A Brief History of Auto-Tune
This is the final article in Sounding Out!‘s April Forum on “Sound and Technology.” Every Monday this month, you’ve heard new insights on this age-old pairing from the likes of Sounding Out! veteranos Aaron Trammell and Primus Luta along with new voices Andrew Salvati and Owen Marshall. These fast-forward folks have shared their thinking about everything from Auto-tune to techie manifestos. Today, Marshall helps us understand just why we want to shift pitch-time so darn bad. Wait, let me clean that up a little bit. . .so darn badly. . .no wait, run that back one more time. . .jjuuuuust a little bit more. . .so damn badly. Whew! There! Perfect!–JS, Editor-in-Chief
A recording engineer once told me a story about a time when he was tasked with “tuning” the lead vocals from a recording session (identifying details have been changed to protect the innocent). Polishing-up vocals is an increasingly common job in the recording business, with some dedicated vocal producers even making it their specialty. Being able to comp, tune, and repair the timing of a vocal take is now a standard skill set among engineers, but in this case things were not going smoothly. Whereas singers usually tend towards being either consistently sharp or flat (“men go flat, women go sharp” as another engineer explained), in this case the vocalist was all over the map, making it difficult to always know exactly what note they were even trying to hit. Complicating matters further was the fact that this band had a decidedly lo-fi, garage-y reputation, making your standard-issue, Glee-grade tuning job decidedly inappropriate.
Undaunted, our engineer pulled up the Auto-Tune plugin inside Pro-Tools and set to work tuning the vocal, to use his words, “artistically” – that is, not perfectly, but enough to keep it from being annoyingly off-key. When the band heard the result, however, they were incensed – “this sounds way too good! Do it again!” The engineer went back to work, this time tuning “even more artistically,” going so far as to pull the singer’s original performance out of tune here and there to compensate for necessary macro-level tuning changes elsewhere.
The product of the tortuous process of tuning and re-tuning apparently satisfied the band, but the story left me puzzled… Why tune the track at all? If the band was so committed to not sounding overproduced, why go to such great lengths to make it sound like you didn’t mess with it? This, I was told, simply wasn’t an option. The engineer couldn’t in good conscience let the performance go un-tuned. Digital pitch correction, it seems, has become the rule, not the exception, so much so that the accepted solution for too much pitch correction is more pitch correction.
Since 1997, recording engineers have used Auto-Tune (or, more accurately, the growing pantheon of digital pitch correction plugins for which Auto-Tune, Kleenex-like, has become the household name) to fix pitchy vocal takes, lend T-Pain his signature vocal sound, and reveal the hidden vocal talents of political pundits. It’s the technology that can make the tone-deaf sing in key, make skilled singers perform more consistently, and make MLK sound like Akon. And at 17 years of age, “The Gerbil,” as some like to call Auto-Tune, is getting a little long in the tooth (certainly by meme standards.) The next U.S. presidential election will include a contingent of voters who have never drawn air that wasn’t once rippled by Cher’s electronically warbling voice in the pre-chorus of “Believe.” A couple of years after that, the Auto-Tune patent will expire and its proprietary status will dissolve into to the collective ownership of the public domain.
Growing pains aside, digital vocal tuning doesn’t seem to be leaving any time soon. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it’s safe to say that the vast majority of commercial music produced in the last decade or so has most likely been digitally tuned. Future Music editor Daniel Griffiths has ballpark-estimated that, as early as 2010, pitch correction was used in about 99% of recorded music. Reports of its death are thus premature at best. If pitch correction is seems banal it doesn’t mean it’s on the decline; rather, it’s a sign that we are increasingly accepting its underlying assumptions and internalizing the habits of thought and listening that go along with them.
Headlines in tech journalism are typically reserved for the newest, most groundbreaking gadgets. Often, though, the really interesting stuff only happens once a technology begins to lose its novelty, recede into the background, and quietly incorporate itself into fundamental ways we think about, perceive, and act in the world. Think, for example, about all the ways your embodied perceptual being has been shaped by and tuned-in to, say, the very computer or mobile device you’re reading this on. Setting value judgments aside for a moment, then, it’s worth thinking about where pitch correction technology came from, what assumptions underlie the way it works and how we work with it, and what it means that it feels like “old news.”
As is often the case with new musical technologies, digital pitch correction has been the target for no small amount of controversy and even hate. The list of indictments typically includes the homogenization of music, the devaluation of “actual talent,” and the destruction of emotional authenticity. Suffice to say, the technological possibility of ostensibly producing technically “pitch-perfect” performances has wreaked a fair amount of havoc on conventional ways of performing and evaluating music. As Primus Luta reminded us in his SO! piece on the powerful-yet-untranscribable “blue notes” that emerged from the idiosyncrasies of early hardware samplers, musical creativity is at least as much about digging-into and interrogating the apparent limits of a technology as it is about the successful removal of all obstacles to total control of the end result.
