Have you ever been flipping through radio channels in a car and put on a new pop song? Or, in an alternative scenario, has your sister been blaring her music taste on you despite your objections? If so, you have undoubtedly experienced the effects of a programming software known as Auto-Tune. Despite being controversial, it is, bizarrely enough, culturally significant. It is now used by many different popular recording artists working in a variety of different genres. Due to many different factors, I think that Auto-Tune is terrible for music in general.
In order to understand the effects of Auto-Tune, it is helpful to consider its history. While the software device known as Auto-Tune is a fairly recent invention, there have been devices like it used in the recent past. A device known as a vocoder was popular in the 1980s with such prominent acts as Peter Gabriel, Kraftwerk, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, and others . The “talk box” was popularized by Peter Frampton in songs like “Do You Feel Like We Do.” I think there is an important distinction to be drawn between the vocoder and other devices and Auto-Tune. These devices were used by some of the most respected and innovative music acts of their day to enhance their own distinct sound. Pink Floyd in particular utilized the vocoder to great effect during “The Wall” album and tour. Auto-Tune, on the other hand, has quickly become a replacement for real musical talent.
In 1996, Auto-Tune was invented by an electrical engineer and flautist by the name of Andy Hildebrand. Hildebrand was interested in the electrical engineering subfield known as signal processing. He earned a Ph.D. in that subject before turning to work for ExxonMobil as a geophysicist by using sound waves to search for fossil fuels. Eventually, he returned to his fascination with signal processing and came up with the idea for Auto-Tune during a lunchtime break with a singer. It was popularized the following year by the recording artist Cher and led to a bit of a revolution in the way music is recorded and created. Unfortunately, that revolution has not been beneficial.
One reason that Auto-Tune hurts music is by allowing talentless musicians like Kesha Sebert, or Ke$ha, to be popular. She doesn’t even pretend to be the paragon of musical quality, though somehow audiences seem to enjoy her heavily processed vocals. Ke$ha’s songs are filled with simplistic refrains like “Your love, your love, your love is my drug!” They contain no real artistic value and are frequently not even written by her, but by a team of faceless producers such as Max Martin and Dr. Luke. While her songs may be popular now, they contain no lasting value and will likely be forgotten several years in the future. If Ke$ha’s music is remembered at all, it will probably not be in a good light.
Another way in which Auto-Tune hurts music is that it leads to its homogenization. In other words, it causes popular music to all sound the same. If all popular music is similar sounding, there would be no standout albums and songs. There would be no singers with interesting but not pitch-perfect voices. It would become more difficult to distinguish musical artists, even from genres like pop, country, and hip hop, since Auto-Tune has widespread use. In sharp contrast to the 1990s, when several genres were popular but dissimilar, music today has much less diversity and originality.
A third way Auto-Tune negatively affects the quality of music is by encouraging musicians to be lazy. Bassist Nick Harmer from Death Cab for Cutie wore a blue armband as a symbolic gesture to oppose the spread of the technology in 2009. Harmer lamented future musicians who would forgo practicing their craft. “They will never try to be good,” he said, “because yeah, you can do it just on the computer.” By removing the incentive for practice, Auto-Tune has set a bad precedent with regards to making music. Future musicians might not see the need to practice their craft, especially if they look up to pop stars like Katy Perry who rarely, if ever, pick up an actual instrument. They wouldn’t need any singing ability, since any errors can just be fixed by a producer.
Finally, Auto-Tune has made the human voice, once full of inflections, sound robotic. Rock and blues music in particular uses a lot of sharp and flat notes instead of “correct” pitches. Music professor Victor Coelho explains that this practice is not because performers don’t know better, but because they want to add an emotional effect such as longing or yearning, or if they want to make a song lyric sound dirtier. The Verge magazine’s Lessley Anderson writes, “Neil Young, Bob Dylan, many of the classic artists whose voices are less than pitch perfect – they probably would be pitch corrected if they started out today.” The emotion in their voices was part of the appeal of these singers rather than pitch-perfect singing. This is in sharp contrast to the standards set today. One Guardian writer called Ke$ha’s singing on her 2010 album Warrior “a robo squawk devoid of all emotion.” There is no real emotion in a singer’s voice if is pitch-corrected, and overproduced music leads to a lack of passion.
Writing in Complex magazine, Kyle Kramer explains that “when Auto-Tune is defended, it’s usually in a backhanded way, with the assumption that digital pitch correction is inherently sh—.” He notes the abundance of headlines like “10 Auto-Tune Songs that Don’t Suck.” However, the technology does have its defenders. Recording engineer Javier Valverde, for instance, compared it to the electric guitar in terms of its innovative aspects. I can see why Valverde would make this comparison. After all, both were novel technologies that shook up the world of music when they were invented. He also might have a personal stake in the matter, since it would be fortuitous for him to compare a much maligned innovation like Auto-Tune to a popular and respected one like the electric guitar. He is not entirely wrong in seeing a parallel between the two inventions. Nonetheless, the comparison breaks down under closer scrutiny, since the electric guitar enhanced the creative aspect of music and paved the way for a variety of fantastic songs to be composed. Auto-Tune, meanwhile, has replaced real creativity with robotic sameness and is destructive to the music industry.
Auto-Tune has become seemingly everywhere in popular music these days. There are many reasons why Auto-Tune is bad for music today, and people should care since it negatively impacts popular music. Due to Auto-Tune and corporate greed, a lot of popular music does not have the spark of originality and creativity of music several decades ago. I much prefer listening to music like Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and The Who, and other classic rock innovators than the sludge that is being mass produced on the airwaves today. Unfortunately, there are not enough of these creative bands out there since radio has become dominated by Auto-Tuned garbage. I would certainly like it if Auto-Tune fans kept their own music tastes to themselves and did not try to conquer the airwaves, pushing out better music in the process.
Jeffrey Hodgson is a first-year student. He can be reached at JH826940@wcupa.edu.