The Null Device

The cultural impact of Autotune

Frieze Magazine has a piece on the cultural dimension of the use of Autotune, the vocal-processing effect heard on many commercial pop songs these days:
Lil Wayne records with Auto-Tune on – no untreated vocal version exists. In an era of powerful computers that allow one to audition all manner of effects on vocals after the recording session, recording direct with Auto-Tune means full commitment. There is no longer an original ‘naked’ version. This is a cyborg embrace. In Cyborg Manifesto (1991), Donna Haraway notes that ‘the relation between organism and machine has been a border war.’ Auto-Tune’s creative deployment is fully compatible with her ‘argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.’
A few months ago I heard a song from the Côte d’Ivoire. Twelve minutes long, Champion DJ’s ‘Baako’ is built around a baby crying through Auto-Tune. The software bends the baby’s anguish into eerie musicality. The ear likes it. The mind isn’t so sure. ‘Baako’ is disturbing. The aestheticized cry no longer corresponds to any normal emotion. Before Auto-Tune, we had no melodious screams.
From the US to Mexico, Jamaica, Africa, and beyond – Auto-Tune usage has splintered, with different approaches from scene to scene and artist to artist. (It remains the most sonically extreme in Berber Morocco.) The plug-in creates a different relation of voice to machine than ever before. Rather than novelty or some warped mimetic response to computers, Auto-Tune is a contemporary strategy for intimacy with the digital. As such, it becomes quite humanizing. Auto-Tune operates as a duet between the electronics and the personal.
The article points out that Antares, the makers of Autotune, are working on a mobile phone version of their software.

Also, I wonder how much of what they call "Autotune" is really Antares' plug-in (which, as far as I know, is a black box that works in real time), and how much is other tools like Celemony Melodyne (an application which lets one edit the timing and pitch of recorded notes, and can be used for getting similar results).

There are 2 comments on "The cultural impact of Autotune":

Posted by: Greg Fri May 8 00:15:15 2009

Is this article an example of ye olde pop-music anxiety about authenticity? There are a few interesting critiques of that anxiety and its symptoms. I could only find this article with a quick google, and it's a little histrionic, but conveys the general problem and is worth a read ..

Posted by: mark Tue May 12 07:44:51 2009

Greg: brings to mind the words of the great Tom Lehrer, "I really should say that I do not direct these remarks against the vast army of folk song lovers, but really against that peculiar hard core who seem to equate 'authenticity' with 'artistic merit' and 'illiteracy' with 'charm'."

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