“Do you believe in life after love?” Cher used to sing. And if you’ve ever heard that song, you might now have an earworm in your head.
The singer’s 1998 comeback track marked the first prominent use of a technology called “Auto-Tune”, a pitch correcting software that has since changed the music industry.
Auto-Tune alters the pitch of a singing voice to make everyone sound perfectly in tune. When used properly, it’s subtle enough that it can’t be detected.
But Cher’s producers played with the idea of cranking it up to 11, creating the now-familiar effect that is part human synthesizer, part robotic voice.
Andy Hildebrand, the inventor of autotune, told CNN: “My thinking was, ok, I’ll put that setting in the software. But I didn’t think anyone in their right mind would ever use it.”
Thus was born the “Cher effect”, and one of the biggest hits of the 1990s.
From oil to records
How does one invent Auto-Tune? By analyzing seismic data while looking for oil, of course.
That’s Hildebrand’s previous job: “Oil companies would detonate charges in the ground or in the water, and then they have sensors analyze the reflections to spot the oil,” he explains.
That technology was bought by American oil giant Halliburton in 1995 and it’s helped internal production in the U.S. soar from 30 to 60 percent, netting the company about $1 billion a year.
“It uses the same science of digital signal processing,” says Hildebrand, a long time musician who then applied that science to singing.
It took him just a month to create it. “Before Auto-Tune, studios would do pitch correction by having the singer repeat a phrase over and over and over. They would do 100 takes and then patch them together to make one piece of music that sounded in tune.”
Auto-Tune does all that at the push of a button.
A magic button that makes everyone sing in perfect key was, unsurprisingly, an instant hit with the industry: “Within a year we had sold to every major studio in the world, and that was a year or two after Cher did her song ‘Believe’”, Hildebrand recalls.
Here are his tasting notes on that song: “I thought it was really cool! Even if they used a bad setting, or what I call bad setting since I didn’t design it to be used like that: it makes this robotic effect because it changes the pitch instantly from note to note.”
But the jury is still out on whether Auto-Tune was a boon for the music industry, or a disaster: in 2010, Time magazine included it in the list of The 50 Worst Inventions, calling it “a technology that can make bad singers sound good and really bad singers sound like robots.”
Indie band Death Cab for Cutie showed up at the 2009 Grammys wearing blue ribbons to “raise awareness against Auto-Tune abuse”, and fervent Auto-Tune critic Jay-z released a song in 2009 entitled D.O.A. - Death of autotune.
Britney Spears notoriously fell into an Auto-Tune controversy in mid-2014, when a vanilla recording of her 2013 song Alien was leaked and compared, rather unfavorably, to the autotuned version on the album Britney Jean.
But what does its inventor think? “Singers learn about how it works and they kind of like it, but they have a love-hate relationship with it: they don’t want to let others know that they need it.”
It seems that Auto-Tune might be to music what Photoshop is to photography: everybody uses it, but no one’s too keen to admit it.
Tuning into your heartbeat
After having sorted singing – “music’s second most popular instrument” – Hildebrand is now going after the first: guitars.
“It doesn’t sound anything like a vocal correction, but it keeps the guitar perfectly in tune,” he says.
Next up, your heartbeat: “There’s a new kind of device called the embedded defibrillator: it’s a pacemaker implanted in the chest that monitors heartbeat irregularities and releases energy pulses to correct anomalies. The problem is that sometimes the software fails to detect the heartbeat, and we’re hoping to fix that.”
The technology, in the form of an algorithm, will soon be embedded into these pacemakers.
And we have a feeling it might not even stop there.