An editorial offering up the stance that Auto-Tune did not kill hip-hop, rather, it brought new life into the genre.
People do not like change. Music fans, especially. When the use of Auto-Tune exploded in the mid-2000s, many were skeptical. Today, many still are. Since its creation in 1997, Auto-Tune has crept its way into virtually every genre of music, most notably Hip-hop/R&B. Originally intended to simply change the key of an off-pitch vocal, it is reasonable for one to believe that the voice-modulating software has been taken advantage of- resulting in quite robotic vocals. Commercially, however, Auto-Tune proves most effective when it is strained to the limit. Chart-topping hits, like Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop,” T-Pain’s “Buy U a Drank,” and Jay Sean’s “Down,” involve heavy doses of the software. Perhaps due to its commercial success, Auto-Tune is appearing more and more in rap music, and fans have mixed feelings about it. Many think the sound is futuristic and intriguing, others believe that the software killed hip-hop. Whether listeners like it or not, this much is undeniable: hip-hop’s popularity is spreading like a wildfire, and Auto-Tune is the catalyst.
So, how did this whole debate begin? About a decade ago, T-Pain really started to make noise with his unorthodox style of singing, one involving extreme amounts of Auto-Tune. Do not get it twisted, though. T-Pain was far from the first artist to use the controversial plug-in, but was the first to truly capitalize on its capability. Upon his initial success, he was met with much criticism. His debut album Rappa Ternt Sanga received numerous 1-star reviews on Amazon.com, one labeling T-Pain as “an insult to all R&B singers,” another suggesting he “sounds like he got his manhood chewed off by a gerbil”. What was T-Pain’s defense? “It’s makin’ me money, so I ain’t about to stop!” (qtd. in Anderson n.p.). As he should not: T-Pain’s extraordinary use of Auto-Tune has revolutionized Hip-hop/R&B, and paved the way for Kanye West’s masterpiece remembered in time: 808s & Heartbreak.
In 2008 when 808s & Heartbreak was released, listeners didn’t quite know what to think of the album’s sound. It certainly was a new sound for Kanye West, but was it a good sound? Hip-hop journalist Ernest Baker, writer for Complex.com, thinks highly of 808s & Heartbreak as a pioneering album in hip-hop. Quotes Baker, “To this day, it remains a deeply emotional album that legions of us can relate to, it inspired a new sound in hip-hop, and it’s an odd footnote on Kanye’s career that actually stands out as one of the high points” (qtd. in Baker n.p.). Thanks to the pitch correction software, Kanye’s vocals sounded clean and extremely melodic. Without Auto-Tune’s assist, the album would have turned out as a screeching mess. Some people, such as musician Matt Kadane, believe the software even “adds emotional weight” (qtd. in Anderson n.p.). On the contrary, music critic/ karaoke enthusiast Annie McFadden claims that Auto-Tune takes away from a song’s relatability: “I want to FEEL a song, even if it is not sung perfectly note for note. To me, it is more real and more raw and more emotional when it is NOT perfect” (qtd. in McFadden n.p.). Yet, artists like Kanye West are perfectionists- they not only want to achieve a personal connection with their audience, but have their music sound outstanding as well. So why is Auto-Tune frowned upon? Why are scratchy, non-edited vocals generally more respected than those perfected? Michael Freeman, former contributor for State Magazine, explains it best in his article “A Brief History of Auto-Tune”:
"In 1967, when Marvin Gaye was recording “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” his producer arranged the track in a key slightly higher than Gaye’s vocal register, so he’d have to strain to hit the top notes. The point was to get a rawer sound, as though Gaye’s voice was cracking with emotion. The trick was a success – but it’s a trick. Gaye was singing words written by and for someone else and his emotion is no more genuine than if it had been added with a computer. So why should “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” a real vocal about a made-up heartbreak, sound anymore true than “Love Lockdown,” which deals with real heartbreak through a made-up vocal? The bottom line, it seems, is that when it comes to recorded displays of emotion, we’re happier with a convincing fake than we are with a fake-sounding reality. "
“A fake-sounding reality.” Auto-Tune may take the authenticity out of one’s voice, but it doesn’t subtract from the honesty. It’s not only for hitting the high notes, though. In many hip-hop songs, Auto-Tune is strictly used to captivate listeners.
Songs soaked with Auto-Tune immediately grab the attention of listeners-- think “Young & Gettin’ It” by Meek Mill, or “We Dem Boyz” by Wiz Khalifa. Without the software, each song would sound more generic, less eccentric. Picture the thunderous “Blood On The Leaves”, a fan-favorite track off Kanye West’s Grammy-nominated Yeezus album, without Auto-Tune. Immediately, the electricity and emotional atmosphere of the song is slashed. Even Pusha T’s “Hold On” would sound incomplete without Mr. West’s Auto-Tuned vocals in the background. When used properly, Auto-Tune is a tool for success. However, is using this tool a crime? Auto-Tune’s founder disagrees.
Dr. Andy Hildebrand of Antares Audio Technology created Auto-Tune in 1997. When asked if he thought Auto-Tune was evil, he responded, “Well, my wife wears make-up, is that evil?” (qtd. in Matson n.p.). Well, make-up certainly does not make anyone uglier. Likewise, Auto-Tune is an optional effect, optimized to make artists sound better. Who can be mad at that?
Aside from tidying up vocals, Auto-Tune also saves much time in the production process. Grammy Award winning producer Craig Street believes that Auto-Tune is a great instrumental for busy producers like himself. “If you have a smaller budget what you’re doing is trying to cram a lot of work into a small period of time, so you may not have as much time to do a vocal,” Craig explained (qtd. in Sclafani n.p.). Leslie Shapiro, a music industry veteran and contributor for soundandvision.com, thinks likewise. In her article “Auto-Tune Nation: Has Auto-Tune Ruined The Music Industry?”, Shapiro describes the old days when she would spend months in the studio, trying to perfect the vocal pitches for an album:
"On one album, the singer would come in each day and sing about 8 takes of the song. The producer and I would have a copy of the lyrics and after the singer left, our fun began. We would have 8 different-colored highlight pens – one for each track. We would go through the song, meticulously listening to each track. If a phrase or even a word was good on a take, we would highlight it in the color that corresponded to that take/track. On to the next track and color. At the end of the day, I would bounce all the good phrases down to one master track. Some days we would have a complete song, most days not. This went on for months, until we had a complete album with every note in perfect pitch."
Technology such as Auto-Tune has not only changed the sound of mainstream radio, but has also sped up the behind-the-scenes work for sound engineers, making their job simpler. Engineers are some of the hardest working people in the music industry, and any tool that can accelerate their process should be appreciated.
Rap music is constantly changing and will continue to do so for decades. It’s 2014, and hip-hop is in a much different state than it was ten years ago. The same will be mentioned in 2024, when who knows what the trend in rap music will be. One thing is for sure: Auto-Tune is more than a fad, and it should be remembered as hip-hop’s rejuvenation for years to come.