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Auto-Tune / An evening on the Internets

We have a house guest this week, and we've been doing a lot of hang­ing out while read­ing and lis­ten­ing to music. Last night, the dis­cus­sion turned to Auto-Tune, and it quick­ly revealed the beau­ty of being at least some­what Inter­net-lit­er­ate.

Houseguest - Dave ZohrobSpeak­ing of Inter­net-lit­er­ate, this is our house­guest: Dave.

It start­ed with Lil Wayne. I men­tioned to Mara and Dave that Stere­ogum has an irri­tat­ing post about Lil Wayne's use of Auto-Tune on SNL. It was irri­tat­ing because, to me, there's a dif­fer­ence between using Auto-Tune to com­pen­sate for your own inabil­i­ty to hit the notes (e.g., Kel­ly Clark­son in "Since U Been Gone"), and using it to increase the funky quo­tient, as Lil Wayne does in "Lol­lipop." Any­way, Dave recalled a Pitch­fork inter­view with Neko Case in which she has some salty words on the sub­ject of Auto-Tune. [tap­pi­ty-tap­pi­ty]

Neko Case: When I hear Auto-Tune on somebody's voice, I don't take them seri­ous­ly. Or you hear some­body like Ali­cia Keys, who I know is pret­ty good, and you'll hear a lit­tle bit of Auto-Tune and you're like, "You're too fuck­ing good for that. Why would you let them do that to you? Don't you know what that means?" It's not an effect like peo­ple try to say, it's for peo­ple like Sha­nia Twain who can't sing.

(It gets even salti­er). Then the con­ver­sa­tion turned to Auto-Tune's first major splash, which was recent­ly dis­cussed in a Sasha Frere-Jones piece in the New York­er [tap­pi­ty-tap­pi­ty]

The first pop­u­lar exam­ple of Auto-Tune's dis­tort­ing effect was Cher's 1998 hit "Believe,†pro­duced by Mark Tay­lor and Bri­an Rawl­ing. Dur­ing the first verse, Auto-Tune makes the phrase "I can't break through†wob­ble so much that it's hard to dis­cern.

Of course, then we had to hear "Believe," so Dave sug­gest­ed Fav­tape. [tap­pi­ty-tap­pi­ty] Bin­go; briefly, we revis­it­ed 1998. Then, it seemed like it made sense to lis­ten to Bedhead's cov­er as well. [tap­pi­ty-tap­pi­ty] It fea­tures a touch-tone phone as an instrument.So what's the sto­ry with using Auto-Tune on "Believe?" Did the pro­duc­ers seek it out because Cher couldn't hit the notes, or did they just want to get funky? [tap­pi­ty-tap­pi­ty] The Inter­net has your answer, sort of. It's from a 1999 arti­cle in the British mag­a­zine Sound on Sound, but the prob­lem is that the pro­duc­ers don't admit to using Auto-Tune; it was still a trade secret at that point:

The … obvi­ous vocal effect in 'Believe' is the 'tele­phoney' qual­i­ty of Cher's vocal through­out. This idea came from the lady her­self — she'd iden­ti­fied some­thing sim­i­lar on a Roach­ford record and asked Mark if he could repro­duce it.He explains, "Roach­ford uses a restrict­ed band­width, and fil­ters the vocals heav­i­ly so that the top and bot­tom ends are wound off and the whole vocal is slight­ly dis­tort­ed. It took a while to work out exact­ly what it was that Cher liked about this par­tic­u­lar Roach­ford song, but in the end we realised it was the 'tele­phoney' sound. I used the fil­ter sec­tion on my Drawmer DS404 gate on the vocal before it went into the Talk­er to get that effect."

Actu­al­ly, we now know the truth. It was Auto-Tune. All of this hap­pened in about 15 min­utes; we explored the arc of Auto-Tune in pop­u­lar songs, with exam­ples of ear­ly incar­na­tions and deep dis­cus­sion about how and why it was applied. Nice. [tap­pi­ty-tap­pi­ty]