One summer a decade and a half ago, I was watching Friday Night Videos and this techno dance song came on by Cher called “Believe”. It’d been a long time since I’d heard any new music by her. And I was actually pleased that she’d managed to make a comeback,at her age,in a pop music world that was at the time almost completely dominated by the under 20 set. During this time I was listening to a lot of a band called Zapp,led by the singer/guitarist Roger Troutman who used a talk box (similar to the type used by Peter Frampton) to create a type of funky dance music he called “the blues of the 80’s”,which was very electronic in addition to the talkbox he always sang with. I noticed on the last phrases of the refrains of this song by Cher had a very similar sound to them. All of a sudden,whether it be an N’Sync song in 1999 or one by Kanye West in 2007 I was hearing this same Vocoder /talkbox-like effect on pop hits from many different artists. It wasn’t actually until a few years ago that I learned what the name was of what Cher and all these others had been using on their vocals. For better or for worse,auto tune had entered my life.
It’s important to mention that,from talking with other musically inclined people on the subject,I’ve managed to learn something very important about this technology: that auto tune and vocoders are entirely different things. All I had to do was listen to both to understand what that means. A talkbox or vocorder are essentially a type of microphone that connects to a musical instrument,either a guitar or keyboard of some kind. Many different musical instrument companies made variations on the device in different shapes and for different purposes. You’d play notes on the instrument and reproduce the sound of your voice with a completely new and often very extra terrestrial sounding vocal quality. Herbie Hancock,Stevie Wonder and the aforementioned Peter Frampton were earlier pop music innovators of this devices usage. In the mid 1980’s artists like Wonder and Todd Rundgren began experimenting with the Synclaviar,a synthesizer with a built in vocorder and early computer/MIDI technology. All of this required musical and instrumental knowledge in order to use,and produced some captivating musical effects by those who used it.
Auto tune is a completely different matter. It was developed originally as part of the early Pro Tools computer recording software in the late 1990’s. The original intention of the auto tune program was to correct the pitch,key and tone of a given singer so it better matched the sound of the music backing it up. However there were some artists who eventually discovered that this technology could not only provide them with a vocorder-like robotic vocal effect,but could allow them to sound as if they were singing on key without actually possessing a great deal of legitimate vocal technique to start with. This is because Auto Tune adds an artificial sound to the human voice without actually manipulating it almost completely the way a vocorder or a talkbox would. It is also a technology that interfaces easily with modern communication devices such as Bluetooth’s,and therefore portable enough to easily use on the concert stage during a live performance. Today it’s the electronic dance end of hip-hop that uses auto tune more and more often,as rappers who are not normally singers use the program for the sung parts of their material.
I’ve heard the virtues of Auto Tune debated in a number of different quarters. The opinions generally run the gamut between people thinking,on the most positive end,that it’s an interesting technology that is far too overused to,on the most negative end,that Auto Tune and anyone connected with it are a disgrace and exemplify everything that is dysfunctional and inferior about popular music in the new millennium. There’s a pretty wide range of emotion within that spectrum. And it definitely remains a heated topic among people interested in music culture. My own opinion on Auto Tune is this. We are living in a visually oriented society today,not an aural one. A good many people,younger and a bit older,tend to want to enter the music world from the point of view of making videos,being seen on television and on YouTube. The sound that Auto Tune creates for the human voice is mostly a very surface level one,without much substance. It takes away from the time and effort it would take the average human being to become a professional singer of some quality,and makes their road to being seen a lot faster. For better or for worse,I see Auto Tune as symptomatic of modern popular music’s almost complete obsession with surface value and visualization.