AutoTune, easily the most famous software plug-in in history – one even the general public has heard of – continues to reach mainstream, viral audiences. But the surprise is, originally its number crunching powers were applied to geology, oil, and pipelines, not bad vocalists. (Sadly, the latter are a more renewable resource.)

This week, the Web is buzzing over the music video of AutoTune, the (parody) song.

Sadly, this video could have been so much more – not even so much as a Cher reference, really? (Cher’s producers: AutoTuning way before Kanye West, and then lying about it! Brilliant!)

For a bit of AutoTune reflection and history:

Read the 1999 Sound on Sound article in which the producers tried to fool people into thinking they used a Digitech Talker vocoder, which, come to think of it, sounds like it would have actually been a pretty decent idea, anyway. That story is now updated with the correction. I’m sure the producers are relatively sorry about it certain they can’t get away with it any more / it’s hardly a trade secret.

Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a thoughtful article on AutoTune for The New Yorker earlier this year. Best bit:

Someone once asked Hildebrand if Auto-Tune was evil. He responded, “Well, my wife wears makeup. Is that evil?” Evil may be overstating the case, but makeup is an apt analogy: there is nothing natural about recorded music.

That much is true. Of course, it begs the question: does his wife smear lipstick randomly over her forehead? Can you actually see her face? You see my point.

Perhaps feeling the pressure of free tuning and vocal plug-ins now shipping with many audio apps and DAWs, Antares have introduced Auto-Tune efx, a US$99, simplified version of the plug-in for Mac and Windows now available exclusively at Guitar Center. Oddly, a selling point is that it currently comes with a free iLok; given that it’s targeted at beginning users who likely would be shocked that they have to pay extra to use DRM added to a program, that seems like not something one would advertise. (Wow! Thanks!)

In Antares’ defense, though, no, I don’t think AutoTune is evil. In fact, I think ironically, it’s drawn attention to some of the potential fictions of recording – and, through the magic of reverse psychology, made a great case for making changes to the actual vocals and using the computer for more creative tasks rather than seeing it as a panacea for fixing human beings.

Antares also does produce software that can be used to creative effect, like the AVOX2 toolkit and its mutating effects.

Believe it or not, here – and not in the studio with Cher or Kanye or anyone else – is where some of the ideas behind AutoTune were born. Photo: Rickz.

To me, the most interesting (and overlooked) thing about AutoTune is its roots in seismology and geophysical data. Yep, that’s right: founder Andy Hildebrand got his start at Exxon doing things like looking for failure points in pipelines. He went on to study composition at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music, and used his smarts in seismology to solve musical problems.

For more on that history, read the 1999 awards citations in the newsletter of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists [PDF], recognizing Hildebrand. (I love search engines.)

So, knock AutoTune if you like: what it demonstrates is the flexibility of digital algorithms. In fact, the beauty of computers is that they don’t worry about issues like taste or the difference between music and underground oil. And that means you can take a tool and apply it to a radically different job – giving us human beings near endless potential in how we interpret digital tools.

And that suggests that you ought to be able to use AutoTune and your voice and do something that isn’t awful at all.

  • Darren Landrum

    I'll argue that his analogy is flawed: make-up can only enhance beauty a woman already has. It can't fool anyone into thinking someone is more beautiful than they really are. At least, not anyone with any power of observation.

    Now, Photoshop is another story altogether (warning: mildly-adult content at link – not work safe). Autotune is more like Photoshop than it is like make-up. It can, and frequently, it does make people sound like they can sing better than they really can.

    As for using Autotune for making interesting sounds and effects, well, I'm all for using whatever tools you have handy to make neat sounds for your music. Some are lucky enough to have Autotune and Melodyne and the entire Komplete 5 suite. Some of us are stuck (yes, stuck) with whatever we can get in the Open Source world. Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.

  • deezey

    I agree that AutoTune is not evil. The current trend of obvious AutoTune reminds me of the way guitar distortion became a desirable effect, rather than an undesirable effect of pushing an amp to its limits. Nonmusical people who knock the AutoTune trend probably don't realize how widespread its use is – the intended use of AutoTune was to correct pitch in a realistic way, not to emulate a Vocoder. Of course the trend of obvious AutoTune has gotten way out of hand and is on its way out, but of course that doesn't mean that the plugin will stop being useful.

  • I'm confused…I've used early versions of Antares AutoTune to bend a couple notes into tune. Works great when used appropriately.
    To push Autotune to create the flange/vocoder effects and call it "AutoTune" doesn't seem logical to me. I guess though, that's what happened when the Vocoder came out? Wasn't it the guitar talk box originally but became a synthesized version of the talk box?
    Kids on the street now want to use AutoTune not for bending out of tune notes but to get the flange effect on an entire track…Innovation? Lack of originality? Or no clue about flange and vocoder effects?

