Before inventing Auto-Tune, the software that would change the music industry forever, Andy Hildebrand was a research scientist in the oil industry.
Working for Exxon Production Research and then Landmark Graphics, a company he co-founded, Hildebrand developed software for processing data from reflection seismology, a method of estimating properties of Earth’s subsurface using reflected seismic waves. His innovations were great for finding oil, and they reportedly made him a lot of money.
Here’s a screenshot of Landmark’s geophysical analysis software today:
But reflection seismology was not his first love.A professionally trained flutist since a young age, Hildebrand really wanted to be involved in music, and he found a way to transfer his skills to that field in 1990 when he launchedAntares Audio Technologies, a company originally focused on digital music processing and sampling software.
His breakthrough with Auto-Tune was inspired by a fluke comment in 1996 or 1997, when a distributor’s wife mentioned how great it would be to have a device that kept her singing in tune, according to Greg Milner’s “Perfecting Sound Forever.”
Hildebrand thought this over and realised that the type of processing he used in the oil industry could also correct pitch. As he explained on PBS’s NOVA years later:
“Seismic data processing involves the manipulation of acoustic data in relation to a linear time varying, unknown system (the Earth model) for the purpose of determining and clarifying the influences involved to enhance geologic interpretation. Coincident (similar) technologies include correlation (statics determination), linear predictive coding (deconvolution), synthesis (forward modelling), formant analysis (spectral enhancement), and processing integrity to minimize artifacts. All of these technologies are shared amongst music and geophysical applications.”
And here’s a screenshot of Auto Tune’s music software — note the similarities:
Although there were ways to correct pitch before Auto-Tune, it wasn’t easy. Auto-Tune was incredibly good and incredibly easy, among other things allowing users to set a key and then have the software automatically correct notes to hit the right pitch.
“People couldn’t believe what they were hearing,” Hildebrand told Milner about debuting the software in the late 90s. “I had trouble convincing several of them that I wasn’t pulling wool over their eyes.”
For Hildebrand creating the software was his way of allowing artist to worry about the emotion of the recording rather than the technical aspects of it.
“The singer’s first take is often their best, it’s full of vitality and emotion,” Hildebrand told NPR in 2004. “After the take, their producer will announce ‘great but the second phrase was pitchy so let’s do it again.’ Well, now the singer’s worried about pitch and has to focus on the intonation and the vitality and emotion are gone from their performance. What Auto-Tune lets the producer do is fix the first take.”
Auto-Tune caught on quickly but was treated as an industry secret until Cher brought it to the forefront with her 1998 smash “Believe,” which used the software at its most aggressive setting for a strange, robotic effect.
“Most major studios were using this software for pitch correction. The studios didn’t like to talk about what they were doing,” Hildebrand told the Seattle Times. “They didn’t advertise the fact they were fixing the singer’s pitch, but they did… [Cher] was just the first to make it public.”
And then it was off to the races, with producers everywhere embracing it.
“It’s a great and totally acceptable tool,” music producer Pat Dillett told Billboard in 2004. “We’ve been trying to fix pitch for years. Well before Auto-Tune, we’ve had tons of methods… to speed things up, slow them down, fly them back in [to the track] and get them right. It [was] really hard. So I’m glad it’s easy.”
“Since rising to fame as the weird techno-warble effect in the chorus of Cher’s 1998 song, ‘Believe,’ Auto-Tune has become bitchy shorthand for saying somebody can’t sing,” wrote The Verge‘s Lessley Anderson. “But the diss isn’t fair, because everybody’s using it.”
Of course, not everyone likes what Auto-Tune has done to music.
Time Magazine called it one of the 50 worst inventions while others have compared it to body modifications and plastic surgery. Some artists have protested, too, like Jay Z, who released an “anti-Auto-Tune” album and a song called “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).”
But mostly, audiences have been happy to settle into ignorant bliss about how much our favourite songs, like women on magazine covers, are digitally enhanced. That’s why people acted shocked, outraged, and disdainful when unedited tracks of Britney Spears’ awful singing recently leaked to the internet (the version we posted is no longer online, but you can find it if you search).
But was any one really surprised that Britney sounded so bad? And will this actually hurt her career? Nah, let’s just sit back and enjoy the wonders of Auto-Tune.