We all know that there is a real debate out there about Auto-Tune and it all started with Cher. You might remember that Cher’s 1998 comeback track entitled, “Do you believe in life after love?,” really marked the first prominent use (actually misuse) of the Auto-Tune feature. (Auto-Tune is essentially a pitch correcting software that some say has since changed (i.e., destroyed) the music industry. The software really alters the pitch of a singing voice to make it sound perfectly in tune. When used properly, it’s subtle enough that it cannot be detected).

As the story goes, Cher’s producers played with the idea of cranking the Auto-Tune feature up to 11 which really was a level that was not contemplated by one Andy Hildebrand, its inventor. Regardless, Cher’s producers’ essential “misuse” of the Auto-Tune feature created the now-familiar effect that is part human synthesizer, part robotic voice.

Hildebrand, in fact, would later say:

“My thinking was, ok, I’ll put that setting in the software [i.e., 11]. But I didn’t think anyone in their right mind would ever use it.”

Well, Cher’s producers used it and the rest is history. That started the “Cher effect” along with one of the biggest hits of the 1990s.

But my point is really not to debate the propriety of the use of Auto-Tune. There is already plenty of discussion out there about that. Instead, quite frankly, I was more interested in the origin of the software and that answer qualified this story for our first “Did You Know?” segment.

So, did you know that Auto-Tune came from the oil industry? True story. Auto-Tune really stems from analyzing seismic data while looking for oil. Hildebrand explains it this way: “Oil companies would detonate charges in the ground or in the water, and then they have sensors analyze the reflections to spot the oil.” That technology was then bought by American oil giant Halliburton in 1995. “It uses the same science of digital signal processing,” says Hildebrand, a long time musician who then applied that science to singing.

Indeed, it only took Hildebrand a month to create Auto-Tune. Says Hildebrand: “Before Auto-Tune, studios would do pitch correction by having the singer repeat a phrase over and over and over. They would do 100 takes and then patch them together to make one piece of music that sounded in tune.” Auto-Tune simplified that process with the push of a button.

A magic button, that is, that makes everyone sing in perfect key. Was it successful? You bet. Says Hildebrand: “Within a year we had sold to every major studio in the world, and that was a year or two after Cher did her song Believe.”

So, regardless of whether you are on the side of the fence like Time magazine which once included Auto-Tune on its list of one of the 50 worst inventions, or, you are a proponent of Auto-Tune, it is interesting to note the origins of the software. It was initially designed to find oil and indeed it did that. Maybe it was wrong to similarly use it to “create” talent in vocalists. Nevertheless, we should not fool ourselves. Lots of people use it although they may not want to admit it and indeed, there is something automatic about that too.







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