Our fascination with auto-tune has become a topic of heated debate in recent years as the audio quirk has proliferated in pop culture. Netflix’s This Is Pop covered the topic, as did Apple TV’s Watch The Sound With Mark Ronson. It’s a controversial matter, with a history that’s longer than you might believe.
You probably didn’t know that Auto-Tune was invented in 1997 by Dr. Andy Hildebrand, a research engineer in the oil industry turned music technologist. Upon discovering that auto-correlation technology could be tweaked to correct the pitch in music, Hildebrand capitalised on this technique by packaging it under his company Antares Audio Technologies’ Auto-Tune software. From there, it quickly made its way into the music industry in the late ‘90s as an audio manipulation tool.
The world was both curious and confused when Cher released “Believe” in 1998, the first widespread song to use the “futuristic” technique of auto-tuning, which got the world asking: why would the music icon use such a style to enhance her singing? Was she trying too hard to be different? It spawned our love-hate relationship with auto-tune as we approached the new millennium – an obsession that remains today. One thing was for sure – people were responding to it, and it reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart that year.
In 2005, artist and producer T-Pain jumped into the debate with electronically altered vocals on his debut album, Rappa Ternt Sanga.
Crediting an auto-tuned segment in Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love” as a seminal influence, T-Pain could not even name the technique, let alone reproduce it, for many years after as he obsessively searched for ways of replicating it in the days of the dial-up internet.
His efforts in developing his auto-tune style paid off when it was popularised by artists like Kanye West, Black Eyed Peas, and Travis Scott. There were detractors too: the vocal effect even received a diss song by hip-hop mogul Jay-Z on his single “DOA (Death Of Auto-Tune)” in 2009, as a swipe against what he saw as an influx of artists using the technology as a crutch.
In fact, Auto-Tune became such an essential part of his musical style that it was subsequently dubbed the “T-Pain effect”. Despite the technique being seen as the easy way out for those who didn’t have singing chops, the rapper also possessed an impressive vocal range as proven by his performance on NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert series – a career-changing move that showed to the masses that he could perform just as well with only a keyboard and his unaltered voice. To this date, the much-praised set has over 21 million views on YouTube.
Many debates have ensued over the years over the role of Auto-Tune in destroying modern music and obscuring real vocal talents. But on the flip side, it has become a form of creative expression in and of itself. From Billie Eilish and Thundercat, to producers like Finneas, Auto-Tune is used to modulate the human vocal frequency range in a way that is different and attention-catching; in short, it creates a new layer of depth.
Times are changing, and if you were to play Travis Scott’s Auto-Tune-heavy “Antidote” in the ‘90s, listeners would be surprised to find out it was just one person in all the vocals heard on the song. Whatever you think of Auto-Tune, it’s undeniable that the technology has legions of both hardcore fans and furious detractors, making each and every debate over its use one that strikes at the heart of integrity and creativity in music creation. Whether you love it or hate it, Auto-Tune is something that will stick around for the foreseeable future, off-key singing be damned.
Dig into our playlist of artists who have embraced Auto-Tune.
Cover Credit: Yuwei Ooi