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Smooth operators

The year in Auto-Tune
By RICHARD BECK  |  December 24, 2008


Literature, film, and art all have their reactionary critics, but it seems to be the special curse of pop music that almost every push forward gets pegged as a sign of the coming Apocalypse, another link in a catastrophic chain of retardations. It's a grand tradition: as far back as the 17th century, people were whining that wind instruments were ruining strings-only orchestras. Our current pop music has its own village idiot, and his name is Auto-Tune.

A software that manipulates the pitch of recorded singing, Auto-Tune is not new. The technology was invented in the early '90s by Andy Hildebrand, a seismic-data explorer turned studio engineer, and aside from a brief stepping out in 1998 — Cher's "Believe" — it has largely trundled along behind the scenes, inaudibly masking the vocal imprecisions of almost everyone on commercial radio. Country musicians, unashamed and unpretentious, have sometimes admitted to using the software in their live performances. Most pop acts prefer not to discuss it.

Now, they have no choice. T-Pain has called everyone out. His gimmick is to make the software's vocal manipulations audible, and it's become the signature sound of the last two years; at one point near the end of 2007 — the annus mirabilis of Auto-Tuning — he had seven songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, four of them in the Top 10. His melismatic electro-flutter was and still is the sound's gold standard; "Freeze," which was released this past October, is a dizzy, zippy dance attack, and it would be nowhere without Mr. Pain's delirious vocal buzz.

But if T-Pain's messianic neon glow dominated 2007, the last 12 months have seen the larger pop universe begin to catch on. Some — the Apocalypse-now crowd — have taken particular offense at the idea that it's the voice, that sacred organ of the soul, that the software manipulates. What's lost in the histrionics is that Auto-Tuning doesn't replace the human voice — it works with it. T-Pain, Kanye, and Lil Wayne all use Auto-Tune, but you can still tell them apart. The vocals you hear on their tracks are, like all recorded music, man-machine collaborations.

What becomes important then is not whether Auto-Tune, but how Auto-Tune. Kanye West's mournful 808s and Heartbreak used Auto-Tune precisely because it was dehumanizing. On a track like "Bad News," however, you can still hear the grain of his voice break through the sonic security fences.

It's a tricky line to walk. Lil Wayne put out one of the year's best albums, but he followed it up with an awful mixtape, Dedication 3, which failed mostly because Wayne's druggy croak is so heavily processed that it sounds microwaved. The same goes for Bon Iver, who put an Auto-Tuned track called "Woods" on their new EP. As the first indie act to use the technology, Bon Iver are pioneers of a sort, but the song is more boring than anything else, and Justin Vernon's voice is miraculous and improbable all on its own.

What makes bad Auto-Tuning isn't the software but rather the lazy embrace of novelty for its own sake. This is why a lot of people have misheard T-Pain. Like all pop stars, he's a somewhat shameless cultural opportunist, but he came with a plan. His real gift is melodic imagination, a knack for fun, jittery vocal lines that Auto-Tune, which adds skittering grace notes to everything, actually amplifies. Can we say that T-Pain plays the Auto-Tune? Maybe. It's not as if the software could sing itself.

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