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Tags: Pro/Con
Jan. 6, 2009

Pro/Con: Auto-tuning the music industry

by David Tao, Online Editor-in-Chief and Jenna Bushnell, Online Features and Humor Editor
If you've turned on the radio in the past few years, you're probably familiar with the robotic twang of "T-Pained" vocals. This trademark motif of namesake and Florida R&B crooner T-Pain is caused by Antares Audio Technologies's Auto-Tune plug-in, a program that snaps sour notes into a computerized pattern with a distinctive tremble.

This technology has since become a pop music craze, generating one Top 40 hit after another. Everybody's jumping on the bandwagon: good singers such as Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, bad singers such as Jennifer Lopez and even rappers, like Kanye West and Lil' Wayne.

Some see Auto-Tune as our generation's musical phenomenon, injecting life and relevance into the same old artistic routine. Others dismiss it as a cheap way for artists to hide their lack of talent behind the banner of originality. Is Auto-Tune worthy of its current status as our generation's musical symbol?

Jenna Bushnell says yes: The Auto-Tune provides a fresh, new sound for musicians and should continue to be a pillar of popular music.

It's 1956 and Elvis Presley is to appear on "The Milton Berle Variety Show." During his appearance, he sang his own brand of music that mixed rhythm and blues with country and rock. This fusion of sound made Presley wildly popular with teens, but left many critics uneasy. Despite lukewarm initial reviews, Elvis went on to become a pop-culture icon, showing that something revolutionary will always cause unease with those who cannot appreciate change. Five decades later, America is faced with the same scenario but a different innovation. The Auto-Tune plug-in, first used by Cher in 1998, has become a staple in the music industry. This transformational sound is here to stay, and for good reason.

For those who gawk at the thought of tone-deaf musicians recording songs with voices manipulated to correct tone, it's time for a reality check. "Hataz," as Auto-Tune aficionado T-Pain says, need to realize that nearly all of the songs played on popular radio stations feature computer interference. Think Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, Madonna or virtually any other pop artist. All that the Auto-Tune did was introduce the synthesized singing sound to a new genre.

Take T-Pain, the rap artist turned Auto-Tuned "sanga" that can safely be accredited with bringing Auto-Tune into the hip hop world. Critics have made T-Pain declare himself the "most hated-on artist" in the game, yet nowadays everyone seems to be sampling his style. Even veteran rap artist Diddy, who has been throwing down rhymes since the early '90s, has borrowed T-Pain's new tool. "I got permission from the Auto-Tune king, T-Pain," Diddy said of his upcoming CD to the Associated Press.

T-Pain has had more than 11 chart-topping hits in which he uses the Auto-Tune, a testament to the device's success. His catchy songs may not be deep or meaningful, but they feature a distinct sound which offers a bumpin' tune for those jammin' in the car or dancin' in the clubs.

Newly reborn rapper-turned-Auto-Tune-singer Kanye West has found great success in his strictly sung pop album, "808s and Heartbreak." Released in early November, the album already features three top ten hits. Critics such as SPIN Magazine's Charles Aaron have hailed West for "pushing creative boundaries." A mediocre singer, West has melded his infectious beats with his robotic melody, and it works, creating what has proven to be a winning combination on tracks like "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless," propelling the tunes to number one on the Billboard Top 100.

While the Auto-Tune can make anyone's vocals sound tolerable, it takes true talent to put out a big hit. "You still got to have the rhymes I have, the melodies I have, you got to have the songs I write - the reality songs - and still got to have people relate to what you're doing," T-Pain told the AP.

West's 2007 song, "Good Life," featuring T-Pain, sums up the Auto-Tune fight brilliantly. "If they hate, then let them haters hate, and watch the money pile up," West raps. Which is exactly what West and T-Pain continue to do with their popular music. The king of Auto-Tune said it best in an interview with "I don't understand why the most hated-on artist is being the most copied. Why can't they just own up to what I've done for this industry?"

David Tao says no: Auto-Tune generates mediocre, repetitive music and should be discontinued immediately.