Paradoxically, it’s exactly in this spirit that others have come to the technology’s defense: Brian Eno, ever open to the unexpected creative agency of perplexing objects, credits the quantized sound of an overtaxed pitch corrector with renewing his interest in vocal performances. SO!’s own Osvaldo Oyola, channeling Walter Benjamin, has similarly offered a defense of Auto-Tune as a democratizing technology, one that both destabilizes conventional ideas about musical ability and allows everyone to sing in-tune, free from the “tyranny of talent and its proscriptive aesthetics.”
Jonathan Sterne, in his book MP3, offers an alternative to normative accounts of media technology (in this case, narratives either of the decline or rise of expressive technological potential) in the form of “compression histories” – accounts of how media technologies and practices directed towards increasing their efficiency, economy, and mobility can take on unintended cultural lives that reshape the very realities they were supposed to capture in the first place. The algorithms behind the MP3 format, for example, were based in part on psychoacoustic research into the nature of human hearing, framed primarily around the question of how many human voices the telephone company could fit into a limited bandwidth electrical cable while preserving signal intelligibility. The way compressed music files sound to us today, along with the way in which we typically acquire (illegally) and listen to them (distractedly), is deeply conditioned by the practical problems of early telephony. The model listener extracted from psychoacoustic research was created in an effort to learn about the way people listen. Over time, however, through our use of media technologies that have a simulated psychoacoustic subject built-in, we’ve actually learned collectively to listen like a psychoacoustic subject.
Pitch-time manipulation runs largely in parallel to Sterne’s bandwidth compression story. The ability to change a recorded sound’s pitch independently of its playback rate had its origins not in the realm of music technology, but in efforts to time-compress signals for faster communication. Instead of reducing a signal’s bandwidth, pitch manipulation technologies were pioneered to reduce the time required to push the message through the listener’s ears and into their brain. As early as the 1920s, the mechanism of the rotating playback head was being used to manipulate pitch and time interchangeably. By spinning a continuous playback head relative to the motion of the magnetic tape, researchers in electrical engineering, educational psychology, and pedagogy of the blind found that they could increase playback rate of recorded voices without turning the speakers into chipmunks. Alternatively, they could rotate the head against a static piece of tape and allow a single moment of recorded sound to unfold continuously in time – a phenomenon that influenced the development of a quantum theory of information.
In the early days of recorded sound some people had found a metaphor for human thought in the path of a phonograph’s needle. When the needle became a head and that head began to spin, ideas about how we think, listen, and communicate followed suit: In 1954 Grant Fairbanks, the director of the University of Illinois’ Speech Research Laboratory, put forth an influential model of the speech-hearing mechanism as a system where the speaker’s conscious intention of what to say next is analogized to a tape recorder full of instructions, its drive “alternately started and stopped, and when the tape is stationary a given unit of instruction is reproduced by a moving scanning head”(136). Pitch time changing was more a model for thinking than it was for singing, and its imagined applications were thus primarily non-musical.
Take for example the Eltro Information Rate Changer. The first commercially available dedicated pitch-time changer, the Eltro advertised its uses as including “pitch correction of helium speech as found in deep sea; Dictation speed testing for typing and steno; Transcribing of material directly to typewriter by adjusting speed of speech to typing ability; medical teaching of heart sounds, breathing sounds etc.by slow playback of these rapid occurrences.” (It was also, incidentally, used by Kubrick to produce the eerily deliberate vocal pacing of HAL 9000). In short, for the earliest “pitch-time correction” technologies, the pitch itself was largely a secondary concern, of interest primarily because it was desirable for the sake of intelligibility to pitch-change time-altered sounds into a more normal-sounding frequency range.
This coupling of time compression with pitch changing continued well into the era of digital processing. The Eventide Harmonizer, one of the first digital hardware pitch shifters, was initially used to pitch-correct episodes of “I Love Lucy” which had been time-compressed to free-up broadcast time for advertising. Similar broadcast time compression techniques have proliferated and become common in radio and television (see, for example, Davis Foster Wallace’s account of the “cashbox” compressor in his essay on an LA talk radio station.) Speed listening technology initially developed for the visually impaired has similarly become a way of producing the audio “fine print” at the end of radio advertisements.
Though the popular conversation about Auto-Tune often leaves this part out, it’s hardly a secret that pitch-time correction is as much about saving time as it is about hitting the right note. As Auto-Tune inventor Andy Hildebrand put it,
[Auto-Tune’s] largest effect in the community is it’s changed the economics of sound studios…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.
