The Revolution Will Not be Autotuned

Feature

Friday, January 06, 2012

Think of Cher’s hit “Believe” and that robotic, computerized sound of her voice. (Now try getting it out of your head. Sorry.) The Autotune effect that sounded so radical at the turn of the 21st century became the defining studio effect of the decade since.

Every era of pop music has a signature sound that's as much a function of technology as musical style. Jon Pareles, chief pop critic of the New York Times, and music producer Patrick Grant say it all started in the 1950s, when engineers began experimenting with slap-back reverb — the sound of rockabilly and Sun Records. “It gives you an extra level of syncopation,” explains Pareles. “It suddenly makes a straight walking jazz bass into something that’s bounding around in your head. It expands your presence in the track, it makes you a larger figure in the musical room you’re creating.”

Phil Spector built reverb into his wall of sound, while in the 70s, phase shifting marked the sound of stadium acts like Pink Floyd as well as disco classics. In the 1980s, digital effects became small and portable, and proliferated. More recently, the grunge sound combined old-fashioned distortion with a creative use of compression to make every song jump out of the radio. Not all the innovations were planned. “When the mistake becomes the innovation” says Pareles, “that’s a beautiful thing about popular music.”

Pareles describes how Autotune and the new technique of stutter editing, instead of making the sound bigger, shrink and splice it for the age of the mp3. "We are fusing with our machines, so we've found the effect that expresses that."

 

Songs mentioned in this story:

Contributors:

Jocelyn Gonzales

Comments [4]

Whoa! Fascinating piece, but the reference to phase shifting was off by a decade or so. The first example of phase shifting was Toni Fisher's "The Big Hurt," recorded in 1957. Here is a comment from the YouTube submission posted by Jukeboxsaturdaynight:

"In 1957, Toni Fisher was doing an album and someone accidentally
sat on one of the reels on the tape player, slowing down the tape.
When they stood up, it sped back up to normal speed. The band
said, “Cool, let’s put it on the record.” They did put it on the record,
and thus flanging was born. The song, “The Big Hurt,” went to
number three on the charts in 1957. For years engineers would
create flanging by putting their fingers on the metal “flanges” that
hold the tape (David Gibson)"

I bought a copy of this "45" back in the day - still have it (right here in my hot little hands) - and it still holds a warm place in the heart of my memories along with '57 Ford retractable hardtops (Skyliners) and water skiing on Puget Sound behind a Luger plywood runabout with a 25-horse Johnson outboard.

Feb. 25 2012 11:35 PM
Moose from NYC

Cool bit... interesting insights even for someone who's spent the better part of two decades in recording studios. HOWEVER, like Ryan said above this the Nirvana clip from the 1990's was actually recorded by Steve Albini, not Butch Vig and the song played is "Milk It" not "Frances Farmer" and even further, as a point of clarity Steve isn't a fan of compression and prefers natual dynamics. That award (compression) goes to Andy Wallace who mixed "Nevermind" and a slew of other huge rock stuff in the '90s and beyond. Cheers!!!

Feb. 23 2012 02:28 AM
BradM from Massachusetts

How did you miss Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek". Using an auto-harmonizer to processor her voice really stood out (to me) as a signature use of effects.

Jan. 08 2012 02:56 PM
Ryan from Detroit

An interesting story. However, it is a bit awkward to hear a clip from Nirvana's In Utero LP (a Steve Albini production) while hearing commentary from Butch Vig (who produced Nevermind). In Utero was the album that clearly got away from the overproduction which was used prior on Nevermind. 'Francis Farmer...' is not compressed or saturated with recording effects at all.

Jan. 08 2012 02:42 PM

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