As machines create more-perfect vocal and instrumental performances, a funny thing is happening: humans are catching up.

The normal assumption about machine learning or “cyborg” technology is, as technology improves, we’ll augment ourselves with more technology. But that misses the fact that humans, both individually and socially, are also smart and adaptable. We start to learn from the tech.

I once met Stewart Copeland (The Police, composer), and he talked about this very phenomenon. A lot of the sound of The Police involved Stewart’s playing routed through various effects. In short, it was something he conceded he couldn’t play on his own. But as the popularity of those tracks grew, he noticed that human drummers were starting to emulate the exact resulting rhythms – possibly even without being aware of the effects routings that produced them.

Drum machines, of course, have had a similar impact. You frequently hear drummers playing with machine-like precision, employing patterns that you simply didn’t hear before. In classical music, we’ve also seen a rise in global musicianship that has produced a level of instrumental virtuosity unheard of in past centuries. Whether the link was intentional or not, even the compositional demands of works like Ligeti’s Continuum have a link to George Antheil’s piano rolls and machine music.

But maybe the best illustration is this: here’s what happens when a vocalist starts to sing like AutoTune.

The singer here is Ukrainian star Aida Nikolaychuk, born in Odessa.

The, uh, actual reality show is obviously staged (as reality shows are). But having heard other recordings and live performances from her, it seems to me she is mimicking some of the distinctive pitch curves of a pitch follower. (Precise pitch itself, of course, predates auto correction – this to me is more about the distinctive quality of vibrato and pitch changes.)

This is an old story. But as discussion of AI and machines learning to emulate humans meets trans-humanism, it’s worth flipping the coin to look at human transformation through organic means. It’s not just the machines we add to ourselves, but the way we evolve to adapt to those machines, that may shape that direction.

  • I get that humans have always invented tools (machines) to do a certain job – and possibly do it even better than humans could. Also, I get how this could feed back to humans and how we execute certain tasks (like playing an instrument) in ways we haven’t done before. All that said – I really don’t get why anyone would want to sing like autotune? Like, going to make yourself look like a robot, because you can?

    • the headline is a bit of a misnomer – it’s not that she’s reproducing the effect, it’s that her voice sounds like a studio recording.

      • PaulDavisTheFirst

        indeed. I find Peter’s characterization of this very odd. She’s just a very, very good pop singer with really good vocal control, intonation and pitch. There’s no autotune in here at all.

        • Right, but I think the way she’s controlling vibrato and pitch come from a pop aesthetic that grew up with AutoTune…

          • Agreed. It’s an interesting phenomenon that shows how our tools are extensions of ourselves and vice versa. And how the aesthetics of both are intertwined.

            By coincidence I viewed this video last week. Must be viral or whatever they call it these days.

  • her voice is pretty stunning. but i think the whole judges’ exchange looks super staged.

    • ok sorry for monopolizing this thread but i’m suspicious. i think it may have been a pr move for the singer. the top video is pitch perfect but the second isn’t – she’s pretty consistently flat. i have a feeling that the first video *is* actually pitch-corrected (there are other effects on it – tons of reverb and delay so why not autotune too?), and the judges hid it it plain sight by calling it out. right during the ad-libs – perfect timing.

      • Oh yeah – the reality show is *totally* staged. But I think she (and some other vocalists) are starting to mimic the characteristics of the way pitch followers work.

        • James

          It’s a neat observation. And it’s disguised in part by the chirpiness of a lossy codec. But I agree with the poster that singing accapella doesn’t disprove (am I adding up my negatives correctly?) that she had auto tune on the vocal channel. The slotting of pitch is synonymous with it. Not to detract from her voice, which I think on a show like this could take her as far as any contestant.

          • Are you questioning the veracity of Ukrainian reality TV? Or for that matter, me with random observations on YouTube videos?

            Okay, actually, never mind, stepping away from this one 😀

  • chaircrusher

    I remember seeing the country/folk duo Robin & Linda Williams play once, and their harmonies were so tight, that their voices would phase against each other the way two analog oscillators tuned the same will.

    I also had a DJ scratch on a song I did, and when I pulled up the waveform, his scratches varied only a couple milleseconds from the beat grid.

    Human musicians are capable of great accuracy.

    • This also suggests the reason AI would supplement, not replace, human judgment – you still choose the output.

      Another example: even as they used the I Ching, you get Cage’s or Cunningham’s aesthetic in their work, because they chose the parameters. So you could argue that until AI includes giving away agency, AI isn’t going to steal authorship. This gets thorny, of course.

  • viridisvir

    How very PhilDickian. Does Autotune Dream of Electric Peeps?

  • Vocal trends are always mystifying to me. I think Rihanna was among the first to perfect that kind of affectless autotune style. Now there’s a trend of whisper-sung vocals on pop stuff that must be a nightmare to perform live. Modern hip hop is bringing all of these styles together into a weird neither-spoken-nor-sung hybrid that’s truly unlistenable for olds like me but apparently sounds amazing to kids. Strange times.

  • efabric

    Stunning girl singing like an autotuned micro-edited track.

    • James

      Okay, this is a much more convincing example, I feel

    • Yuri Urban

      i agree, this is so much more convincing than those examples from original post

  • edmortec

    I think about Patricia Piccinini who designed people that would have evolve to survive car crash :

    But probably austrians played there role in the autotune contemporary catastrophe.