The Auto-tune Debate Before Auto-tune

Auto-tune: it’s the ubiquitous digital effect that gives pop singers’ voices that robotic quality, that you may know from the Youtube phenom auto-tune the news, and that recently prompted Alex Pappademas to start a three-part New York Times blog series with the question: “really now, what’s so bad about auto-tune pop?”

Pappademas speaks to the many who find auto-tune repugnant, and especially to those who justify their (dis)taste for the effect as a matter of standards.  As he observes in installment #3:

the biggest criticism Auto-Tune’s critics level against it is that it’s the sonic equivalent of plastic surgery or ‘roids, a digital fix that lets lousy singers skip over that whole learning-to-carry-a-tune thing (boring!) and cut straight to pop stardom’s V.I.P. room.

Auto-tune, in short, is a musical cheat, to which Pappademas replies:

The truth is that artists and producers have been using technology (reverb, overdubbing, electronic harmonizers) to change the sound of their voices for decades. The link between “organic” live performance and recorded music was broken in the late ‘40s when Les Paul popularized multitrack recording.

Indeed. But the arguments surrounding auto-tune aren’t unique to vocal effects, and they long predate recorded music. In fact, the same arguments have perennially attended tone-modifying devices of all sorts: many technologies for altering the sound of an instrument were once regarded as crutches but went on to gain acceptance as expressive resources, ultimately becoming part of what it means to know how to play or compose for a given instrument. This is the story of two tone-modifying devices whose detractors have fallen silent: the violin mute, and the sustaining pedal.

The Violin Mute

The violin mute was invented in the seventeenth century, and is a device applied to the bridge of the violin to dampen its sound.  The French composer Lully was one of the first to call for muted violins in a written score, pairing them with recorders in a depiction of enchanting, soporific murmurings in the opera Armida (1686):

By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, French critics regarded the mute as a crutch for violinists incapable of playing softly.  As one writer remarked in an article on performance in the Encyclopédie:

It is well known that in Lully’s lifetime the violinists needed to resort to mutes in order to play softly enough in certain passages.

If this view of the mute as a substitute for skill had persisted, the mute no doubt would have become obsolete.  Elsewhere in Europe, however, composers and listeners perceived the mute as giving the violin a special tonal quality that violinists without mutes could not match.  And so composers continued to call for violin mutes for that special tonal quality, often combining it with slow, flowing music to produce the peaceful or dreamy atmosphere pioneered by Lully.  Today, critics reserve their venom for violinists who fail to use mutes when they should.  Speaking of the violin mutes in Haydn’s Il mondo della luna (1777), period performance specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt recently remarked:

Players are lazy and think it’s enough just to play very softly. But when composers write ‘con sordino’ — ‘with mute’ — they want a very particular, different sound…The idea was just to hear quivering air.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts “Vado, vado” from Il mondo della luna – with mutes

The Sustaining Pedal

The piano was one of the major technological breakthroughs of the eighteenth century, trumping the harpsichord with its touch-sensitivity and the clavichord with its greater volume.  Early on, piano manufacturers experimented with ways of modifying the piano’s tone, eventually arriving at pedals as a hands-free way to apply tone-modifying devices. Many players, however, considered piano technique a matter of fingers only, and pianists who used pedals were commonly charged with charlatanism – with resorting to technological trickery to mask a lack of keyboard skill. Such was the case with the sustaining (or damper) pedal, which when depressed allowed the strings of the piano to resonate even after the finger had been lifted from the key.  The sustaining pedal was criticized as a cheat for finger legato, and also for producing a muddled blur of sound. As late as 1828, the pianist-composer Hummel maintained:

a truly great artist has no occasion for the pedals…Neither Mozart, nor Clementi, required these helps to obtain the highly deserved reputation of the greatest, and most expressive performers of their day.

By this time, however, the tides were turning.  As Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny observed:

by means of the pedal, a fullness can be attained which the fingers alone are incapable of producing.

Initially, composers used the sustaining pedal primarily for special effects, reserving them for unusual passages that stood apart from their surrounding context. One of Beethoven’s comparatively rare indications for sustaining pedal, for example, occurs in the opening of the Tempest Sonata, where it sets off slowly accumulating chords from the hurried Allegro theme.

Beethoven, Piano Sonata Op. 31 No. 2 (Tempest), first movement, first edition (Bonn, 1802)

The mid-1800s, however, witnessed a period of “pedal mania” during which pedaling became ubiquitous, and composer-pianists developed not only modern pedal technique but also new musical styles premised on use of the sustaining pedal. Chopin and Liszt were two of the chief architects of this development. The nocturne style that became Chopin’s trademark, for example, required the pedal to sustain the down-beat bass notes while the left moved to play mid-register chords, and to continue the cantabile legato across large (highly expressive) leaps in the right hand melody:

Arthur Rubinstein plays Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.2

Today, pianists are so used to the sustaining pedal that they often react negatively to the sound of the piano without it – even when playing music composed for finger legato.

Tone-Modifying Devices & Musical Evolution

What we’re seeing with Auto-tune, then, isn’t just a discussion of taste masquerading as a discussion of standards. It’s part of the process by which new technologies are incorporated into musical practice, transforming from crutches (which replace something old) into expressive resources that enable new musical styles and require new musical skills.

