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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

June 26, 2009 at 1:23 PM

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Inventor of Auto-Tune: "I'm innocent!"

Posted by Andrew Matson

Cher sang like a robot on "Believe" in 1998 and the rest is history. It's all her fault. Or this guy's (on the left):


Autotune_05_FF2.jpg
With Neil deGrasse Tyson (R), photo courtesy PBS

Dr. Andy Hildebrand invented the pitch-correcting software Auto-Tune, and its Wikipedia page is the redirect if you search "the Cher effect."

Auto-Tune's dominated popular hiphop and R&B charts in the recent past and continues to do so in the waning present, with Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and especially "Rappa Ternt Sanga" T-Pain using the software and ushering the rise of the robots. The New Yorker wrote about the fad last year. Now there's a backlash, led by Jay-Z with his song "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)."

The good Doctor Hildebrand is on PBS' NOVA this Tuesday and spoke with me on the phone about car crashes, the engineer/mathematician/musician correlation, and not listening to T-Pain.

_________________________________


To be clear, if you listen to pop music but have somehow managed to not hear the robot voice, you've still heard Auto-Tune. Its most common use, fixing a singer's mistakes, provides an imperceptible effect.

The "sound" of Auto-Tune, that which Cher begat, is the result of selecting Auto-Tune's "zero" setting. That's how we'll open this interview.

_________________________________


The "zero" setting causes instantaneous transitions in pitch. It's an extreme setting. And we allow the user to do that. We didn't think anybody would do that, but apparently it's a popular thing nowadays.

So the original intention was that nobody would know Auto-Tune was being used?

That's correct.

And instead people have used it so it's its own effect?

Yes.

When the Cher song came out, I think people knew something was going on, but I don't know whether everybody understood they were hearing a desired effect or seeing behind the curtain.

Well, at the time that Cher came out with that song, most major studios were using this software for pitch correction. The studios didn't like to talk about what they were doing, in general. I mean, this was in the fallout of Milli Vanilli. So they didn't advertise the fact they were fixing the singer's pitch, but they did, and they all knew what it sounded like if you set that control to zero. She was just the first to make it public.

Did it surprise you when you first heard it?

Oh yeah. I didn't think anybody would ever do that.

Because it sounds, and I'm doing air quotes with my hands, because it sounds "bad" to do that?

Well, I don't know if it's bad or good. I'm not a judge of that. It's very popular, so in that sense it's good. I don't place value judgments on things like that.

I really don't think we'll see this rise again in R&B and hiphop, with Auto-Tune set to zero. It's just dominated the past couple of years.

[Lil Wayne's "Lollipop":]

[Here's Kanye West and T-Pain on a track together, perhaps achieving critical mass for Auto-Tune on a pop song:]

It's for an effect, and the popularity will die out. I don't ever think it'll go away. Most of our sales don't have anything to do with that. They have to do with fixing a singer's pitch.

Even though it's become so popular in hiphop and R&B, that hasn't made you a billionaire?

No. We're a company of 9 people. We're a small outfit. All the major sound studios have this software, but 90% of our market is hobbyists. And they run audio software on their personal computers and use this software to fix their intonation.

Does it feel weird to hear your software all over the radio and not have personal fame from it?

I'm very gratified that it's as popular as it is.

Its largest effect in the community is it's changed the economics of sound studios.

What do you mean?

Before Auto-Tune, sound studios would spend a lot of time with singers, getting them on pitch and getting a good emotional performance. Now they just do the emotional performance, they don't worry about the pitch, the singer goes home, and they fix it in the mix.

Did anyone ever say, "This is the end of vocal coaching," or that you'd ruined the careers of vocal teachers?

No. That's not really the case. It's changed how sound studios do their business. It's changed the focus...I mean, before Auto-Tune, if you wanted to make a record, you had to have a good singer. Now that's not as true. But still, singing is an art, and is taught as an art in university music schools and private coaching and choirs, and I haven't changed the art form.

Do you listen to T-Pain for pleasure?

No, I actually don't listen to radio very much.

Do you listen to a lot of vocal music?

No. I'm an engineer. I'm also a performing musician. I'm a flute player.

Would you ever use Auto-Tune on your flute?

No, I've never done that.

Because you don't play wrong notes?

Yeah. I was playing professionally when I was 13. And I got through college on music scholarships.

You got through college on a music scholarship, but what, you were studying electrical engineering?

Yes, electrical engineering. I have a Ph. D. in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois.

That you got skating through on a flute scholarship.

Well, I wouldn't call it "skating," but yes, I did.

That's unusual.

There's a high affinity between mathematicians, engineers, and musicians. If you go to a university symphony orchestra and ask the engineers and mathematicians to raise their hands, half the orchestra will raise their hands.

My brother's in college right now studying math and art, and I thought he was some sort of bizarre genius. But maybe there's a connection there.

Yes, there is a connection. It's the ability for the mind to do symbolic abstraction.

I write about pop music, and there's some noise about this Jay-Z song, "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)." Do you really think there's a significant backlash against that outward use of Auto-Tune in pop music?

Well, whenever something happens, part of the population likes it and part of the population doesn't like it. That's just the way the world works. Sometimes people are vocal about it. Someone asked me at one point in time if I thought that Auto-Tune was evil. I said, "Well, my wife wears make-up. Is that evil?" And yeah, in some circles that is evil. But in most circles, it's not.

Yesterday, I posted on my Facebook profile "I'm interviewing the inventor of Auto-Tune tomorrow" and the only comments on my update were people saying, "Can you ask him why he ruined music?" I forget what the other ones were, but they were similar.

I just give people a tool. I don't tell them how to use it.

I think some people did some stuff that some people are getting tired of hearing.

[The straw that broke the camel's back? Auto-Tune on a Wendy's ad:]

That's not me. I didn't do it. I'm innocent!

I guess people are just really attached to what they consider natural talent.

It's as if I'd invented the automobile and was blamed for people causing car crashes. It just doesn't fit.

So there's a NOVA episode. Is it all about you? Or is it all about Auto-Tune?

It's about Auto-Tune.

Have you seen a screening of it?

No, I haven't. I'll see it Tuesday, along with everybody else.


Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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