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The Cher Effect: Part Two

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Auto-Tune was invented by  by Dr. Andy Hildebrand, a research engineer for the oil industry. Initially it was an algorithm that interpreted the seismic waves induced by the explosions oil companies use to explore for gas and oil, in order to map potential drill sites. I spent a long terrible summer working on a seismic drill crew, sloughing through muskeg and billowing clouds of black-flies and mosquitoes, putting on and removing the 5 foot pipe stems to bore the 65 foot holes into which we'd drop 15 pounds of dynamite. It's way worse than it sounds to which thousands, likely tens of thousands, of students can surely attest. In 1996 the technology was adapted to make auto-correlations to music pitch by Antares Technologies.

The first major use of it, as most are aware, was by Cher in her 1998 hit, “Believe.”  Essentially, auto-tune is a production tool which can assist the user to sing on key, or better at least. Most engineers claim it really can't help a terrible singer. But when I listen to radio you'd have trouble convincing me of that.

When Music Flat Lines

The real problem and main criticism is the overuse of the tool in popular music. Like some new-age god, it is omnipresent. So unless it is being used in the extreme as Cher did, it frequently goes unnoticed. But it is there, in not only pop but also most rap and commercial country. This yodelling must have Jimmy Rogers and Slim Whitman turning in their graves.  But the persistent perfect pitch created in the studio (and on-stage) is resulting in a homogenous sound which is monotonous and ultimately boring. Everything music isn't supposed to be, unless it's purposely meant to be, as in some styles of minimalism by say Steve Reich, Terry Riley or Phillip Glass.

The supremely annoying effect in “Believe” was created by the producers turning up the Auto-tune to maximum. By correcting the pitch at the moment the signal was received, auto-tune created the now familiar robot inflection and wobble in Cher's voice. What seems funny to me, this effect wasn't anything new. Before auto-tune there was the vocoder and the talk-box, which made a multimillionaire of Peter Frampton. People may be less familiar with the vocoder which was invented in the 1930s but perfected by Robert Moog, of Moog synthesizer fame, in 1968. It was widely used in popular electronic music beginning in the 1970s. Kraftwerk used vocoder vocals on its 1974 album, Autobahn. Earlier Wendy Carlos had employed it in her all-electronic soundtrack for the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film, A Clockwork Orange. (I Wanna Marry a Light-house Keeper: and Beethoven’s 9th Synphony, Ode To Joy: ) Carlos released the record before his sex-change and was still known as Walter Carlos, although she had started her transition in 1968. Numerous other examples abound; Pink Floyd, Giorgio Moroder, ELO, Styx and probably the most famous, Tommy James and The Shondells mega-hit “Crimson & Clover” are a few examples.     

South Park Auto-Tuned

No surprise, the reviewers here at 27 Forever aren't huge fans of Auto-tune. While it may be a common squall these days, we can't help but view it as a hackneyed cheat. I love a lot of electronic music but I don't want to sit around listening to endless washes of inoffensive new-age noise. I feel the same way about the ubiquitous use of auto-tune. But let the razor wit of Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park express my disdain and sum up the whole subject with their usual hilarious but unique satire.

Just to set the scene: Mr. Mackie, the straight school-teacher is having a meteorite shower party for all the kids’ parents. The ATF shows up because they think it's a cult who are going to mass suicide during the meteor shower and of course to "save" everyone they are determined to kill them all,  a la Waco. To drive them out of the house the ATF bring in massive speakers and they blast the most obnoxious music they can find. Inside Mr. Mackie is putting on the new Cher CD, playing the song “Believe,” which is what the ATF is blasting. The fall-down-drunk partiers start grooving to the sound....







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