There was once a time long ago when talent and authenticity reigned over radio. The '50s and '60s were home to acts like Elvis Presley and The Beatles, whose genre-fusing music provoked intense emotional reactions and left lasting marks on pop culture. The '80s heralded the birth of hip-hop, which artists such as Marley Marl and Run-DMC used to paint gritty portraits of urban life. Even the boy bands of the '90s were passable singers. Nowadays, musical themes and original ideas are completely trumped by marketability, hence: pretty-boy singers (read: lip-syncers), "gangsta" rappers living in suburbia and now, Auto-Tune.

Some believe that Auto-Tune is the next musical revolution, a new style akin to the 1950s revelation that country + blues = rock 'n roll. The difference: a country/blues mixture hadn't been done before. When T-Pain first introduced listeners to Auto-Tuned warble in his 2005 hits "I'm Sprung" and "I'm 'n Luv (Wit a Stripper)," he hit the music world with something that seemed new and original. In fact, talkboxes and vocoders, which provide near-identical sound effects, had already been used countless times throughout the '80s and '90s by Stevie Wonder and Roger Troutman. T-Pain himself admits that Troutman "has a lot to do" with his current style, but this hasn't stopped him from calling other Auto-Tune users "swagger jackers" and asking them to pay him royalties.

But when judging music, quality trumps originality. Constant Auto-Tuning promotes lackadaisical, unmotivated recording, as more artists rely on technology to correct growing lists of flaws. Recent Auto-Tuned collaborations between T-Pain and Lil' Wayne such as "Got Money" and "Can't Believe It" are testaments to the fact that popular music isn't always good music. While both songs reached the Billboard Hot 100's top ten, Lil' Wayne's choked-out vocal contributions seemed to rely on Auto-Tune alone to give them a sorry excuse for pitch.

In terms of feel-good music, there's no doubt that T-Pain and company are exploiting a winning formula. The club effects of Auto-Tune are "ridiculously hypnotic" and "[order] your feet to move," the Guardian reported. Indeed, Auto-Tuned chart-toppers like Lil' Wayne's "Lollipop" have intense dance floor appeal. But just as man cannot live on bread alone, a musical style cannot survive on just strippers and lollipops.

To truly succeed, the Auto-Tune needs more depth. Unfortunately, artists have yet to mint passionate work with the plug-in. T-Pain has said that he avoids the Auto-Tune on songs that have deep personal meaning to him. Other artists seeking to produce powerful material such as the highly successful, non-Auto-Tuned Ne-Yo, abstain from the plug-in altogether. "[Auto-Tune] takes the emotion out of your voice," Ne-Yo said.

The closest Auto-Tuned music has come to touching content has been Kanye West's recent release "808s and Heartbreak," which - despite constant references to a broken engagement and a deceased mother - is being promoted for its club appeal. "It's definitely one of those joints in the club," West says about "Amazin'," the album's collaboration with rapper Young Jeezy. He was also careful to state that the album's lead single, "Love Lockdown," was similarly danceable. "[Expletive] love it and [expletive] rock to what [expletive] dance to," West said.

Maybe instead of listening to copycats, we should stick to T-Pain, who seems to have the vision. "Auto-Tune is on its way out," T-Pain says on the outro of the "Can't Believe It" remix. Huzzah... now will the rest of the industry catch up?

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  • #1 fan (View Email) on January 7, 2009 at 1:39 PM
    great work reporters!

    but i agree with jenna, mah numbah one gurl
  • (View Email) on January 7, 2009 at 2:03 PM
    This is a topic that hits home with us Audio Engineers and Producer types.

    I believe there is a happy medium to the whole auto-tuning issue. I agree there is an overuse of the robotic timbre and texture that seems to have oversaturated the pop music genera today. It often takes away from the lyrics meaning and is distracting to the rest of the mix. However the use of auto-tuning is not a new idea. I had participated in a discussion this past November at The Art of Record Production conference in Lowell MA. I learned that people were “auto-tuning” since the 70’s by cutting words and phrases on tape and vari-speeding the tape machine until it was the correct pitch. Later in the 80’s audio engineers would sync tape machines via midi and auto-tune a vocal track that way. Often these processes would require two weeks or more of work just on a single verse or chorus.