9 Comments on “The Auto-tune Debate Before Auto-tune”

  1. Myron Gray says:

    It’s also worth considering some of the fundamental differences between sound-production accessories like the violin mute and sustain pedal and an electro-digital sound-reproduction tool like Auto-tune.
    Auto-tune is controversial because it focalizes (at least) two technological-aesthetic issues that are unique to the later twentieth century and beyond. It simultaneously exposes the nature and function of (1) sound recording technology in general, which is not necessarily digital; and (2) digitalization, which is not exclusive to sonic media.
    Sound recording technology was widely adopted because advertisers and recordists together pursued a rhetorical campaign that we should call “veridicism.” This is the argument, verbal or otherwise sonic, that sound recording technology maintains an essential connection to, or is merely an extension of, existing musical practice, which is to say, “live” music. Auto-tune remains veridic in its recourse to the human voice. At the same time, however, it produces sounds that need no origin—and, indeed, have no existence—outside the totality of recording practice. It makes sounds that cannot exist but by digital-electric mediation, and this is plain for all to hear. Auto-tune’s use of the human voice is only a rhetorical gesture, as recording practice can theoretically subsist, through synthesis or on existing samples, without further recourse to “live” musical production. Many only sense and do not articulate this technological reality, though their unease finds expression in sentiments like “real singers don’t use Auto-tune” or “Auto-tune is a cheat.”
    Though heralded by marketers for its “clarity,” etc., digital mediation is the last thing anyone interested in sonic “fidelity” (the ur-trope of veridic discourse) should espouse. An LP’s groove, for example, is continuous and infinite in its gradations, analogous to the air movements that it transcribes; it is the equivalent of Cher’s vocal line in “Believe” (1998) as she actually sang it. What Auto-tune did to Cher’s voice—strip out information, creating a discontinuous, graded, and non-analogous representation—is precisely what all digitalization of sonic phenomena achieves. In this and other uses of Auto-tune for aesthetic effect, the process of digitalization is exaggerated for easy perceptibility (as in a pixelated image). Digitalization is not primarily a means of rendering “sharper” or “cleaner” sounds. It reduces the similarity between an otherwise existing sonic event and its representation in order to make smaller files for ease of distribution. Under the sway of veridicism, people object to the patent distortion of vocal lines in aggressive (progressive?) uses of Auto-tune.


    • dkl says:

      Hi Myron, Thank you for your comments! It is indeed worth considering the differences between analog/mechanical instruments and digital processes, and I like the idea that auto-tune confronts us with the step-wise nature of digital information. But I would say the main criticism of auto-tune is independent of a commitment to “veridicism” in sound recording, being instead grounded in a commitment to certain skills that separate musicians from non-musicians.


      • Myron Gray says:

        Thanks for your reply. I trust things are well out west. Auto-tune has certainly sparked debates about authentic musicianship. However, I think that the veridic question stands behind this controversy, rather than apart from it. Suppose Bob can’t stay on pitch and makes a recording, without availing himself of Auto-tune, of his horrendous singing. Sally meanwhile is a brilliant singer and makes a recording that exploits Auto-tune, like Cher did in “Believe,” for aesthetic effect. Who is the better singer? Things get acrimonious if, for example, a weak singer uses Auto-tune to gain a competitive edge, while a more skillful singer suffers economically as a result. But such a problem can only exist among people who assume that recording is an accessory to singing, rather than singing an accessory to recording (in its broadest sense as encompassing tracking, mixing, and playback). It is indeed a question of what skills are musical, and of what music is. Is it veridic, in which case acoustic singing remains an ethical touchstone, or non-veridic, in which case singing is just one more data source, and the center of musical skill and production is data manipulation? Arguably, the latter is already the case.


  2. twtendrils says:

    Hi Myron, not sure if it matters to your argument, but auto-tune isn’t just for recordings. Antares makes a rack unit for live applications as well.


  3. Myron Gray says:

    Right. Some like to talk about how records began as documents of otherwise existing performances while concerts have increasingly become performances of recording practice. I would go further and argue that the trappings of liveness with which people continue to implicate sound recording technology are entirely superfluous. I define sound recording as the conversion of acoustic energy into another kind of information (e.g., mechanical or digital) or vice versa (e.g., turning digital code into sound). When Edison invented the first working phonograph, the concert paradigm of musical exchange, defined by the necessary proximity of performer and listener, became obsolete. Whether or not musicians and analysts recognize this fact is another matter.


  4. Tw says:

    that’s a pretty expansive definition of recording. Don’t you think the key is that you have to actually store the information somehow, not just convert it.

    If I set up my mic to record something, the vibrating air causes a diaphragm to vibrate which induces an electrical signal in a cable which is transferred into digital information by a da converter and processed by computer fx modeling analog phenomena like reverb and echo, but if I forget to hit record… Well I didn’t record anything did I?


    • Myron Gray says:

      You’re right, my definition was sloppy. I’m arguing that the most significant consequence of phonography and subsequent recording practice is the elimination of human proximity as a necessity of musical exchange (i.e., the obsolescence of the concert paradigm), and that this has only been achieved by the conversion of sound waves into storable information, which might then be reconverted into sound. Meanwhile, people continue to accommodate recording technology to the concert paradigm, exploiting it as an accessory to liveness. For example, as you pointed out, Auto-tune might be used to process storable data in certain contexts, without a record being made, much like in the scenario where you fail to hit “record.”


  5. Tw says:

    Here’s a thread where folks are discussing using Auto tune during a live musical theater production.( There’s plenty of outrage about it. My favorite comment:

    “So when I fly a person for a show, do I need to alert the audience that the person is being flown with the assistance of cables, and is not actually able to fly on their own?”


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