The Science of Auto-Tune: How WWII Spy Tech is Making a lot of Pop Stars Rich

Auto tune science

How does your voice sound? Can you rock a karoke mic or are you somebody who just lip-syncs while the crowd around you sings on? Now anyone can be a star performer with a little digital audio assistance from the Auto-Tune effect.

Ever since Cher released the song Believe way back in 1998, radio stations have been stacking their playlists with Auto-Tune tracks. Originally, Antares, the company that developed the audio effect, intended it to be used as a tool to make musicians sound like they have pitch-perfect voices. In the beginning, that’s how it was used, as a type of airbrush to hide the imperfections of a musician’s voice. Since then, it has evolved into an effect that distorts a vocal track instead of giving it a glossy perfectness. Auto-Tune has been used by everyone from Snoop Dogg to Celine Dion. T-Pain even went on to create a mobile app called I am T-Pain so you could Auto-Tune your own voice with the T-Pain Effect while singing along to his songs.

Auto-Tune has faced a lot of criticism since it was first released, yet Auto-Tuned songs are crowding the airwaves more than ever. It seems like it is a technology that is here to stay.

Basically, auto-tune is a type of vocoder, short for voice encoder, a technology developed in the late 1920′s by Bell Labs and used for encrypted high-level voice communications during World War IIAccording to Innovative Synthesis, a vocoder needs two inputs to function properly. A ‘carrier’ wave, and a ‘modulator’ input. The carrier is the sound you want to vocode through, and the modulator is your voice. The modulator takes your voice’s frequencies and converts them into levels of amplitude on a series of band pass filters (this is why some vocoders have different numbers of bands) – in general, the more bands available the more understandable your speech will be. These band pass filter signals are then passed onto the carrier wave where your final sound is created. In music, the classic vocoder was used in 70′s funk music to create a robot effect, influences that later inspired songs by Snoop Dogg, Daft Punk and of course T-Pain.

science of auto-tune

A vocoder was used to create the voice for Soundwave in the 80′s hit cartoon Transformers.

Auto-Tune science is slightly different, in that it measures and alters pitch in vocals and instrumental music, allowing pop stars who can’t sing for their life (not naming names) and making them perfectly tuned even though they’re completely off-key. The software shifts pitches to the nearest true semitone, to the exact pitch of the nearest tone (via Wikipedia). The future of music ladies and gentlemen…

Read the lesson below to take a deeper look at the science behind Auto-Tune and learn some tricks to produce similar effects. Get your hands on some free digital audio editing software similar to what is used in the industry and try making your own effect heavy beats. Can you create something that can one-up the next Kanye West track?

Media

Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Lesson Plan

LEARNING OBJECTIVE:  This lesson will teach students how to use effects similar to Auto-Tune and vocoders to manipulate sound. Through the process, students will learn the fundamentals behind the science of sound. They will create their own audio compositions using free sound applications, like Audacity and Soundation.

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Lesson tags: Auto-tune, Eighth, Featured, Music, Ninth, Production, Science, Seventh, Sixth

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