Auto Tune this column

June 30, 2010
By

Guelph Mercury, 30/06/10 radio

No, robots have not taken over your radio. It’s just the Auto Tune era, making its —hopefully—last few gasps for air.

If you’ve accidentally stumbled on a pop song on the radio in the past few years, you’ve likely heard Auto Tune at work. It’s that comically artificial, mechanical singing sound that goes in the place where people used to actually sing. You know, from back in the days when you needed to know how to sing to make an album.

Auto Tune filters a singers’ voice through software that nudges out all the imperfections and produces a flawless recording. And it’s everywhere in pop music – disguising missed notes for everyone from Britney Spears to Kanye West to Usher. Time magazine called Auto Tune “Photoshop for the human voice.” At its most over-abused, it sounds like cosmologist Stephen Hawking singing R&B.

The software program was invented by an engineer named Andy Hildebrand, who used to work for the oil industry interpreting seismic data. His invention has made hits for hundreds of artists who have no business singing pop songs, and has made its creator comfortably rich.

But even Hildebrand never expected Auto Tune to be used to such extremes. Now producers are treating it like a plastic surgery tool kit – nipping and tucking songs to get that perfect note and pitch. And they save the singer the effort of actually having to re-do takes, so they can get back to more important things, like adopting African babies and updating their Twitter accounts.

Producers are no longer using Auto Tune to fix a note or two. They’re using it to disguise singers’ entire voices, so they sound like they have talent. It’s making both singer and producer lazier than ever.

Plenty of artists have long used recording and post-production techniques to add different effects or layers to their voice. But using Auto Tune to make something sound falsely perfect, that’s a little more deceptive. As listeners, we’re getting used to hearing song after song on the radio, all in perfect pitch.

Most of us probably heard Auto Tune for the first time with Cher’s hit Believe. She used the software to cover the ravages of a voice box that has been singing pop songs since the American Civil War.

Then, in 2003, a little-known Tennessee rapper named T-Pain (Faheem Najm) found it worked to cover up his southern drawl. Since then, his robotized voice can be heard on a dozen hits that have cracked Billboard’s Top 10.

Suddenly, everybody was doing it. Kanye West flew T-Pain to his studio to show him how much they could alter his voice with the program. Every other big name in pop music, from Christina Aguilera to Shania Twain to P-Diddy started playing around with the technology.

For a while, it was a novelty act, something new and catchy. But now we’ve created a monster. There’s a whole generation of young listeners who probably don’t know what a real singing voice sounds like, with its off notes, missed pitch and other imperfections.

At least some people are seeing Auto Tune for what it is—a gimmick. There’s a group making hilarious songs out of news broadcasts by running anchors’ voices through Auto Tune. And if this software can make someone like Joe Biden sound like he’s in a boy band, it can pretty much make anyone sound like a pop star.

Even Alex Trebek has used it on Jeopardy – which would normally be the final nail in the coffin for a gimmick that long ago wore out its welcome.

But when will Auto Tune finally die? Who knows. My radio is on, and it says fake perfection is still in.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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