Whereas early pitch-shifters aimed to speed-up our consumption of recorded voices, the ones now used in recording are meant to reduce the actual time spent tracking musicians in studio. One of the implications of this framing is that emotion, pitch, and the performer take on a very particular relationship, one we can find sketched out in the Auto-Tune patent language:
Voices or instruments are out of tune when their pitch is not sufficiently close to standard pitches expected by the listener, given the harmonic fabric and genre of the ensemble. When voices or instruments are out of tune, the emotional qualities of the performance are lost. Correcting intonation, that is, measuring the actual pitch of a note and changing the measured pitch to a standard, solves this problem and restores the performance. (Emphasis mine. Similar passages can be found in Auto-Tune’s technical documentation.)
In the world according to Auto-Tune, the engineer is in the business of getting emotional signals from place to place. Emotion is the message, and pitch is the medium. Incorrect (i.e. unexpected) pitch therefore causes the emotion to be “lost.” While this formulation may strike some people as strange (for example, does it mean that we are unable to register the emotional qualities of a performance from singers who can’t hit notes reliably? Is there no emotionally expressive role for pitched performances that defy their genre’s expectations?), it makes perfect sense within the current affective economy and division of labor and affective economy of the recording studio. It’s a framing that makes it possible, intelligible, and at least somewhat compulsory to have singers “express emotion” as a quality distinct from the notes they hit and have vocal producers fix up the actual pitches after the fact. Both this emotional model of the voice and the model of the psychoacoustic subject are useful frameworks for the particular purposes they serve. The trick is to pay attention to the ways we might find ourselves bending to fit them.
Owen Marshall is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. His dissertation research focuses on the articulation of embodied perceptual skills, technological systems, and economies of affect in the recording studio. He is particularly interested in the history and politics of pitch-time correction, cybernetics, and ideas and practices about sensory-technological attunement in general.
Featured image: “Epic iPhone Auto-Tune App” by Flickr user Photo Giddy, CC BY-NC 2.0
REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“From the Archive #1: It is art?”-Jennifer Stoever
“Garageland! Authenticity and Musical Taste”-Aaron Trammell
“Evoking the Object: Physicality in the Digital Age of Music”-Primus Luta
Hearing Queerly: NBC’s “The Voice”
Tuesday, April 26, 2011 turned out to be a red-letter day for prime time Sapphism. The Fox smash, Glee, continued its hamfisted campaign against teen bullying with a subplot about the label-averse Santana scheming to bring her lesbian (or “Lebanese”) love for Britney to fruition. Airing opposite this “Born This Way”-anchored, supersized Glee, was the debut of the vocal reality competition series, The Voice on NBC. Remarkably, not one, but two out lesbians survived the first elimination round of the show’s blind auditions: Vicci Martinez from Tacoma, WA, and Beverly McClellan from Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
The Voice pitches itself as the democratic alternative to FOX’s American Idol. Whereas Idol’s early audition rounds derive considerable schadenfreude from oddball characters excluded from the expansive realm of what is deemed “pop hot”–remember Kenneth Briggs, the infamous “Bush Baby”?–The Voice eliminates looks altogether from the audition process, including the panel’s ability to look at the singers onstage. Seated in hydraulically-controlled swivel chairs evocative of Dr. Evil’s high-backed perch, the celebrity panel of coaches (not “judges”)–Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine of Maroon 5, and country hunk, Blake Shelton–have their backs to the stage at the beginning of each performance. Only when the singer’s voice sufficiently moves a coach does he or she press a button to swing around and face the talent. If none of the four coaches turns around before the song ends, the singer is eliminated and sent away with only two-and-a-half glorious minutes on national TV as a consolation prize.
While latter-day Idol has increasingly focused on the “total package,” sometimes excusing vocal defects for good looks, performance prowess, and passion (“I had fun with it” is the mantra of anyone who’s suffered a tepid response from the judges, and “you look great tonight” is what a judge says when someone biffs their vocals), The Voice purports to strip away the smoke and mirrors of performance—at least in the live selection process—in order to focus exclusively on vocal talent. Furthermore, as “coaches,” the celebrity panel is meant to cultivate talent rather than simply eviscerate bad performers for the audience’s amusement. As Cee Lo opines in the premiere episode: “it’s not about the judgment; it’s about the journey.” (Has reality competition taken a critical turn from the critical turn? But that’s another topic.) Idol has been explicitly called out on the show, from Adam Levine’s reassurance to dejected contestants that “The people we are not turning our chairs around for could win American Idol,” to the sensational rehashing, ad nauseum, of Frenchie Davis’s disqualification from the Idol competition for nude photos nearly a decade ago.
