In 1998, something called Auto-Tune made Cher’s voice do this weird warbling thing in her international hit “Believe.” Listeners hadn’t heard this vocal effect before, but many of us loved it. Twenty years later, we’re still hearing that incredible effect on pop singers’ and rappers’ vocals; other times, we just hear pitch-perfect singing instead. That’s because Auto-Tune can both smooth vocals and draw attention to them, depending on what singers want.
For Pitchfork, music writer Simon Reynolds puts the now-famous pitch-correction technology under his critical microscope to assess its influence on popular music and narrate Auto-Tune’s fascinating history. Labeled a fad, Auto-Tune has become a fixture, both loved and loathed. So where did it come from? Is the effect as “authentic” as a guitar and drums? And how will all this pop music sound twenty more years from now?
The expressed goal of Antares [Audio Technology] at that time was to fix discrepancies of pitch in order to make songs more effectively expressive. “When voices or instruments are out of tune, the emotional qualities of the performance are lost,” the original patent asserted sweepingly—seemingly oblivious of great swathes of musical history, from jazz and blues to rock, reggae, and rap, where “wrong” has become a new right, where transgressions of tone and timbre and pitch have expressed the cloudy complexity of emotion in abrasively new ways. As sound studies scholar Owen Marshall has observed, for the manufacturers of Auto-Tune, bad singing interfered with the clear transmission of feeling. The device was designed to bring voices up to code, as it were—to communicate fluently within a supposedly universal Esperanto of emotion.
And that is exactly how Auto-Tune has worked in the preponderance of its usage: Some speculate that it features in 99 percent of today’s pop music. Available as stand-alone hardware but more commonly used as a plug-in for digital audio workstations, Auto-Tune turned out—like so many new pieces of music technology—to have unexpected capacities. In addition to selecting the key of the performance, the user must also set the “retune” speed, which governs the slowness or fastness with which a note identified as off-key gets pushed towards the correct pitch. Singers slide between notes, so for a natural feel—what Antares assumed producers would always be seeking—there needed to be a gradual (we’re talking milliseconds here) transition. As [inventor Dr. Andy] Hildebrand recalled in one interview, “When a song is slower, like a ballad, the notes are long, and the pitch needs to shift slowly. For faster songs, the notes are short, the pitch needs to be changed quickly. I built in a dial where you could adjust the speed from 1 (fastest) to 10 (slowest). Just for kicks, I put a ‘zero’ setting, which changed the pitch the exact moment it received the signal.”
It was the fastest settings—and that instant-switch “zero”—that gave birth to the effect first heard on “Believe” and which has subsequently flourished in myriad varieties of brittle, glittering distortion…