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How Auto-Tune changed the sound of music forever

From Daft Punk to Yung Lean, we trace how the warped vocal style evolved from corny to credible

Back in the day, the term “Auto-Tune” was usually said with a hint of scorn. Generally considered the reserve of singers who couldn’t sing live, the voice-warping technique fixed dodgy notes and smoothed out edges, like the musical equivalent of Photoshop. And far from being acknowledged as a credible form of expression, it was looked upon as the music industry’s dirty secret, like manufactured bands or ghostwriting.

However, fast-forward two decades and that attitude feels dated. While there are still swathes of people who don’t appreciate the artistic merit of Auto-Tune (possibly the same people who petitioned to remove Kanye West from headlining Glastonbury last year), it’s hard to deny that pitch-correcting manipulation has long become a medium in its own right. Kanye’s most recent album The Life of Pablo is drenched in it; the machine-bred sound translating feelings of isolation and despair, a technique he employed on 808 & Heartbreak also. Similarly, Lil Wayne utilised Auto-Tune between his albums Tha Carter II and Tha Carter III, the glossy-edged, slurring digitalism a perfect musical expression of his then-addiction to promethazine codeine. And before him, of course, there was T-Pain, who has always treated his voice as another instrument that could (and should) be manipulated for artistic merit.

Outside of hip hop, Auto-Tune has been used for electro-pop flourishes, its sweetly-rounded robotic sound adding a kind of glistening futurism. From the brilliantly plastic sounds of Lady Gaga and Kesha, to the warbling bars of Future and the melancholic flow of Drake, Auto-Tune is as much of a music staple as the voice itself. To celebrate the musical legacy of Auto-Tune, we took a look back at how the technique changed the sound of music forever, one twisted song at a time.

TUPAC ­– “CALIFORNIA LOVE” (1995)

Cher’s smash hit “Believe” might often be cited as the track that spread Auto-Tune to the masses, but three years previously it was Tupac who utilised the technique on his iconic Cali ode “California Love”. While the verses feature hard bars from Tupac and Dr. Dre, the chorus dives straight into an uber-catchy flurry of melodic Auto-Tune, with the words: “California, knows how to party, in the city of L.A., in the city of good ol’ Watts, in the city, the city of Compton, we keep it rockin, we keep it rockin!” With its forward-facing approach to sound and bouncing beat, it’s a track that undoubtedly elevated Tupac from rapper to rap king, all thanks to a heady dose of Auto-Tune.

CHER – “BELIEVE” (1998)

Cher’s “Believe” was a significant moment in pop culture, not only because it saw the singer completely reinvent her sound, spawning an iconic gay club anthem at the same time, but it also threw light on the far-reaching artistic possibilities of Auto-Tune and hurtled the technique into the mainstream. Producer Mark Taylor, who added the effect, has since explained that it “was the most nerve-wracking part of the project, because I wasn’t sure what Cher would say when she heard what I’d done to her voice”. As it turns out, Cher absolutely loved it, and when her record company requested that they take the Auto-Tune away, Cher responded, “over my dead body”, adding: “Don't let anyone touch this track, or I’m going to rip your throat out.”

DAFT PUNK – “ONE MORE TIME” (2000)

If anyone should be commended for their innovative, forward-thinking approach to sound it should be Daft Punk, the French electronic duo who have encased so many of their tracks in Auto-Tune that it’s hard to detect whether there’s a human under there at all. In “One More Time” the duo employed a heavily warped vocal sample from Romanthony. When discussing the effects they used, Thomas Bangalter commented: “A lot of people complain about musicians using Auto-Tune. It reminds me of the late 70s when musicians in France tried to ban the synthesizer…what they didn’t see was that you could use those tools in a new way instead of just for replacing the instruments that came before.”

KANYE WEST – “SEE YOU IN MY NIGHTMARES (FT. LIL WAYNE)” (2008)

Following the wide-spread injection of Auto-Tune into hip hop and R&B (which Florida rapper T-Pain can take almost sole credit for), Kanye West utilised the sound in his highly acclaimed fourth album 808 & Heartbreak, an album that explored a truly eclectic sonic palette to reflect the artist’s eclectic state of mind. A perfect example of this can be seen in “See You in My Nightmares”, a track with Lil Wayne (who has used Auto-Tune prolifically in his own work), where Kanye sing-raps, “I got my life, and it’s my only one / I got the night, I’m running from the sun / So good night, I’m heading out the door / After tonight there will be no return” the Auto-Tuned melody adding a heady dose of dejection to a track steeped in self-reflection.

YUNG LEAN – “YOSHI CITY” (2014)

As the 2000s folded into the 2010s, we truly reached peak Auto-Tune, and no figure embodies this more than 19-year-old Swedish rapper Yung Lean, who uses the effect to translate a kind of sad millennial boredom, his twisted, bleary-eyed vocalisms taking cues from artists like Future and Lil Wayne. “Smoking loud, I’m a lonely cloud,” Lean raps in “Yoshi City” with his distinct heavy-lidded monotone. “I’m a lonely cloud, with my windows down, I’m lonely, lonely, I’m a lonely lonely.” But while the aforementioned artists might indirectly use the pitch-correcting software to portray or heighten their sadness or isolation, Lean uses it unswervingly, coupling it with melancholic, hyper-capitalist lyrics to create a miasma of dead-eyed emotion.