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Great Moments in Auto-Tune History

Photo: Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

Typically, the music-streaming public remains at arm’s length when it comes to tricks and tips that artists use in the recording studio — it’s too nerdy, too complicated, and only useful to obsessives and would-be artists themselves. Auto-Tune has long been the exception to that rule: Even though the pitch-correcting technology was first commonly associated with Cher’s 1998 single “Believe,” its prevalence as a practical instrument of the studio increased tenfold in the mid-2000s, from T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s liberal application of it onto their own voices to Kanye West’s Auto-Tune-tastic 808s and Heartbreak, a record that also set the stage for the following ten years of rap, R&B, and modern pop in general.

Auto-Tune’s beginnings are humbler than you think, and the subsequent post-808s outrage over the software’s ubiquity was more ridiculous than you probably remember. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a timeline detailing the history of Auto-Tune, from the mathematician that created the software itself to artists that still rub up against its application in the present day. Just a note before we begin: This isn’t a cataloguing of every song ever to use Auto-Tune. For one, engineer and studio legend Tom Lord-Alge stated in Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever that it’s used on almost every pop song that the public comes in contact with these days. But where necessary, we’ve noted milestones in Auto-Tune’s proliferation — and eventual domination — in the pop landscape.

1989: Mathematician Andy Hildebrand retires from the company he founded, Landmark Graphics, to study music composition at Rice University’s Shepard School of Music, in the hopes of using his experience working in geophysics to improve digital sampling.

1990: Hildebrand founds Jupiter Systems — which would later become Antares Audio Technologies — for the purpose of marketing his Infinity music software, which employs a processing algorithm that condenses audio data to improve recording quality and texture. “I bankrupted the Los Angeles Philharmonic,” he joked to Priceonomics in 2016, referencing the fact that film composers used Infinity to re-create film scores accurately and without hiring an orchestra to do so.

1995: “Why don’t you make a box that will let me sing in tune?” That was the response to a question that Hildebrand asked his colleagues and their spouses (“What needs to be invented?”) at a National Association of Music Merchants conference. “I looked around at the lunch table and everyone was just kind of looking down at their lunch plates,” he recalled about the idea, which stuck with him regardless.

1996: Hildebrand builds the Auto-Tune project through applying his mathematical model of autocorrelation — which, in the geophysical field, maps the Earth’s surface by sending sound waves and recording their reflection. When applied to audio recording, the model can also detect sonic pitch as well. At that year’s NAMM conference, the crowd goes wild. “People were literally grabbing it out of my hands … it was instantly a massive hit,” Hildebrand claimed.

Spring 1997: Auto-Tune is officially released as software, and quickly spreads as an essential tool for studios throughout Los Angeles and beyond.

October 1998: Cher’s “Believe” is released, effectively introducing Auto-Tune as a noticeable sonic effect to audiences well beyond recording studio denizens.

1999: The following year, producer Mark Taylor claims to Sound on Sound that the trippy, wavering effects that the software had on Cher’s “Believe” vocals were created by a Digitech Talker vocoder pedal — an attempt to conceal the fact that that fiddling with Auto-Tune’s settings to an extreme extent was how the song’s distinctive vocal sound was created. Cher tells the New York Times that her label initially requested the Auto-Tune effect be removed from her voice, her response being extremely Cher-esque: “Over my dead body!”

April 2000: French producer Mirwais releases his second solo album, Production, which includes “Naive Song,” a single that the man himself claims is the “1st electro track with Auto-Tune FX on vocals.” Around this time, Mirwais also gives an interview discussing his frequent collaborator Madonna’s adoration for Auto-Tune: “You could propose using it to a lot of artists, and they’d be a little afraid. But Madonna — no. She liked it immediately.”

May 2001: “It reminds me of the late ’70s when musicians in France tried to ban the synthesizer,” Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter offers while defending Auto-Tune in an interview. “What they didn’t see was that you could use those tools in a new way instead of just for replacing the instruments that came before. People are often afraid of things that sound new.”

