How Auto-Tune Works

Auto-Tune Takes the Spotlight

In Renaissance Italy, every self-respecting opera house had hosted at least one castrato -- male singers that had been castrated at an early age to preserve their ability to sing at a high pitch. Each year, hundreds of parents sent their boys to back-alley doctors, just to give them a chance at one day making it big on the European concert hall circuit. That is, until Italy outlawed the practice in 1870. Long before Auto-Tune, it seems, musicians have gone to great lengths to modify their singing voices.

More recently, artists have been using all kinds of electronic tricks to twist, distort and modify their vocal tracks. Pete Frampton wowed audiences with the talk box, a modified vocoder that allows artists to "speak" through their instrument using a plastic tube. In the Beatles' 1967 hit, "Strawberry Fields Forever," John Lennon slowed down his vocal track, giving his voice a deeper, slurred sound. In the 1983 hit, "Mr. Roboto," Styx used a vocoder to simulate the sound of a robot talking. The music studio has always been a place to experiment, and with Auto-Tune within easy reach for every major music producer in the United States, it was only a matter of time before someone took the software "to the limit."

Reportedly, during the "Believe" sessions, engineers had tweaked Cher's voice with the zero function purely as a joke [source: McNamee]. But once Cher heard the effect, she demanded they keep it in the final cut. In their Auto-Tune manual, Antares renamed the zero function the "Cher Effect," and it quickly began making the rounds of pop music, from Daft Punk to the Black Eyed Peas. For music producers looking to spice up the new millennium with modern sounds, the Cher Effect was a breath of fresh, computerized air. And the sound was surprisingly profitable. All it took was a few minutes tweaking the Auto-Tune dials, and a song's popularity was almost guaranteed to rise. At first, using the zero function was like adding backup singers or a sitar to a recording: It would spice up the track, but it didn't dominate the song.

That is, until a little-known Florida DJ known as T-Pain bought his first Auto-Tune CD-ROM. T-Pain had been experimenting with music production ever since he was 10 years old, and Auto-Tune soon became his favorite sonic trick. So much so, that T-Pain looked to outright meld his voice with the technology. Whenever T-Pain opened his mouth on an album, he decided, he would do so through an Auto-Tune filter. T-Pain's first major Auto-Tune creation, "Buy U a Drank," rocketed to No. 1 on the charts, and soon, like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, the young rapper was flying to all corners of the United States to lend his Auto-Tuned voice to the greater hip hop community. When Kanye West wanted Auto-Tune on his 2008 album, "808s and Heartbreak," he called in T-Pain as a consultant. By the time the pair finished, Auto-Tune was on every track.

Meanwhile, Auto-Tune's telltale warble was ending up in the unlikeliest of places. Artists like Maroon 5, Avril Lavigne and the Dixie Chicks were releasing songs that didn't feature the Cher Effect but still had tinny, strained vocals. Ten years ago, those songs would have been derided for sloppy production. But now, audiences were so used to electronic hiccups that they didn't even notice.