Auto-tone deaf

For someone who raps about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack, one would assume she’d be a tough bitch who couldn’t care less about public opinion. But in an October interview with Billboard magazine, popstar Ke$ha seemed fed up with negative comments about her musical abilities.

In the article, Ke$ha said she has pulled away from auto-tune, which was used consistently on her debut album, “Animal,” because she wants to make something clear: She has legit vocal skills.

“I got really sick of people saying that I couldn’t sing,” Ke$ha told Billboard. “I can do very few things confidently in my life, and one of them is that I can sing.”

Excuse me, Ke$ha, for assuming your “white-girl rapping” discredits you as the next Adele. It might be a little hard to take you seriously when your lyrics are as substantial as they are wholesome. However, I digress. There’s a larger argument to be made here: that there shouldn’t be an argument at all. Auto-tune, in a lesser-known way, is taking over the music industry whether we as listeners like it or not. Similar to a subtle Photoshop retouch, the use of auto-tune is sometimes disguised from our ears.

It all started in 1996 when a man named Andy Hildebrand, who worked for the oil industry at the time, wanted to create a way to use sound waves to locate potential drill sites. While at a dinner party, a guest challenged him to invent a box that would allow her to sing better. He created a device that would automatically alter her voice’s sound waves to a different pitch. After he studied autocorrelation for a few months, he created auto-tune.

Now the music industry uses auto-tune plug-ins that take live vocals and automatically tune notes to the correct pitch, digitally creating a better sound wave than was actually produced. Almost immediately after it was released, studio producers and engineers used it as a trade secret to quickly cover up flubbed notes, which saves them the expense and hassle of having to re-record sessions.

The program’s re-tune speed can be set from zero to 400. When it’s set on zero, the program will instantly change the original pitch to the target pitch, changing the output pitch and disallowing a natural transition between notes, which creates the robotic, heavily edited, synthetic sound of artists like T-Pain, Cher and Ke$ha. Set on higher numbers, the program will take more time to adjust the output pitch to the target pitch. This method smooths over the edited notes and makes it hard to distinguish which artists are fiddling with auto-tune.

If you listened to 10 pop songs today, nine of them would likely feature this technology. Nowadays, anyone can use auto-tune. A $99 version for DIY musicians was released in November 2007, and T-Pain and auto-tune’s parent company teamed up in 2009 to create an iPhone app that features auto-tune software.

I’m sure people are infuriated that Ke$ha is a famous performer, because auto-tune can re-create anyone’s voice to replicate recording artists, making her seemingly talentless.This has led people to argue that music was better back in the day, but I would argue that musicianship mattered more “back in the day” because that’s how artists sold records—they performed well. Pitch correcting microphones weren’t invented until the late ’90s, so precision was key. Now, two clicks of a button can get you a perfect sound.

It isn’t the industry’s fault, though. Millions of dollars worth of music is illegally torn out of the label’s grasp and put on consumers’ iPods, which forces labels to conduct heavy market research and create airbrushed “Barbie doll” versions of musicians who are guaranteed to sell. With virtually no control over today’s consumer, labels have had no choice but to combine their money and advanced recording technology to make the best-sounding and best-looking artists for the market, forcing the industry into a heavily commercialized post-digital age. Not only does this open up the music industry to performers who are entrepreneurs rather than musicians, it can also make for disappointing concerts and ultimately a more competitive industry.

We can’t fight auto-tune (sorry, Jay-Z). Instead, the consumers needs to be aware of its presence. Talented, un-edited artists still exist, but it might take a little more digging to find them.

Complaining about the existence of auto-tune or lack of musicianship in today’s popular artists is like complaining that McDonald’s fast food isn’t fine-dining. It’s synthetic and horrible, but it’s everywhere. Whether or not we agree with its nutritional value, it tastes great.