Motor Mouth
T-Pain Cranks Out Hits Thanks to Auto-Tune Software. Now Everyone Else Wants to Come Along for the Ride.

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 9, 2008

T -Pain is tired of hearing the sound of his own, heavily processed voice.

Actually, the Tallahassee hip-hop star is tired of hearing everybody else simulating the sound of his synthesized voice -- the one that's run through a software program called Auto-Tune for a giddy effect that makes him (and them) sound like a singing cyborg or a warbling chipmunk, or maybe a much funkier Peter Frampton.

Superstar singers and rappers from Kanye West and Lil Wayne to Chris Brown and Ciara have been borrowing T-Pain's trademark, so incensing him that he's using his natural voice to talk about it on his new album, "Thr33 Ringz."

The Auto-Tune King, unplugged?! It's the equivalent of Jack Nicholson removing his shades to stare you down, or your mother calling you by your full name to emphasize just how much trouble you're in.

"Listen to the radio, it's obvious I still kill," T-Pain raps au naturel in a song called "Karaoke." The 23-year-old hitmaker proceeds to kill the copycats with a profanity-laced rant in which he seethes: "Y'all [bleeeeeep] can die slowly/Cause to me it sound like a buncha karaoke."

Oh, snap!

Or, as it might sound via Auto-Tune: Snaaa- aaauh- auhhhurrr- urhhhh-AAAAP!

"Every time I hear somebody singing one of their songs, it sounds like them singing karaoke of one of my songs," T-Pain says in a telephone interview. "Don't think I'm not going to hear it when you take that whole style from me. It's pretty much everybody; they're taking the sound I came out with, which was real different, very distinctive."

Until recently, the so-called "T-Pain effect" was actually known as "the Cher effect," after producers of Cher's 1998 dance-pop hit "Believe" pioneered the use of Auto-Tune to create rapturously robotic vocal flourishes that suggested a vocoder on steroids. In fact, there's a long history of manipulated, metallic-sounding vocals (and sorta-vocals) in pop music, with artists from Kraftwerk, ELO and Bon Jovi to Madonna, Midnight Star and Daft Punk using everything from talk boxes to vocoders to spike their recordings with exotic, robotic voices.

A talk box is a tubular device that allows a musician to change the content of an instrumental sound -- via a plastic tube placed in the mouth -- so that the instrument appears to be "talking." A vocoder alters the sound and shape of the vocal signal by sending it through a keyboard synthesizer. Operationally, Auto-Tune has more in common with a vocoder than a talk box.

T-Pain, whose given name is Faheem Najm, is careful to note the vocoder-and-talk-box-laced legacies of Roger Troutman (of Zapp) and Teddy Riley (Guy, Blackstreet) in "Karaoke." But there's no question that he's become synonymous with the suddenly ubiquitous Auto-Tune effect, which adds a distinct, delirious and decidedly sticky sound to his songs -- many of them enormously successful.

Last year, two of T-Pain's singles and five others on which he was a featured vocalist landed in the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100, which some purists saw as yet another sign of the digital-music apocalypse. The alternate view: Making your singing voice sound like a Speak & Spell that's been submerged in a bathtub is no different from a guitarist using a wah-wah pedal to tweak the timbre of an instrumental line or a whammy bar to bend the pitch of a note.

"I've heard [the criticism] since I came out," says T-Pain, who just three years ago was a relatively unknown rapper who sometimes sang the hooks for his group, the Nappy Headz. "People were really hating on it. But I'm being accepted for doing it now. I'm actually being congratulated."

And copied. Success breeds imitation in pop culture, and following T-Pain's breakthrough, there's been a full-fledged Auto-Tune explosion in hip-hop, as heard on Lil Wayne's "Lollipop," Kanye West's "Love Lockdown," Chris Brown's "Forever," Janet Jackson's "Feedback" and G-Unit's 50 Cent showcase, "Rider Pt. 2," not to mention various songs that feature T-Pain himself, such as Ciara's new single, "Go Girl."

