Autotune is to vocal music, what synthesizers are to instrumental music. Both push the boundaries of what is possible. Some people appreciate these possibilities, others don’t. In this weblog post, autotune will refer to a generic concept. Auto-tune is the name of a commercial product from Antares Audio Technologies, that has a dominant market share. It was invented and developed by Harold (Andy) Hildebrand (1950 – ) from 1996 and on.

After earning a Ph.D in electrical engineering, Hildebrand’s career involved working with geophysics and seismic data for Exxon. At one point, Exxon faced a dilemma. They were approaching the end of a seven-year Alaskan pipeline timeline, and needed to get oil flowing through the line in time, or lose a half-billion dollar tax write-off. Hildebrand was charged with fixing faulty seismic monitoring instrumentation, a task that involved advanced mathematics. The project ended successfully, from Exxon’s perspective.

In 1979, Hildebrand left Exxon for a startup, Landmark Graphics, which constructed a workstation for the creation of 3-D seismic maps. Landmark was bought out by Halliburton in 1989 for an alleged $525 million, and Hildebrand retired before the age of forty, a wealthy man.

As a youth, Hildebrand had worked as a musician, playing the flute. With his new found freedom, he decided to study composing. In this, he often used sampling synthesizers. From there it was a short way to developing Auto-tune, where his mathematical capabilities and musical interest proved to be a useful combination. A Wikipedia article provides further details.

One of the first singers to use auto-tune was Cher (1946 – ) on Believe (1998). A remastered version dates from 2021. The music video, from 1999, was made by Nigel Dick (1953 – ).

Believe was recorded at Metro Productions’ Dreamhouse Studio, located in Kingston upon Thames, England. Mark Taylor (1963 – ) and Brian Rawlings (1961 – ) produced the track using a Cubase VST Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), built into a Power Macintosh G3 computer. Instruments include a rack-based Clavia Nord and Oberheim Matrix 1000 synthesizers. Vocals were recorded on three TASCAM DA-88 digital audio recorders, with a Neumann U67 microphone

Despite initial claims that the vocal effects came from a vocoder, a device invented at Bell Labs by Homer Dudley (1896 – 1980) in 1938, that analyzes then synthesizes/ transforms human voice signals using compression, multiplexing = takes several signals and combines them into one, and encryption, it wasn’t used.

Auto-Tune pitch-correction software was actually used, but with extreme settings to create unnaturally rapid corrections, to remove portamento, the natural slide between pitches in singing. Later, it was widely imitated, becoming known as the Cher effect.

One of the complaints about both autotuning and synthesizers is that they are artificial. If by artificial one means electronic, one could question what part of the contemporary audio/ music recording industry isn’t artificial? In the past forty years I have listened to very few tracks that have an analogue component, as found on vinyl records or magnetic tapes. Today, almost everything musical becomes a digitized electrical signal. Voices and acoustic instruments use microphones to capture sounds. Electric guitars and related instruments use pickups. Both convert electrical signals to digital signals in an audio interface, which could be a stand alone unit outside or a hardware or software unit inside a computer. Synthesizers and other keyboard instruments, with variations, may simply send Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) data even more directly to a DAW.

Opinions are divided about Auto-tune. Time Magazine named it one of the 50 worst inventions. Dan Fletcher, wrote on 2010-05- 27: “It’s a technology that can make bad singers sound good and really bad singers … sound like robots.”

I disagree with Time. There is no reason why people should have to rely on their natural voices to produce music. It is like insisting people walk in order to move from place to place. People embrace technological improvements. Bicycles are a good example of how low cost technology can improve transport speed while reducing energy consumption. Think of autotune as technology providing a bicycle advantage for singers.

Correction. Advanced mathematics can be difficult. 1989 – 1950 is not 29, but 39. Thus, the age of Hildebrand’s retirement age has been corrected to under forty, from under thirty.

One Reply to “Autotune”

  1. Dear Brock,
    Once again, you pressed soooo many buttons.
    Many of my former students found employment at Halliburton and Exxon. Also had quite a few others who were in music, but took classes to learn about the workings of those new-fangled electronic items that were coming into the music arena.
    And then there is my daughter. She graduated with a degree in music, although not with any intent of becoming a performer, although she did her share along the way. We have often talked about the autotune “thing.”
    I was also able to connect with professionals in the music area and that too was an amusing experience. Many of these were in the classical arena and it amused me how many had a “if they didn’t do it that way in the 19th century, well, it doesn’t count.”
    Many others – particularly the younger ones – had a much more all-encompassing attitude. Many were unfazed by the fact that a published “recording” could never be duplicated in a live setting – just see them as two different animals.
    And what about artists who record with themselves … meaning playing several parts and later blending? Is that real music? I love going to a live performance … even listening to a busker in some subway station.
    One day a few decades ago, my assistant at the time went to a concert featuring some pretty important star … might have been Garth Brooks. I asked Ken the next day how it was and his response was, “It was OK … the special effects weren’t that great!”
    Being old(er) I had mistakenly thought you went to an event featuring music for the music. But it was obvious that what I would have seen as a distraction, Ken saw as an important element.
    Different strokes!

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