1998 – The year autotune took the music industry by storm


Although many artists have been experimenting with vocals since long time back, like Kraftwerk, ABBA and the Beatles, the real breaking point came when Cher delivered Believe in October 19, 1998. The era of autotune was born. Since then the impact of autotune has been monumental in the music industry. More or less every conceivable genre has experimented and perfected their tracks with the use of autotune. Be it rap, pop or electronic music the pitch-correcting technology took the industry by storm, like the track below:

The pitch-correction technology Auto-Tune had been on the market for about a year before “Believe” hit the charts, but its previous appearances had been discreet, as its makers, Antares Audio Technologies, intended. “Believe” was the first record where the effect drew attention to itself: The glow-and-flutter of Cher’s voice at key points in the song announced its own technological artifice—a blend of posthuman perfection and angelic transcendence ideal for the vague religiosity of the chorus, “Do you believe in life after love?”

The song’s producers, Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling, tried to keep secret the source of their magic trick, even coming up with a cover story that identified the machine as a brand of vocoder pedal, that robotic-sounding analog-era effect widely used in disco and funk. But the truth seeped out.

Long before inventing Auto-Tune, the mathematician Dr. Andy Hildebrand made his first fortune helping the oil giant Exxon find drilling sites. Using fabulously complex algorithms to interpret the data generated by sonar, his company located likely deposits of fuel deep underground. Alongside math, though, Hildebrand’s other passion was music; he’s an accomplished flute player who funded his college tuition by teaching the instrument. In 1989, he left behind the lucrative field of “reflection seismology” to launch Antares Audio Technology, despite not being entirely certain what exactly the company would be researching and developing.

The use of Auto-Tune as a vocal effect was bolstered in the late 2000s by hip hop/R&B recording artist T-Pain who elaborated on the effect and made active use of Auto-Tune in his songs. He cites new jack swing producer Teddy Riley and funk artist Roger Troutman’s use of the Talk Box as inspirations for his own use of Auto-Tune. T-Pain became so associated with Auto-Tune that he had an iPhone App named after him that simulated the effect, called “I Am T-Pain”. Eventually dubbed the “T-Pain effect”, the use of Auto-Tune became a popular fixture of late 2000s music, where it was notably used in other hip hop/R&B artists’ works, including Snoop Dogg’s single “Sexual Eruption”, Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop”, and Kanye West’s album 808s & Heartbreak. In 2009, riding on the wave of Auto-Tune’s popularity, The Black Eyed Peas’ number-one hit, “Boom Boom Pow”, made heavy use of Auto-Tune and other artificial sound effects to create a futuristic sound. One recent measure of its triumph is Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “Apeshit.” Here Queen Bey jumps on the trap bandwagon, tracing over verses written by Migos’ Quavo and Offset through the crinkled sheen of over-cranked Auto-Tune.

Regardless whether you view auto-tune as cheating or mainly a natural evolution it is clearly here to stay just like the vocoder. Writing about the rise of sequencers, programmed rhythm, sample-loops and MIDI, the academic Andrew Goodwin argued that “we have grown used to connecting machines and funkiness.” That maxim could be updated for the Auto-Tune/Melodyne era: “We have grown used to connecting machines and soulfulness.” And that perhaps is the lingering mystery—the extent to which the general public has adapted to hearing overtly processed voices as the sound of lust, longing, and loneliness. In another meaning of “soul,” we could also say that Auto-Tune is the sound of blackness today, at least in its most cutting-edge forms, like trap and future-leaning R&B.

Since then Antares have refined and expanded what Auto-Tune can do, while also creating a range of related voice-processing plug-ins. Most of the new features have been in line with the original intent: repairing flawed vocals in a way that sounds naturalistic and is relatively inconspicuous on recordings. Hence functions like “Humanize,” which preserves the “small variations in pitch” in a sustained note, and “Flex-Tune,” which retains an element of human error. Some of Auto-Tune’s sister products add “warmth” to vocals, increase “presence,” intensify breathiness. The freaky-sounding Throat EVO maps the vocal tract as a physical structure

Speaking of auto-tune Roland just announced something that may be exactly what you need.

Five years on from the launch of the VT-3, Roland has unveiled its latest Vocal Transformer box, the VT-4.  Part of the Aira range, this is designed for adding both classic and futuristic effects to your voice, and offers hands-on control and a MIDI input so that you can ‘play it’ from your MIDI keyboard.

The processing tools cover the likes of harmonisation, vocoding, pitch-shifting, hard tuning and more, all of which can be accessed from the front panel with no menu diving. What’s more, the VT-4 can be powered for up to five hours with batteries, making it truly portable.

The effects offer real-time control, so you can make tweaks as you sing. There are dedicated Pitch and Formant sliders, while the central Auto-Pitch knob enables you to quickly dial-in your desired amount of hard tuning. You can use multiple effects at the same time and save these setups as presets for later recall.

If you plug in a MIDI keyboard you can use it to control the Auto-Pitch, harmony and vocoder engines. So, your voice can be hard-turned to specific notes as you sing, and you can create harmonies with voicings that follow the chords that you play.

The VT-4’s performance-centric workflow means that it’s likely to appeal to live performers, but its USB audio output means that it should also be easy to hook up to your DAW in the studio.

We’re still waiting on a price and release date for the VT-4, but we’ll bring you these when we have them. Find out more on the Roland website.