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.