If you’ve been even slightly aware of anything hip hop in the last fifteen years, you’ve heard auto-tune. But do you really know auto-tune? The image that pops into the minds of many is some mind-numbing, drugged out rapper, moaning gibberish that comes out with a sound that makes it feel like your speaker is having a seizure. If this is your perception, you are terribly misguided. Hating auto-tune is like hating taxes. It’s easy. The biggest cheap shot in music today is to say that auto-tune is the sign of an untalented artist. An artist with no musical skill to the point where they need to modify their own voice to make it sound halfway decent. In this writer’s opinion, that is an extremist view that doesn’t take in the whole scope of autotune as a tool and instrument. Let me explain.
Andy Hildebrand, the father of autotune.
Auto-tune is an audio processor that is designed to detect and correct pitch from the complex frequencies of the human voice. If a singer hits a note wrong, a sound engineer can add the autotune plug-in to the recording and alter the note so it will sound better. It was invented by Andy Hildebrand, a scientist in the field of electrical engineering. After working for the Navy, he decided to start his own company and create music software. Through his company Antares Audio Technologies in 1997, he released the plug-in we know today as “Auto-Tune”. Envisioned more as a tool to tune the human voice as you would a guitar, no one could’ve predicted the use of the plug-in to alter the course of music history forever.
Here’s a timeline of autotune’s brief history:
September 19, 1997: Antares Audio Technologies releases the plug-in, Auto-Tune, as of this time it only runs on Microsoft Pro Tools but has grown to just about every major audio-editing platform.
October 20, 1998: Cher’s single, Believe is released, marked as the first song to utilize autotune in a significant way. Immediately following the song, other uses of autotune to warble vocals was referred to as “the Cher Effect.” Cher liked the sound so much she refused to remove it when her label asked her to.
May 2001: Daft Punk member Thomas Bangalter defends the use of autotune in an interview, claiming: “A lot of people complain about musicians using autotune. It reminds me of the late '70s when musicians in France tried to ban the synthesizer. They said it was taking jobs away from musicians. What they didn't see was that you could use those tools in a new way instead of just for replacing the instruments that came before. People are often afraid of things that sound new.”
December 6, 2005: T-Pain releases his album, Rappa Ternt Sanga, an R&B project with heavy usage of the plug-in. The album immediately solidified him as the face of autotune, and he even collaborated with Antares to make an autotune app that was downloaded by millions.
January 2008: Snoop Dogg releases his first song featuring autotune, Sensual Seduction, which becomes a top-10 Billboard hit.
November 24, 2008: Kanye West releases his album, 808s & Heartbreak, in the same vein as Rappa Ternt Sanga, this album uses autotune in practically every song, and has been directly named by rappers like Juice Wrld as a huge inspiration for their music. The effect of 808s can be heard all throughout hip-hop today. Kanye himself calls the plug-in “the funnest thing to use” and even on his Yeezus tour said “thank God for autotune.”
September 8, 2009: Jay-Z releases his album The Blueprint 3, on it is the single criticizing the tool, DOA (Death Of Auto-Tune). Jay promises that “My raps don't have melodies/This shit make niggas wan' go and commit felonies.” Even going so far as to call Auto-Tune feminine by telling users of it to “Put your skirt down, grow a set man.”
Throughout this year, hatred of autotune is in full effect, YouTube is filled with parodies of songs that use it, old-school musicians and people unfamiliar have labeled it as a lazy man’s key to a hit, and even the Black Eyed Peas use it in an attempt to get Boom Boom Pow to the top of the charts. There is even a campaign to get it banned from the industry. Despite the criticism, Kanye & T-Pain, as well as artists from other genres like Britney Spears and Bon Iver find success using the instrument to add on to their singing talent. And yes, I said instrument, more on that later. Skip forward several years through the paradigm shift…
2015-2017: The Golden Age of autotune. Drake & Future both find untold success using autotune in What A Time To Be Alive, DS2, and Views. Travis Scott, a longtime Kanye collaborator, turns heads with it in Rodeo and Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight. When paired with the popularity of SoundCloud, you have a new horizon for aspiring musicians to be able to put out music with an audience without dropping hundreds of dollars in a studio. SoundCloud talents using autotune include Lil Uzi Vert, Trippie Redd, Juice Wrld, Lil Yachty, Playboi Carti, and countless others who are making names for themselves while using the instrument.
2018-today: There is no sign of slowing for autotune in the music industry, there are of course, bad examples (as with anything in music), but the use of autotune has played a part in the reason why Hip Hop & R&B are now some of the most popular genres in America. Hip Hop is pop, and it would be a mistake to deny autotune’s role in that. Andy Hildebrand’s Auto-Tune remains the most popular variant of the program, and he is estimated to have a net worth of around $20 Million from his company and software as of 2021. When asked about his role in autotune’s popularity in music, Hildebrand simply said, “Sometimes, I’ll tell people, ‘I just built a car, I didn’t drive it down the wrong side of the freeway,' but haters will hate.”
For better or for worse, autotune is shaping the culture. It’s biggest detractors have either been silenced or have succumbed to its usefulness in creating new sounds. Usher, who once derided T-Pain for having “fucked up music” through his use of autotune, eventually used it himself in his song OMG with Will.I.Am.
And to the argument that it is the crutch for the untalented and musically mediocre? Auto-tune has become its own musical instrument. Kanye West’s use of vocoder and autotune in the outro for his magnum opus, Runaway, made his own voice sound like an electric guitar. It is an instrument in the sense that there is a right and a wrong way to use it. Classically trained singers with years of experience to this day still use autotune. Why? Well two reasons. One, using it to correct notes with bad pitch saves labels lots of money, and two, the sound is unmistakably dynamic. It defies the mind’s expectations, part of the reason why we even listen to music.
Yes, it can and has been used as a crutch, as the Boondocks character Thugnificent is used to explain, but it is a tool in the right hands. Human beings are musical creatures, we are one of the few species that can comprehend all the layered elements of rhythm, melody, timbre, etc. The popularity of autotune has granted access for people who don’t have the same resources as a popstar, to be able to make the complex melodies that they know they can create, but are unable to naturally. Someone with a song in their heart but very little money can create music that moves the whole world. It’s the story of hip-hop in a way, which could explain its prominence in the genre.
Like any new development in music, there are uses that are hated, and uses that are loved. YBN Nahmir caught hell on social media for his vocals on Soul Train, meanwhile Travis Scott has made the effect his trademark, using it in practically every song he’s on. Travis continues to sell out stadiums and earn platinum records without any claims of being a “one trick pony.” Whether you like the sound of auto-tune is your opinion, I’m not here to change that. I’m here to challenge the assumption that using auto-tune is automatically “untalented”, “lazy”, and “unoriginal”. It can be just as evocative as raw unedited vocals, and it adds texture and layers to a song. For those who have written it off, my proposal is that you keep an open mind, and trust that just because you are hearing the warbly croon of an auto-tuned voice, doesn’t mean that there isn’t beauty, intent, or skill behind the microphone.
Written by Max Olarinde, @mobeige1 on all social media.