    That being said, I have used Antares on many records and there is a happy medium to the plug-in. It will correct pitch very well but if you set the attack of the plug-in too hot it will create that digital modulation sound which might or might not be appropriate to the type of music you are producing. I have also seen a number of mix engineers just put up a preset to “male” or “female” voice and hope for the best, which just drives me bonkers. T-Pain uses Antares in a new creative manner which is what we all strive for as producers and engineers. It’s the non traditional use of studio equipment that brings new and exciting aspects to recorded music. I say there is nothing wrong with Auto-tuning when used in moderation or in good taste.

  • david on January 7, 2009 at 6:40 PM
    this is so wonderful
  • whoop whoop on January 7, 2009 at 9:46 PM
    excellent writing reporters!
    I'm a big fan of the slang usage in jenna's part, its glamfab
    and david, way to quote T-pain, man's a G!
  • Indiana Jones on January 7, 2009 at 10:32 PM
    THANK YOU for debating this topic. The new generation of singers hopping gleefully on the electronic voice bandwagon is driving me bananas. You tune an instrument, you do not tune your voice. If we picked up the slack for every time a drummer missed a beat or a bassist played on the wrong fret the instrumentalists would be criticized for shameless lack of talent. Certainly in some cases it holds its own when tastefully adding an occasional twist in style or allowing the singer to sing harmony with themselves in concert, but there still exist artists who can make the Billboard Hot 100 with nothing but a voice and a piano. Perhaps the likes of T-Pain, Kanye West, and Hannah Montana should learn a lesson from them.
  • Someone on January 8, 2009 at 4:02 PM
    Of course david said no
  • blazer on January 8, 2009 at 10:24 PM
    This is a great debate topic! I agree that electronic voices encourage mediocre singers, but if people like listening to that crap, so be it. As long as no one is using it in a singing compettition, I don't see what the problem is. Occasionally, someone will actually put a unique spin on it, which could be art in its own sense. And for people like me who think electrical voices generally sound awful, here's an interesting idea: don't listen to it.
  • Nicky Diva on January 11, 2009 at 6:49 PM
    There are two issues here really: (1) using the technology to fix singers' pitch problems and (2) the robotic note-flipping effect. The first one is regrettable but inevitable, and people have been attempting to fix tuning with tape speeds for decades. After all, would you rather listen to out-of-tune recordings? The second one, though, I think has run its course as a fad and is becoming tiresome. I'm with T-Pain on that one.
  • Alex Bae (View Email) on January 17, 2009 at 9:30 PM
    I can't comment on the "robotic" sound quality of auto-tuning due to my lack of experience with the genre of music where auto-tuning is most popular. However, I can't respect any musician who can't sing on pitch. There are plenty of other ways to create a "robotic" vocal quality without blatantly hiding one's lack of vocal talent. As a fan of rock music, I tend to believe an artist's live performance to be the true measure of his musicianship. If a musician needs a program to fix his sound in the studio, I can't imagine how his live sound would be worth even the cheapest of tickets.
  • Purple Dinosaur of Learning on January 22, 2009 at 11:30 PM
    Auto-tuning: End of the music industry as we know it?
  • Rachel on January 28, 2009 at 6:16 PM
    honestly i get sick of the sound (see: 808s & heartbreak). one cannot listen to the tracks in that album consecutively without experiencing symptoms that are, but not limited to, vomiting, headache and general distaste for the direction of the music industry.

    ps jenna i love how you write. maybe i'll take some credit (my birthday present to you couldn't have hurt :p )
  • Jedidih on September 14, 2009 at 2:29 PM
    I actually use auto-tune all the time. In fact, I used a little bit of it while I was singing Birthday Chess.

    Girl you know I-I-I
  • Newcomer on December 12, 2009 at 12:10 PM
    Auto-tune would be okay If not every artist and their mother used it. It's getting to the point where almost any popular song out(any genre) has autotune included. Like someone else said, we tune our instruments, not our voices. The problem is that people are actually buying this crap, the more we buy, the more the artists put out and experiment.
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