"You're talking about bona fide hits by A-list artists, the biggest names in hip-hop," says Dion Summers, a senior programming director for Sirius XM's hip-hop and R&B channels. "The T-Pain technique definitely makes a song stand out. It sounds so cool, and it gives more rise to the record and makes it seem lighter. He really hit on a winning formula. It works; that's why these other artists are doing it."

The chart-topping Auto-Tune converts Lil Wayne and Kanye West are given a pass by T-Pain, having asked their occasional collaborator for his blessing to use the effect. "Wayne would get on the phone with you right now and say I'm the reason he started using Auto-Tune," T-Pain says of the New Orleans rapper, whose lascivious "Lollipop" made him sound something like a futuristic frog. (The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early May.)

"And Kanye said, 'Let me borrow your style for a second.' He would tell you, 'Yeah, I took that from Pain.' " West has taken it and run, straight into the studio: On his upcoming album, "808s & Heartbreak," the erstwhile rapper proffers processed vocals that sound as if they were sung by Stephen Hawking's vocal synthesizer. "If you don't like autotune," West wrote on his blog earlier this year, "too bad cause I love it."

T-Pain still loves it, too. On "Thr33 Ringz," which comes out Tuesday, he continues to embrace the technology. Aside from "Karaoke," which actually does contain a handful of Auto-Tuned notes for added emphasis, there's only one track on which T-Pain doesn't use his signature sound: "Keep Going," a heartfelt ballad about the musician's wife and children.

"I do that on every album, a song without Auto-Tune that has a lot of meaning to me," he says. "Something that important and close doesn't need to be enhanced with a lot of effects. It's already emotional enough; it should be natural. But people don't really pay attention to it, I guess. They always expect Auto-Tune."

Though T-Pain has a knack for crafting sharp hooks and catchy beats that tend to fill dance floors, it's the effervescent vocal effect that defines him. That's why he generated so many laughs when, during his stint as host of the BET Awards last month, he got into an argument with his Auto-Tuner. The man-machine relationship -- which T-Pain also spoofed in a video for the Web site Funny or Die -- rang true.

"People think I have to change my voice in order to sing," he says. "What people don't recognize is that you can't just put Auto-Tune on your voice and have a hit on your hands. You still have to make the song a hit, make the beat hot. Take the Auto-Tune effect off all these songs I've done, they're still going to be hits."

Last year, T-Pain reached No. 1 on the big Billboard chart three times: With his own "Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin')" and as a guest on (and producer of) Chris Brown's "Kiss Kiss" and Flo Rida's "Low." Notably, "Low" didn't include any Auto-Tuned vocals, which T-Pain offers as evidence that his success isn't dependent on a gimmick.

"He doesn't have to do it -- he's doing it for fun, not because he can't write a good song," says Robin Thicke, an R&B singer who doesn't use the T-Pain effect. But, Thicke says, as a producer, he used Auto-Tune for its original purpose. "I've produced for some people who weren't great singers," Thicke says. "I had to use it on their vocals."

The great irony of the Auto-Tune explosion is that the software that's now being used to distort vocals in an intentionally obvious, attention-getting, over-the-top way was originally created to do something stealthy in the recording studio: correct pitch problems.

While pop music isn't anything like rocket science, it took a geophysicist to figure out how to clean up wrong notes. Twenty years ago Harold "Andy" Hildebrand, who'd spent nearly two decades doing seismic data research in the oil industry, started a company, Jupiter Systems (since renamed Antares), that applied mathematical models and digital-signal processing technology to musical applications. Its first program was used to create seamless synthesizer loops.

The idea for Auto-Tune came during lunch one day, when Hildebrand was jokingly asked by the wife of a sales rep to come up with an algorithm that might make her singing sound better. "We were discussing what I should do next, and she said, 'Maybe you could make a box for me that would make my voice in tune,' " Hildebrand says from his Northern California office. "And everybody just stared down at their lunch. . . . Everybody knew it was impossible and was therefore a stupid idea." So of course, he says, he had to do it.

The result was a software plug-in that corrects a singer's pitch, in a way that's theoretically imperceptible to the untrained ear. "The automatic algorithm compares the pitch of the singer to a scale, then gradually moves the singer's pitch toward the scale note," Hildebrand says.