June 2001: Ever the early adopters, Radiohead noticeably apply Auto-Tune to two songs off of their fifth album Amnesiac (“Pakt Like Sardines” and “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”). “It desperately tries to search for the music in your speech, and produces notes at random,” Thom Yorke tells The Wire the following month. “If you’ve assigned it a key, you’ve got music.”

August 2002: A full five years before the Auto-Tune backlash truly kicks into gear, country artist Allison Moorer’s Miss Fortune arrives with a sticker stating that no pitch-correction software or other forms of audio manipulation were used in the recording of her album.

October 2004: The Daily Telegraph’s music critic Neil McCormick licks a shot against Auto-Tune, referring to it as a “sinister invention” and decrying its usage amid a pop landscape increasingly leaning on lip-synching during live performances.

December 2005: R&B singer-songwriter and Auto-Tune impresario T-Pain’s debut album, Rappa Ternt Sanga, is released, featuring two hit singles — “I’m Sprung” and “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper)” — that essentially seed pop’s fertile ground for the Auto-Tune craze that’s to come. In a 2009 interview with the Seattle Times, T-Pain claims he first heard the effect used on a Jennifer Lopez song and wielded it on his own for the first time while contributing to an unnamed mixtape in 2003: “If I was going to sing, I didn’t want to sound like everybody else. Just wanted something to make me different. Auto-Tune was the one.”

April 2006: “When I hear Auto-Tune on someone’s voice, I don’t take it seriously,” Neko Case tells Pitchfork, claiming that a Toronto studio hand once told her that, along with Nelly Furtado, she was one of the only artists not to utilize the technology in the studio.

November 2007: Snoop Dogg does a stylistic 180 and goes full Auto-Tune on “Sexual Eruption,” which eventually cracks the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 — his first top-ten hit since 2004’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”

March 2008: After a string of profile-raising releases that focused almost exclusively on his rapping talents, Lil Wayne jumps into the Auto-Tune game with the narcotic and sickly sounding “Lollipop,” the first single from his blockbuster The Carter III. The song eventually spends five weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100, cementing Auto-Tune’s still-reigning presence in modern pop.

November 2008: You knew this was coming: Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak is released, another instance of a rapper turning toward utilizing Auto-Tune as its own distinctive sonic texture; in West’s case, it’s used on every single track of the album. At an album listening event, he refers to Auto-Tune as “the funnest thing to use.” Elsewhere, Saturday Night Live steps into the Auto-Tune-parodying arena with the sketch “Blizzard Man.”

February 2009: The Auto-Tune backlash kicks off, albeit as earnestly as humanly possible: Indie-rock mainstays Death Cab for Cutie show up to the Grammys wearing blue ribbons to signal their opposition to Auto-Tune being used in the recording industry. “Over the last ten years, we’ve seen a lot of good musicians being affected by this newfound digital manipulation of the human voice, and we feel enough is enough,” Gibbard told MTV News on the red carpet. Guess he’s not a fan of “Bartender.”

March 2009: Rule of thumb: If the Black Eyed Peas are doing it, it’s becoming uncool. Their chart-topping “Boom Boom Pow” liberally uses Auto-Tune like Jackson Pollack splashing paint on a canvas; ignominiously, it marks the group’s first No. 1 single.

April 2009: Comedy outfit–cum–musical group the Gregory Brothers post the first episode of Auto-Tune the News, a web series that applies Auto-Tune effects and musical cues to (wait for it) news reports. After a spate of virality and a hiatus, the Gregory Brothers relaunched the series under the title Songify the News in 2012.

June 2009: The highest-profile stance against Auto-Tune to date arrives in the form of “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),” the first single from Jay-Z’s maybe-Auto-Tune-could’ve-actually-improved-it The Blueprint 3. In case you think that quality descriptor was a joke: The song actually came about after Kanye and Jay, who had previously recorded an Auto-Tune-laden song for the album, heard No I.D.’s “D.O.A.” instrumental and decided to take the opposite tack instead — going as far as to remove all instances of Auto-Tune from the album itself. Later in the year, Jay would tell MTV News that a Wendy’s commercial (sure!) served as inspiration for the song’s thematic concerns.

