A Brief History of Auto-Tune (On the eve of T-Pain’s arrival in Montreal)

Publicerat: 2011/03/17 i News

T-Pain needs very little introduction. The man has solidified his status as a pop culture icon and genuine trendsetter of the twenty-aughts by popularizing the now ubiquitous auto-tune. Some hate him for it, while others (such as, um, the record buying public) can’t get enough. Kayne has made an entire album with it. Andy Samberg’s Loney Island crew used it for possibly the funniest SNL segment in years. Countless indie bands are copping it. T-Pain is a living legend, which is why I jumped out of my computer chair when I heard he was coming to the Telus Theatre tonight (March 17). You bet I’ll be there.

There’s a lot I could say about T-Pain that everyone already knows. Yeah, he’s sprung, he wants to buy you a drank, and he wants you to take your shirt off and swing it round you head like a motherfuckin’ helicopter. I thought it would be way more interesting to clear up some widespread misconceptions that both lovers and haters have about his use of auto-tune.

Even though listeners almost universally associate his name with auto-tune, crystalized by the fact that Apple’s auto-tune app is called none other than ”I Am T-Pain,” the man didn’t invent it and wasn’t the first to use it. And anyone who has listened to music for more than the past fifteen years knows he definitely wasn’t the first to make his voice sound like a robot. I don’t say this to detract from his work; more to celebrate it, and show that it stands in a long line of robotical vocal modifications that goes back to the early twentieth century.

By those standards auto-tune is a very recent invention. It first appeared in popular music with Cher’s 1998 hit ”Believe,” currently playing in a hair salon and/or mall near you:

This inspired a mini-trend of auto-tune use, not nearly at T-Pain levels, with songs like Janet Jackson’s ”All For You” and Gigi D’Agostino’s ”La Passion.” Lots of artists soon started using the effect in concert for pitch correction, raising all kinds of questions about the authenticity of live performance. (Remember lip syncing scandals? This is the new that.)

Without getting into audio engineer lingo, basically, the effect works by taking a voice signal and changing the pitch to the closest note in a particular key, making it literally impossible to hit a sour note. Of course this particular process requires computers running the types of music editing software that only became widely available from the mid-nineties onward. So where did all that older robot music come from, like Peter Frampton and Kraftwerk?

Turns out we can take this back way further than the 1970s. The first device resembling auto-tune to be used in popular music was a bizarre mechanical thing called the sonovox. Invented by Gilbert Wright in 1939, the sonovox allowed users to make any instrument ”talk” by holding two speakers up to their throat and mouthing words; the sound was manipulated by the user’s vocal cords and came out through another microphone. It first appeared as a novelty item (TALKING HORNS!!!) in the Kay Kyser film You’ll Find Out:

The cartoon train in question was none other than Casey Junior of Dumbo fame, who made his first appearance here in a cartoon short. He made his full-length debut that same year:

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