Monday, July 14, 2008

Ten Years In: A Comparative Analysis of Auto-Tuning

I hadn't thought of Cher's "Believe" in years, but it was the correct question to a Final Jeopardy recently ("Oldest woman to score a number one hit" or something), and it got me thinking about its overall impact on pop culture.

For that song Cher famously used an auto-tune effect on her voice to make it sound more synthetic. At the time, the novelty of such a decision was part of what pushed the song up the charts. Now T-Pain releases 2.3 songs per week that abuse the hell out of auto-tune.

Get familiar.

Of course, Cher wasn't the first one to robotify her pipes. Roger Troutman of Zapp and Teddy Riley and Afrika Bambaataa and Peter Frampton are often seen as vocoder touchstones. But that difference, between auto-tune and vocoder, seems significant to me. All those dudes I just listed used a more traditional talkbox. They sang into this instrument that, based on the shape of the singer's mouth movements, changes the frequency of the notes. While the vocals were channelled digitally, the vocoder's requirement of technique preserved the traditional relationship of the musician to the final product. Since subtle changes in delivery would provoke specific reactions from the talkbox, the vocoder actually necessitates musicianship despite its distancing, robotic effect.

What Cher ushered in was a development in the studio as instrument, the process as art itself. Using pitch correction software as an instrument is inherently more democratizing in its limitation. It changes what was already in a performance, rather than interpreting what is going on live, quite literally leveling your sound. Depending on your level of musical elitism, this is either beautiful or despicable. By achieving similar results as the talkbox but dispensing with its temporal nature, auto-tuning is more perfect and less specific at the same time.

That's interesting and everything, but the comparison I wanted to make was how welcoming the audience has become of auto-tuning in the past ten years. If you trace the effect over the years, you can see how prevalent the sound has become.

1998: Cher- "Believe"

2006: T-Pain- "I'm N Luv wit a Stripper"

2008: Ron Browz- "Pop Champagne" (This guy produced "Ether." It's actually sad.)

At this rate, rappers will just be making Wall-E sounds into the mic six months from now. And no one will make a peep.

*- If you try to comment that Cher used a Digitech Talker, which is technically different from the auto-tune effect Teddy Pain uses, you're kicked off this blog.

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