The Multi-faceted Nature of Auto Tune

By: Avi Lekowsky  |  March 31, 2019

By Avi Lekowsky

Ever listen to a song where the artist was able to hit all the notes effortlessly, maybe even too perfectly? You’re probably listening to a joint collaboration between an artist and a computer program, most likely Auto-Tune. Auto-Tune is a program that allows a musician to shift the pitch of their voice digitally.

Auto-Tune is actually an accidental discovery. Andy Hildebrand was attempting to develop a program for Exxon that could generate data from sonar to help locate new drilling sites. Someone jokingly suggested to him that he should try to develop a machine to help people sing in tune. As a part time musician, something lodged in Hildebrand’s mind- he already made a sonar related device, why can’t he just tweak it to work for people’s voices? The first song credited with bringing Auto-Tune to the general public is Cher’s “Believe,” in 1998. Since then, the trend of using Auto-Tune in the music industry has gained major popularity, with some speculating it being used in over 99% of all pop music.

While the use of Auto-Tune is derided by music purists, it has another facet that entices the listener; it can create unique vocal arrangements, which evoke emotions that a regular voice can’t. This is done through a distortion effect, similar to a synthesizer- an instrument that can produce a wide variety of sounds by generating and combining sounds at different frequencies.

While most people think of Auto-Tune as a tool used to reach unreachable notes, it is also used in different and more thoughtful ways. On the Bon Iver album, “22, A Million,” Justin Vernon uses an audio tool called “The Messina” to give his voice different effects that would be impossible to achieve sonically . These include giving his voice a chorus-like effect (on tracks like 22 (OVER S∞∞N) and 29 #Strafford APTS) and an underwater echo sound (like on the track 715 CR∑∑KS). While this may seem distracting to one who hasn’t heard this project yet, in reality, it’s anything but. By contorting and rearranging vocals into something so novel and unique, the artist allows the listener to dive deep into a project that wholly stands in a class of its own.

Another example is the album “Just for Us,” by Francis and the Lights. One could argue that his previous project “Farewell, Starlite!” may be a more prevalent example of this (due to the louder tone and use of Auto-Tune mixed with crashing synthesizers throughout the production), but I think Just for Us is the prime example of his work . It teaches us something important that Bon Iver helped us learn previously- Auto-Tune doesn’t have to be regarded as something obnoxious and noisy, it can also lend a gentle hand to the listener and guide them on a listening experience, no matter the mood. Take the first two tracks of this album, for example. On “Morning,” Francis and the Lights use a type of Auto-Tune called a Prismizer to create soft harmonies as a background instrument instead of using a traditional one (like a guitar or piano). When the next track, “Just for Us,” plays, you hear the utility of the Prismizer being switched from a background effect to a hook-enhancer. This technology helps plaster Francis’s smooth vocals all around this album and gives it a cool, cohesive feel.

Lastly, I would like to mention James Blake. While the obvious choice would be to talk about his latest album, “Assume Form” (which you should definitely still check out), I want to focus on a single he dropped towards the end of January in 2018: “If the Car Beside You Moves Ahead.” The song seemingly starts out  conventionally- some background instrumentals that will be played throughout begin to thump-and then the vocals start. While it may sound like gibberish, there is a story being told under the many vocal layers this single utilizes. This fantastic song is interesting because it helps relay the fact that at the end of the day, vocals are an instrument, only a single ingredient in making a song. While often times vocals are regarded as more important than other pieces of a song (like musical instruments), that isn’t always the case.

Music today is more diverse and interesting than it ever was before, due in a large part to the use of Auto-Tune. It’ll be interesting to see how the tool will be used in more creative ways in the future and become more accepted as a way to achieve sonic heights previously unseen.