Introduced by Antares in 1997, the Auto-Tune application was revolutionary. It reduced the need for -- and expense of -- doing countless vocal retakes in pursuit of a perfect end-to-end vocal; it also allowed singers (J. Lo) with pitch problems (Britney) to sound somewhat palatable (Cassie).

Auto-Tune and pitch-correction programs like it are now used in just about every pop genre. There's also a version that can be used during concerts. (Is it live? Yes. Are you hearing the music naturally, without "invisible" fixes? Maybe not.)

It's so prevalent that Nashville producers rave when they encounter mainstream country singers, like Ashton Shepherd, who can record without any pitch correction. Harvey Mason Jr., a successful pop and R&B songwriter-producer, conservatively estimates that 60 percent of recording artists are using Auto-Tune as it was originally intended. But, he says: "I don't think I've ever had an artist ask for it. Most artists assume they don't need it."

He adds: "A lot of times, you're just trying to salvage a great performance that you might lose because of one bad note. You're not using it for total pitch correction. But some people just slam it, and everything they sing comes out in tune. You have to be careful with it -- sometimes Auto-Tune sterilizes performances and makes them sound clinical."

Is it cheating?

"I don't engage in those conversations," Hildebrand says. "I just make software."

He laughs, then notes that he's making money, too. Lots of it. "The industry's going to have to make up its own mind [if] it's a monster or not." (And anyway, says Hildebrand, who earned union scale in a symphony orchestra while in high school and studied composition at Rice University's Shepard School of Music: "Frankly, I don't listen to pop music.")

Summers, the satellite radio programmer, says the answer to the cheating question "really depends on what you use music for. If you're talking about singing at its purest, then absolutely. It's kind of the equivalent to taking steroids at the Olympics. If you're a singer, sing. But this is the entertainment industry. Take the J. Lo example. It's a look, a feel, a vibe. It doesn't really matter how she sings. You come to see her in concert, you know she's not doing a Whitney [Houston]. You're not there for that. You're there to be entertained."

Ne-Yo, the neo-classic soul man who has the No. 1 single on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart this week in "Miss Independent," says he despises Auto-Tune. "It takes the emotion out of your voice. And it's really used in the place of having actual vocal ability or skill."

But, he adds, "T-Pain has figured out a way to use it to where he can get a point across with it. Personally, I dig his style."

In T-Pain's hands, Auto-Tune is used as a tool, not a crutch -- a sort of flavor enhancer that falls somewhere between sweet cream butter and MSG. To achieve the effect, the Auto-Tune's "retune speed" setting is adjusted to zero; rather than moving a vocal toward the nearest correct note gradually, it's processed almost instantly, resulting in an unnatural stair step in pitch that makes human vocals sound unhuman. "It really wasn't meant to be used that way," Hildebrand says, "but it's becoming really popular."

So much so that Antares is releasing a discounted, stripped-down version of Auto-Tune this month to coincide with the release of T-Pain's album. Whereas Auto-Tune plug-ins typically sell for more than $300, Antares is offering the Auto-Tune EFX for $99 through Guitar Center -- "for the guy who wants a simple T-Pain effect or simple pitch correction," Hildebrand says.

This, of course, means more T-Pain copycats are inevitable. Some will be more famous than others: Sean "Diddy" Combs has already announced that his next album will feature a heavy dose of Auto-Tuned vocals, which actually sounds like an upgrade, given how monochromatic the mogul-rapper's voice tends to be in recorded form. Christina Aguilera -- a bona fide belter who doesn't need the help -- has hinted that she might experiment with the effect, too.

And eventually, this too shall pass -- just like the trend of using speeded-up soul samples in hip-hop several years ago, and the "radio voice" trend in R&B around 2001-2002, when certain lines were filtered and processed so that they'd sound as if they were being sung through a transistor radio or a telephone.

Until then, the frontman for the futuristic hip-hop movement has an idea. "Everybody's singing like me," T-Pain says, "so I figure maybe I should rap like everybody else."

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