A Brief History of Auto-Tune (On the eve of T-Pain's arrival in Montreal)
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:Industry commentators predicted it would change the nature of sound recording for music, film and radio. How exactly? Most people thought it was really cool and fun and revolutionary and stuff but weren't sure what would come of it. One Christian Science Monitor article from the early 40s imagined a future where advertisers would have products talk and sell themselves (I'm soap! I'm amazing! Use me!). Then Walt Disney swooped in and signed a four-year exclusivity deal with Wright to use the sonovox in Disney films. From then on the sonovox was mainly a feature of radio and film for children. The first use of the sonovox for a Disney film was in The Reluctant Dragon (1941), which included a live action demonstration of the device: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: Casey Junior wasn't the only vehicle talking to children. There was also Whizzer the Talking Airplane and another talking train that only spoke to a kid named Sparky.
Even before Wright invented the sonovox the military had started using the vocoder for its telecommunications - a very different device that would later produce similar sounds. The vocoder takes the voice signal and passes it through a series of filters that copy its shape then uses this shape to modify a synthesized sound. This allowed the military to turn a message into an electronic signal that was only decipherable to someone else with a similar device. While various musicians and engineers saw the vocoder's musical potential as early as the late-forties, it was synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog who built the first vocoder that was small enough and easy enough to use for musicians to start toying around with it. This is where German electronic music kings Kraftwerk enter the picture. Their classic 1974 record Autobahn was the first piece of (significantly) popular music to use the vocoder, and moreover, to use the robot singing voice that would carry over into auto-tune. The vocoder got huge in electronic music and rock during the seventies and eighties, making some of its most famous appearances in "Mr. Roboto" by Styx and "Rockit" by Herbie Hancock. It was also omnipresent in scores of forgotten disco songs, like this absolutely awesome gem (DISCO COMPUTER I AM THE FUTURE!!!):
Parallel to all of this was the development of the most commonly used robot-voice device: the talk box. If you've been reading this article wondering what Peter Frampton used? Yeah, he used this. Very similar to the sonovox in principle, the talk box plays a musical signal through a tube (or other speaker, but usually a tube) inserted into the user's mouth that they manipulate by mouthing whatever words/sounds they want. Bob Heil invented it in 1969 and changed music history by giving one to Peter Frampton as a Christmas gift in 1974. Then this happened: Now I'm gonna throw everyone for a loop and show a much, much earlier instance of a "talking guitar" (from 1939): That's Alvino Rey using a device that wasn't a sonovox and doesn't seem to show up anywhere else; his wife is offstage manipulating his guitar signal with a throat carbon mic. WTF?
Anyway, the talk box is responsible for 90% of singing robot stuff outside of auto-tune. It's what P-Thug uses in Chromeo. It's what Big Boi uses on Shutterbugg. It's what Zapp & Roger used in 2Pac's California Love and what may be the greatest funk song ever: It's important to understand that using a talk box is pretty intense; the amplified signal going into your mouth shakes your bones and causes pretty nasty headaches. Not to mention you can't be much of a frontman with a tube hanging out of your mouth.
This brings us back to auto-tune. The process of using auto-tune is a lot different from using the vocoder or sonovox or talk box or the microphone Alvino Rey used. With auto-tune you just sing. As T-Pain himself will say, it can be used as a gimmick or cheap trick, but it has also seen some genuinely artistic applications. Just think of the lush, a cappella robot chorus Bon Iver laid down in "Woods" or the modern isolation Kanye captures in "Pinocchio Story."
The whole point of this post has been to diffuse both the excessive praise and excessive hate launched at T-Pain. To the haters: the dude didn't bring auto-tune into the world, and more to the point, he's just tapping into the apparently universal human desire to sing like a robot. Back off, alright? To the fanatics: the dude didn't bring auto-tune into the world, so stop calling him a genius, and go check out some sweet old school robot shit. P.s., fanatics: also don't stop loving T-Pain, because he's fucking awesome.