As the anti or alterna-Idol, The Voice–complete with kitschy, faux Futurist set pieces–would have us believe that truly anyone from anywhere could be a vocal superstar, whether they’re fat, thin, chinless, hirsute, gorgeous, hideous, straight, gay, Mormon, or dykey. The disparate optics offered by Vicci Martinez and Beverly McClellan, the two lesbians who won the celebrity panel over with their raw-throated rock vocals (right in the pocket of what we might call the Etheridgean mode), would seem to affirm the show’s “blind” ethos. Martinez’s audition was shot so that just like the coaches, the TV audience couldn’t see the singer until she was selected. In the package leading up to her performance, we are made privy to her coming out story, offered a glimpse of her skinny jeans and boots, and invited to “listen along with our coaches and see if you would pick Vicci Martinez.”
As it turns out, Martinez is quite a little hottie: a lesbian heartthrob in the making with a cute asymmetrical shag, winning smile and sensibly curated fashion (think PacNorthwest sportif meets urban hipster enclave).
McClellan, meanwhile, offers an “edgier” look that complements her ethos of fighting–in her own words–“against the man.”
TV audiences see McClellan before hearing her, creating some element of narrative suspense: we anxiously await “the reveal” should one of the coaches select McClellan for their team, only to swivel around to confront a bald, bad-ass dyke with ample tattoos, piercings and leather wrist accoutrement, chewing on Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” with barroom tenacity.
The queer blogosphere has certainly picked up on Martinez and McClellan’s success on the show. (As of this writing, Martinez has already advanced passed the “Battle Rounds” to the live shows where audience members are are allowed to vote). After Ellen and Unicorn Booty posted items immediately, encouraging queer audiences to tune in, while After Ellen followed up with extended interviews, first with Martinez, then with McClellan. Both were asked about whether or not the format of The Voice made it “easier” for queer contestants to succeed without being judged for their appearance. Martinez famously bowed out of the Hollywood rounds of American Idol because producers asked her to buy a new wardrobe (read, “femme up” a bit), so she offered a more affirmative response in line with The Voice’s own rhetoric of leveling the playing field. McLellan, meanwhile, offered a goofy “one love” answer to the question, evoking a universal vibe of human generosity. Different as their public temperaments may be, both have been praised for amplifying lesbian visibility on network television.
Though some robust, “score two for the team” chest-bumping is surely in order after the success of these Sapphic sirens, how might we actually move past the greater frenzy for queer visibility to better grasp how lesbianism fits, or inevitably fails to fit, within the pop landscape? In other words, what would happen if we weren’t so quick to celebrate these “aren’t-we-GLAAD?” moments of prime time visibility, but instead took to heart The Voice’s premise about prioritizing listening?
Throughout the institutional life of queer studies, debates about lesbian visibility have unfurled in elaborate fugue-like variations. Rather than rehash them here, allow me to commit the theoretical heresy of constructing a binary in order to highlight some key positions. In the “real” world of mainstream LGBTQIA organizations and cultural producers, quantifying positive representations of queer folk qualifies as measuring progress. The more gays and lesbians we see on screens big and small, the logic goes, the better the world gets. In the more rarified realms of queer theory (my own habitat), this desire for representation and belonging calls forth the very crisis inherent in politicizing visibility as an end in itself. Film and media scholar, Amy Villarejo, explains this dynamic best when she remarks in Lesbian Rule that “the common sense of visibility is that it does both [parlays representation’s double meaning as ‘portrait’ and ‘proxy]: by appearing, so it would go, we belong…[but]…to present lesbian as image is to arrest the dynamism such a signifier can trigger” (14).
What, then, would be the sonic dynamism of lesbianism? Is it a transformative “grammar” that modifies the terms with which it becomes intimate? (Villarejo explores this possibility in her book.) Is it in the grain of a voice?
Far be it from me to theorize the “butch throat” here, as my dear pal and colleague Elena Glasberg already has with more eloquence and profundity than my mind can muster these days; but even if we hadn’t been primed by the show’s intro packages, might we not have heard the lesbianism in Martinez and McClellan’s throats? In their urgent, tremulous and toothsome strivings through the repertoires of “fierce females” like Adele and Janis Joplin?
There is something marked, and remarkable, in the yearning and temporal drag (see Elizabeth Freeman’s work) modeled by Martinez and McClellan’s respective vocalities, voices that could only break the surface in a format that (at least initially), thwarts the edicts of visibility: of fashion, generic niches, and the avant sensibility demanded by pop. Instead of being one step ahead, Martinez and McClellan constantly pull us back to something we’ve heard before, often in a half-empty bar that reeks of Bud and Marlboros (both Light). And for letting us hear this again, I’m willing to give The Voice the benefit of the doubt, despite its unwieldy format, liberal use of Carson Daly, and trumped up feud between Adam Levine and the real Xtina. Just maybe in this singing competition’s overdetermined relationship to blindness, we will find enough insight to hear queerly.