Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Sound of the Year – 2009: Auto-Tune

Photo Credit: Clyde Robinson
A little over 10 years ago pop singer Cher released her 1998 hit, “Believe”. It was remarkable not simply for its success on the charts, but because it presented the public with the first widely heard effect called by the name given the device by its manufacturer: Auto-Tune.

Since then other devices which produce similar results have entered the market, but they all serve the same general purpose: pitch correction.

Artificial Pitch correction by studio technicians is not new, but its ease of deployment was. Prior to the introduction of these devices and software solutions, one way producers and engineers would correct a wobbly vocal performance would be to sample an entire vocal line from analog tape, then chop each line up into its component words or even syllables, and then manually trigger the vocal performance back onto tape, using the pitch modulation wheel of a synthesizer in real time  to  align and conform a pitchy performance into a stable, recognizable key.

The result was a pitch perfect performance –the equivalent of Photoshop retouching for singers. Except that over time, what started off as a transparent, corrective effect became a highly recognizable novelty effect when used to extremes, slamming off key performances into a rigid pitch grid that in turn transformed an organic performance into something resembling a robotic vocoder effect. Less retouched, so to speak, and more re-made.

Those who think musical performances should represent reality despise the effect, of course, suggesting those singers who use it can't actually sing. However, young music fans love the novel effect. There is a semiotic paper to be written here on why a new generation prefers its singers to sound synthesized and soulless.

Are we entering an age when we feel less than human? Or to attempt a positive spin on it, with mobile phones stuck to our ears and screens increasingly providing us a 24/7 pixelated lens to the world, maybe we actually feel more like cyborgs than humans, and therefore, no surprise, the general public's taste in music has evolved to reflect this transformation upon our psyche and the contemporary digital zeitgeist.

Whatever the reason, the use of Auto-Tune, whether employed only for pitch correction, or to distort and otherwise transform a performance, has become so ubiquitous, that it is arguably now nothing less than the sound of our times.

And that’s why Auto-Tune is the 2009 Critical Noise Sound of the Year.

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The Critical Noise Sound of the Year goes to that sound source, event, entity, happening or concept which so effectively produces wide response and reaction, whether intentional or not, such that it stirs collective emotion, inspires discussion, incites action, or otherwise lends itself to cultural analysis and resonates across the globe.

Prior Sound of the Year winners include The Housing Implosion (2008) and Mother Nature's Howl (2005)

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