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

Posted by Greg / March 17, 2011

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.

T-Pain plays tonight at the Telus Theatre
photo of T-Pain filming the music video for "Reverse Cowgirl" taken from his myspace page



Cedy / March 17, 2011 at 01:35 pm
Whenever a dude can come out and just speak and people fall then you will get some hate. I've been a fan of T-pains. Does not take a genius to see that tpain can sing. But the hatred from having an extremely beautiful song alludes to what I think lady gagga means when she speaks of the "fame monster."
james / March 17, 2011 at 02:04 pm
As a singer of T Pain praise for 3 Rings, I am getting a little concerned that the follow up release Revolver is long overdue and T Pain could face becoming irrelevant if not release soon. The buying public needs fresh music consistently for an artist to stay on top.
SeanBlake / March 17, 2011 at 02:06 pm
That was a GREAT article! Thank you for the history lesson and for letting us discover some great old school stuff! That disco computer record is DOPE! Haha

Oh, and FYI in case you weren't aware, T-Pain just linked to your article on twitter stating "This has got to be the most accurate article I have ever read in my entire career"

Thanks again!
classicwil / March 17, 2011 at 02:23 pm
yea he is, the main man............
Maez / March 17, 2011 at 03:58 pm
Whatever, T-Pain is just awesome!
Nice research & delivery dude.
matrix / March 17, 2011 at 10:10 pm
i love you t-pain so much i hope if i meat you and see you when you sing i wish if you come to egypt (luxor) to make stage please !
Greg / March 18, 2011 at 08:40 pm
Thanks for the comments! I'm so happy this article made it around so widely piqued the interest of so many people. Not least T-Pain himself! The show last night was sick too, at least once T-Pain finally took the stage.
Blipsterfarian / March 18, 2011 at 09:28 pm
Very nice overview. Thank you so much for the great music in the podcasts!
B.BANK$ / March 20, 2011 at 06:36 pm
Tpain is 1 writer u cant under-rate coz his music is more way diff & he is 1 person i wil cal CHORUS god coz he's awesome how i wish i can work wid him coz i get motivated by him..& all his song talk bout a part of ma life.I'M SAYIN THANK'S 2 GOD 4 CREATIN T-PAIN...ONE!
TheMule / March 23, 2011 at 11:18 pm
Hey Greg! First of all, I really enjoyed your article and the approach to dealing with haters. They just need to be educated. I'm a huge fan of T-Pain and work for the company that makes his iPhone app. I'd just like to clear up a couple of things I found slightly misleading in this article. Not trying to be a jerk, just want to represent.

The first thing is that the "I Am T-Pain" app was developed by, and the IP is owned by Smule, not Apple, although it is distributed through the iTunes App Store and available only on Apple Devices. I know this is sort of a semantic thing but figured I'd throw that out there.

Secondly, Heil didn't technically invent the Talkbox. If you see the video in this link, Pete Drake used a Talkbox in the 40's.

Although the talkbox Pete Drake used was a much lower powered version, it goes to show there was prior art well before Heil made his.

That's about it. Like I said, not trying to be a downer, but maybe you'd like to use this video for your post. It's a pretty cool video.

rock on! T-Pain is definitely a Pop Culture Icon.

Cedric / March 24, 2011 at 12:51 pm
Lets not even talk about the ultimate in hypocrisy,"DOA." That had to be the lowest and cheapest song I ever heard Jay-z drop or Kanye west co-sign. Real talk a lot of hip-hop heads owe T-pain.
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