Hanover. Sometime in late 1997, Mark Taylor sits in his music studio and pushes up a control. It is titled with the word “Retune” – there are two setting options: “Slow” and “Fast”. Taylor moves the slider to “Fast.” And without planning it, he created an effect that would change pop music forever.
The effect is now called Auto-Tune. A robotic sound in the voice, a distortion, an unnatural squawk, but it sounds so exciting and iconic that today hardly any modern hip-hop song can do without it.
The effect was used prominently for the first time in the Cher hit “Believe” – produced by Mark Taylor and his production partner Brian Rawling. The song was released on October 19, 1998 – exactly 25 years ago. “Believe” became a global success, stayed at the top of the music charts for weeks – and had an enormous impact on the pop world.
Software appears in 1997
Auto-Tune is not just the name of an effect. The name goes back to the software of the same name from the US company Antares, which was first published on September 26, 1997. Auto-Tune was originally intended to correct pitches in a recording with the click of a mouse – for example if a singer didn’t hit the right note. This is one of the reasons why the term still has negative connotations today: not everyone wants to admit that they correct their singing using software.
The program was invented by Andy Hildebrand from California. He actually worked as an oil engineer, but also had a musical background. Hildebrand worked with echoes to map underground areas in search of oil. He ultimately used the autocorrelation technology he used to invent Auto-Tune. This made it possible to detect the pitch of singing and then correct notes.
This creation alone is a story full of coincidences. Hildebrand’s wife never hit the notes while singing and then, just for fun, asked him to program some software, the engineer once said. In fact, he then got to work – and invented the now legendary software.
Almost everyone uses Auto-Tune
Today it can be assumed that Auto-Tune or similar programs are used in 99 percent of all modern pop productions – even if the untrained ear cannot hear the software at all. The vocal tracks in current chart hits are so clear and precise and sung to the point that very few singers would be able to do this without software. Fans usually only notice this when they see a live performance by their favorite star – which then suddenly doesn’t sound as perfect as it does on Spotify.
With the help of Auto-Tune, people can now be turned into pop stars who wouldn’t be pop stars at all without the software. Rappers, for example, who have recently started singing their own hooks – many of them probably wouldn’t hit a note otherwise. Or influencers, who suddenly release songseven though they are completely unmusical – this is also a phenomenon that is only possible with Auto-Tune.
The software can now be used by almost everyone. The latest standard version can be purchased from the Antares website for around 500 euros. It can then be used as a so-called plug-in within music software, such as Logic, Cuebase, FL Studio or the hobby program Garageband.
The name Auto-Tune, similar to the tempo handkerchief, is now a fixed term for the automatic pitch correction of vocal tracks. In fact, there are also competing products that have a similar effect. One was even developed in Germany: The Melodyne software from the Munich company Celemony Software is now also an integral part of the music production scene.
Function is misused
But Auto-Tune can’t just correct sounds. The Brit Mark Taylor was the first producer to completely alienate the purpose of the software – similar to how hip-hop DJs once did scratching on the record player. This can be heard for the first time on the Cher hit “Believe”.
Normally, the correction software allows tones to slide slowly from one to the other – in technical language this is called portamento. However, there is a function in the software that can be used to influence this speed: the “Detune” control.
Developer Hildebrand actually implemented this for a completely different reason. “If a song is slower, like a ballad, the notes are long and the pitch has to change slowly,” Hildebrand explains in the Netflix documentary “This is Pop.” In the case of a kick drum, however, the pitch must change at the exact moment the signal is received. So he installed a control (in newer Auto-Tune versions it’s a virtual knob) with which you could adjust the speed from one (fastest) to ten (slowest).
The big question: Does Cher like it?
What Hildebrand didn’t consider: You can of course also misuse the controller and use it for vocal recordings. If you move this to “1”, the software forgoes the natural gliding and instead jumps abruptly to the next tone. This, in turn, is similar to a vocal technique called melisma, commonly found in R&B, gospel, and classical music. If you create the effect technically with Auto-Tune, it sounds as if a robot is singing.
In the case of “Believe,” Cher and her producers were apparently at something of an impasse. The song sounded lifeless and had been changed a million times, they explained in 1999 the “New York Times”. Cher then became aware of the classic vocoder effect through a song and suggested such an effect for “Believe”. Taylor then experimented a bit with the new Auto-Tune plug-in.
At first he was far too nervous to play the edited song to Cher – because her voice was badly distorted. But things turned out differently. “A few beers later we decided to play it for her and she just freaked out” – with excitement. They then gave each other a high-five and decided to release the song that way.
Producers keep the effect secret
Cher’s record company is said to have initially tried to dissuade the singer and her producers from the Auto-Tune effect – it apparently sounded too new, too unusual, too futuristic. But the singer refused. According to the New York Times, she allegedly told her producer: “Don’t let anyone touch this song or I’ll rip your throat out.”
A wise decision: “Believe” soon became the best-selling single by a woman in the UK and rose to the top of the music charts in 21 countries. At the 42nd Grammy Awards, “Believe” was nominated in the “Record of the Year” and “Best Dance Recording” categories, the latter of which the song won.
Mark Taylor and his colleague Brian Rawling initially didn’t want to reveal what unusual effect can actually be heard in the song – presumably for two reasons. The effect was so unique that they simply didn’t want to make the little production secret public. On the other hand, the producers should have admitted that software was used to correct pitches in “Believe”. That might have damaged Cher’s image. So was initially convincingly suggestedthey simply used a special vocoder effect.
Hip-Hop discovers Auto-Tune
However, producers quickly found out what Taylor had actually done. At the end of the 1990s, the first Auto-Tune hits flooded the charts. One of the first imitators was actually Dieter Bohlen: The song “This Goodbye is Not Forever” by his boy band Touché, released just a few weeks after Cher, also contains the typical Auto-Tune effect.
The effect can also be heard in the Dark Child remix of Jennifer Lopez’s hit “If You Had My Love”:
From 2005 onwards, the effect finally found its way into the hip-hop world. The rapper T-Pain first used Auto-Tune in rap vocals in 2005 on his song “I’m Sprung”. The excessive effect was not initially met with much enthusiasm in the rap scene – in fact, it was considered a mortal sin.
Later, other great artists also used the Auto-Tune style. The album “808s & Heartbreak” of the rapper Kanye West, who has now drifted quite a bit is considered a milestone; later rapper Drake in particular began to edit his songs excessively with Auto-Tune.
Did Auto-Tune destroy music?
The method of vocal processing remains controversial to this day. Singer Usher is said to have once accused his friend T-Pain of destroying rap music with the trend he started. At the 51st Grammy Awards in 2009, the band Death Cab for Cutie performed with blue ribbons to protest the use of the software in the music industry.
At times, rapper T-Pain was so attacked on the Internet for his music that at some point he doubted himself, he says in the Netflix documentary. It was only a living room performance in which the rapper sang live next to a piano without any Auto-Tune that finally changed the rapper’s image.
Cher’s career was much more relaxed after her Auto-Tune hit “Believe”. The 77-year-old’s disco album of the same name stayed in the German album charts for a full 52 weeks and even reached number one. The record enjoyed similar success in the United Kingdom and the United States. “Believe” is still played up and down at every 1990s party. Although very few celebrants are likely to know how much music history the piece is actually responsible for.