August 2009: Christina Aguilera — who, to be fair, is one of a few extraordinarily gifted singers who doesn’t really need Auto-Tune — is spotted out wearing a T-shirt that says “Auto-Tune is for pussies.”

January 2010: Partnering with Antares, T-Pain and app start-up Smule release the “I Am T-Pain” app, an Auto-Tune for your iPhone application that costs $3 and is eventually downloaded over 3 million times.

May 2010: Time includes Auto-Tune in a list titled “The 50 Worst Inventions,” describing the software as “a technology that can make bad singers sound good and really bad singers … sound like robots.” In terms of list placement, it’s sandwiched between the pesticide DDT and the cancer-causing substance Red Dye No. 2. Seems like a level-headed equivalency to strike.

March 2010: In the audio commentary for the Kanye-lampooning South Park episode “Fishsticks,” co-creator Trey Parker talks about using Auto-Tune while recording the episode: “You have to be a bad singer in order for that thing to sound the way it does … if you use it and sing into it correctly, it doesn’t do anything to your voice.”

June 2010: Aguilera does an about-face during a Sirius XM interview, admitting that she used Auto-Tune for her album from that year, Bionic and praising the software’s creative uses.

August 2010: The folks behind then-British, now-global singing competition show The X Factor admit to using Auto-Tune in order to improve contestants’ singing voices during broadcast. A televised singing competition’s integrity being sullied — well, I never! Following the revelation, X Factor boss Simon Cowell bans the technology from being used for future broadcasts. The same month, the Gregory Brothers’ “Bed Intruder Song” video goes live, and eventually becomes the most-watched YouTube video of 2010.

June 2011: A year and a half after the launch of I Am T-Pain, the singer sues Antares for more than $1 million over “unauthorized use of T-Pain’s name” on advertising materials. The two parties eventually settle out of court; in the Priceonomics interview, Hildebrand claims that “our sales neither went up or down due to his involvement. He was remarkably ineffectual.”

April 2013: Et tu, Bublé? In an interview with the Globe and Mail, crooner Michael Bublé admits to using the software on his single “It’s a Beautiful Day.” “I need to get on pop radio, and if my songs don’t sound like all the other songs, I’m not getting on pop radio,” the singer reasonably explains. Fair enough!

December 2014: Songwriter David Mindel launches the “Live Means Live” campaign, with an accompanying logo that indicates, in his words, “there’s no Auto-Tune, nothing that isn’t 100% live … Our wish is that it’ll become big enough that everyone will know that if that logo isn’t on the ticket and the poster then that band is using something that isn’t on stage.” Ed Sheeran and Ellie Goulding are early supporters of the initiative, which (just going by anecdotal evidence here) doesn’t seem to have taken off four years later. Sorry, folks: Auto-Tune is here to stay.

August 2015: T-Pain blows the news media’s collective mind by performing the national anthem at a Los Angeles Dodgers game without Auto-Tune — despite showcasing his non-Auto-Tuned abilities in an extremely viral performance for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series the year before.

December 2016: Nearly two decades after Auto-Tune’s introduction to the world, musicians are still finding novel uses for it: at Houston’s Day for Night festival, Travis Scott calls a security guard a “big-earlobe, earring-wearing, fat motherfucker” while using it …

March 2017: But rock stars still occasionally fight against the technology’s application. In a Periscope session, Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo claims he was “forced” to use Auto-Tune on the band’s single “Feels Like Summer,” later elaborating, “You just got to be an artist and do what makes you happy.”

February 2018: Regardless, nine years after the industry-wide and cultural backlash against Auto-Tune, the software’s ubiquity has been normalized to the point where commentators invoke its usage as prescriptive. After commenting on Fergie’s disastrous performance of “the Star-Spangled Banner” at the NBA All-Star Game, talk-show host and professional shit-starter Wendy Williams claims that the former Black Eyed Peas singer could’ve used the help of Auto-Tune, going on to state “… Beyoncé needs Auto-Tune.” Take a wild guess how that went over.

Great Moments in Auto-Tune History