auto-Tune often reference it when attempting to downplay a younger star’s success.

Yet, Auto-Tune doesn’t make a bad singer sound good…just strange in how it’s often applied.

That’s why it is probably best to look at Auto-Tune music as something unto itself entirely.

No one is trying to be Mariah Carey or Luciano Pavarotti through Auto-Tune and the program isn’t capable of taking nothing and turning it into something.

Nor should the use of Auto-Tune call into question an artist’s talent. As a piece of finishing software, it was never intended to supplant actual talent, but merely augment it.

Looking ahead, most people who watch music technology think that stuff like Auto-Tune will continue to proliferate well into the future.

That’s because tech and music are becoming ever more intertwined as time moves forward. And, though we don’t think software will supplant talent, that possibility is always there.

As it stands now, however, Auto-Tune is just one among many options that artists have to use to add something different to their music – nothing more. Just as no one notices synthetic instruments or backing vocals, people will, one day, not notice Auto-Tune vocals.