  • Oh, we're all confused by it, no question.

    And yes, a little subtle tuning really is NOT evil, although I think now it's so easy to combine takes that that can also be an easy option. Then again, the irony of all this is that you may be able to use AutoTune (or similar effects) to do subtle correction and actually preserve *more* of the integrity of the original track than if you do a whole lot of meshing takes.

    But yes, what people are reacting to — the heart of evil — is the uncreative abuse of the plug-in.

  • septo

    finally, someone tells it like it is on autotune. good job peter.

  • I have admittedly been a big abuser of vocoders for some time now – half of the tracks my band has put out has vocoded something. It's a bummer for me now that the Autotune is so publicly overused and talked about now, because every time I use my vocoder, someone has to come up to me and ask if I'm using that "Lil' Wayne voice tuner thingy" or what have you.

    Anyway – the thing that strikes me is that, for some reason, Kanye West has managed to find a way to massively overuse the Autotune and still sound like he's singing out of tune. It's quite a feat, really.

  • I agree that the photoshop analogy is more apt, and that's exactly how I explain it to non techies.

    As for Kanye, he seems to be following in the footsteps of T-Pain, who's built his entire career on heavily auto-tuned vocals. It's interesting to note that both artists started out as producers and rappers; I don't think someone without their backgrounds would have as much success with heavy autotune as them.

  • poopopp

    My grandma, a vocal and piano teacher, thought artificial reverb was evil. She was always grumbling about "the back room boys doing evil things with the sound" when we listened to records together.

    I think Autotune as an effect is going to date music terribly. It will be to the noughties what the gated reverb snare was to the eighties.

  • Well, wait a minute. The damned thing wasn't supposed to survive the late 90s. It's already dated.

  • that guy needs 'auto-flow' and 'auto-lyric' plug-ins.

  • rhowaldt

    this vocoding-flange-effect on voice, as used by Kanye West and many others, sounds so incredibly terrible that i have a tendency to crash my head into my entertainment-system everytime i hear it. why do people do that stuff? it sucks. vocoders have a lot of better uses for them than adding some crappy-sounding robotic effect to someones voice. like using a delay or feedback for a modulator and a simple sine or bell as a carrier. i should just switch off the entertainment-system altogether and sell it on eBay or something.

  • Pekka

    Autotune as an effect isn't evil. It's like vocoder II – The sequel. Bit cheesy to use it for keeping your vocals in tune, I think. I've used some autotuner to microtune my guitar for some exotic scales. Try it! You can't always rebuilt your guitar to play some weird scales from himalayas.

  • There was an interesting (and completely inaccurate, in my view) article recently about auto-tune in the financial times, of all places.

    What I find fascinating about the "auto-tune is the end of musicians" argument is how it ignores virtually all other forms of vocal manipulation. The channel strip for the vocals in a pop song will nearly always have EQ, Compression, some type of delay, reverb, "exciters", probably some stereo panning stuff, maybe Chorus, not to mention multitracking, harmonies, etc etc etc. And Auto-tune.

    And as soon as the auto-tune comes in you start hearing the argument of "this person obviously can't sing because they can't sing on key". Do you ever hear anyone saying "this person can't sing because they can't control their volumes, so they have to be compressed"? I think it says a lot about the parameters that we set, culturally, as qualifying someone as a musician.

    hope that makes sense!

  • richjams

    it's an unwellknown fact that melodyne was invented because Peter Neubäcker wanted to listen to the sound of rocks.

    sounds like I'm trying to be funny, but that's what I heard…

  • Isn't he pronouncing "auto" wrong? Shouldn't you pronounce like in the word automatic? Of course it makes sense this way too as it sounds like "Out-of-tune" which might've been the original idea.

  • this dude has you covered:

  • zenzen

    Can't wait for a mischievous French duo to do a fresh retro take on autotune in 2019. Dude, that's so '08!

  • Shenanigrams

    i knew it! i am mechanical engineer by training and always had a feeling that those mechanics of materials classes had more to them that met the eye.

  • Bobert

    Auto-tune is only evil if used by evil people. In this way, it is kind of like a gun, pointed directly at your eardrum. "NO, AKON NO!"

  • Pingback: AutoTune: The Song, a $99 Version (Hide!), and Some History()

  • samoan

    AutoTune "saved" country music by turing it into bad pop music LOL.

  • Pingback: Create Digital Music » Auto-Tune The News, And Channeling Steve Reich, Anyone?()

  • Rik

    What moronic rubbish. AutoTune is NOT like guitar distortion was when it first came out. Autotune makes bad singers think they arent.
    Distortion makes bad guitarists sound worse. Cant imagine Neil Young needing it. Grow up, suck it up, and find a job you can do, autoknobs.