Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What's the Deal with that Hot New Auto-Tuney Sound?

Picture yourself as a record producer in 1997. Some breathless engineer bursts into your plush office, golden records adorning the walls, holding a 3.5 inch floppy diskette. He knows he only has a few precious seconds before your associate follows him in and tackles him to the floor, so he'd better make this good. "Hey, check out my new proprietary pitch-correction softw-" BAM! Down he goes.

"No, no, let him up, Faheem," you tell your man, through a wry grin. "I want to hear what he has to say."

The engineer stands up, adjusts his thick glasses, checks his pocket protector, and takes a deep breath to regain his composure. You notice that his shirt sports a blue and red Exxon logo, and that hanging from his right breast pocket is a photo ID badge with the name "Andy Hildebrand."

"It's like this, see," Hildebrand begins. "We have this software that detects seismic changes, for finding oil, see?" he points knowingly to the Exxon logo on his shirt. "And I figured out that you can use it to alter pitch, to make each not perfect, see? And seeing as it's always been my dream to be a pop singer, I thought I'd bring it to you and we'd make something happen. See?"

He fidgets nervously as you size up his offer. "Oh yes indeed, Mr. Hildebrand," you say, with an almost imperceptible wink. "I'm certain we can make something happen." You reach down and push a button on your desk, opening up a trapdoor under the feet of the excited engineer. Before he falls, your associate gently snatches the floppy disk from his grasp. "Faheem, take that disk to Mark Taylor over at Metro Productions. I hear that his client, Cher, is planning a new dance album, Believe, and this might be just the thing..."

Your associate, Faheem Rasheed Najim, delivers the disk, but before he does, he makes a copy for himself. Seven years later, Faheem broke out the fabled software, adopted the stage name T-Pain, and the Auto-Tune revolution was born...

Okay, that's probably not how it really happened, considering T-Pain would have been only 12 years old at the time of my little fable. But some of it is true, like the part about Andy Hildebrand inventing the software and T-Pain ushering in the Rebirth of Auto-Tune.

No matter what you feel about the use of auto-tune, you've got to give Mr. Pain some credit for starting such a big thing in the music business. I mean, this software was first used by country music stars in their live performances to make it sound like they had perfect pitch. Which, personally, as a music fan, I have no problem with. This feature might get under the skin of those who believe in the sanctity of live performance, but in my opinion, using a computer to correct the occasional flubbed note is basically no different than using an electronic amplifier to enhance your instruments or playing your guitar through a wah-wah pedal to alter the sound. It's the 21st century now, and nothing is as it seems; plus acoustic concerts went out of vogue after Nirvana on "MTV Unplugged."

Before coming to the fore with T-Pain's ad nauseum usage, the auto-tune software had a brief exposure with Cher's 1998 hit "Believe." A few other artists utilized the method at the time, but it didn't explode, partly because of some wheeling and dealing by Cher's producers: for a while after the song was first released, they told everyone that a vocoder had produced the distorted vocal effects.

But the secret was soon out, and it wasn't long until auto-tune fell into the hands of the artist who would nurture it and spread it far and wide. Starting in 2005, every song from every album released by T-Pain featured auto-tune heavily. And I mean heavily. Not just to correct the pitch on a couple of phrases and not just here and there in the chorus. I'm talking every single note sounds like he's hitting himself in the throat Bobby McFerrin-style when he sings.

The unique and captivating sound produced by his liberal use of auto-tune has garnered T-Pain some intense recognition in the music industry and in pop culture. His last two albums peaked at numbers 1 and 4 in the US, and five of his singles reached the top 10, according to the Billboard Top 200 chart. He appeared in the Saturday Night Live Lonely Island digital short "I'm on a Boat." And he introduced his auto-tuney sound to fellow artists such as Grammy Award winner Lil Wayne and Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx.

He's even diversified by releasing an iPhone app - called "I Am T-Pain" - that allows buyers all over the world to apply T-Pain's trademark sound to any audio clip they can imagine. The wider availability of the software has led to a marked increase in auto-tune related parody, including auto-tuned versions of other songs, the news, or even just regular, everyday life.

But in addition to the support and imitation, T-Pain's musical innovations have also sparked a fair degree of backlash. Criticism peaked with Jay-Z's 2009 single D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune), which berates modern day rappers for their "light" voices, their "singin' too much," and their "T-Pain'n." Mr. Z further suggests that rap should return to its roots, urging niggas to "just get violent."

T-Pain's thoughts on the matter: he wants everyone who uses auto-tune to pay him royalties. Diddy did it. Why not the rest of the music industry?

I think this request is taking things a bit too far, Mr. Pain. You came across a good thing, and it's worked for you. Don't risk it all by trying to claim ownership or turn too much of a profit. Because as soon as money becomes involved, people will start looking real hard to find the actual genius behind the auto-tune software. And if that happens, T-Pain might not like what people find...

Do I like auto-tuned music? Sure, in moderation and if it's done well. I think T-Pain does a better job at it than Lil Wayne, whose voice just sounds thin and gurgly with too much auto-tuning.

Do I think it's ruining the music industry? Hardly. I see it as a passing fad with which people are just too obsessed at the moment. I'm not a rap purist. I don't necessarily think a hip hop artist has sold out if his shit doesn't "make niggas wanna go 'n commit felonies" (that's Jay-Z again).

I do think, however, that music needs to hold the attention of the public in order to remain successful. Eventually people are going to get bored of hearing the same perfectly-pitched, heavily distorted sound coming out of every single singer's digitally enhanced mouth, and decide that it's time to move on.

But, then again, that's probably what people said when they introduced the first synthesizer...