How an Oil Engineer Created Auto-Tune and Changed Music Forever

An interview with the revolutionary audio processor's inventor Andy Hildebrand.
February 25, 2016, 5:10pm
zZounds

Cher's "Believe," released in 1998, was the first song to utilize Auto-Tune's now ubiquitous vocal warping vocal effects that experienced massive commercial success. What was most memorable about it wasn't that the vocals sounded mechanical or synthesized (certainly that had been done before), it was the way that they moved—seemingly jumping from pitch to pitch.

Since then Antares Audio Technology's Auto-Tune has become a brand name to the process of pitch correction—like Unilever's Popsicle is to frozen treats, or Jacuzzi is to…jacuzzis. For many, it has also become a modern parable for mass-manufactured music, peddled to an undiscerning public like an unsafe food additive.

Nonetheless, it continues to be used across all genres of music (whether your know it or not). James Blake has coaxed warm, soulful character from it; other artists, like Aphex Twin point to the otherworldly and not-quite-human aspects in a more unsettling way.

It wasn't something you were ever supposed to hear, a kind of musical sleight-of-hand trick designed to make subtle corrections and perfect a singer's pitch. But buried in Auto-Tune's numerous settings is "discretize." Setting the dial high causes the synthesized voice to jump across pitch values rather than flow in a continuous, organic way—yielding the robotic "Auto-Tune sound" made notorious by Cher and, more recently, Future.

Techniques for altering or polishing a vocal performance are as old as recording itself. What made Auto-Tune unique was its use of advanced digital signal processing algorithms. Its creator, Dr. Andy Hildebrand, first experimented with these sequences while studying electric engineering at Chicago's University of Illinois, before going on to work with Exxon between 1976 and 1989.

In 1990, Dr. Hildebrand returned to his love of music (he played flute professionally when he was younger) and founded Jupiter Systems, which would later become Antares Audio Technology—the company that struck gold when it debuted Auto-Tune in 1997.

Perhaps surprisingly, the man behind the technology (which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year) isn't some slick New York recording executive. Instead, Dr. Hildebrand lives in the small town of Felton in the forests of central California, and prefers Mozart to T-Pain.

THUMP: It seems like a lot of people still love to hate Auto-Tune. Do you ever feel like you created a monster?

Andy Hildebrand: [Laughs] Well, I've certainly created something people love to hate, that's for sure. But, you know, they're the same people, that hate a lot of other things, too—like paying taxes, and other stuff. In a sense, haters will be haters.

I heard that Auto-Tune software had its origins in your work as a geophysical engineer, locating oil deposits with sound waves from dynamite blasts.
[Laughs] Yeah, well that's exactly wrong.

Oh, is it?
My training started at the University of Illinois, where I got a PhD in [electrical engineering] specializing in signal processing. I went from there to Exxon, and then later on started my own company [Landmark Graphics] in the areas of oil exploration, to do signal processing on seismic data. So you would say that I'm a practitioner of digital signal processing and I've applied that to geophysics, and I've applied it to music. There was really no overlap between the two, other than a point in time.

Read More on THUMP: Which Comes First in Contemporary Music Technology: the Musician or the Machine?

When did you realize that method could be used to correct a singer's pitch?
Around 1995 I was at a trade show, it was me and a couple partners, and we were with a person who was distributing our products. His wife was there, and we were talking about what products would be interesting to do next. His wife said, "Well, Andy, why don't you make me a box that would have me sing in tune?" I looked around at the table, and everyone just stared at their lunch plates, they didn't say a word.

So I thought, "boy, that's a lousy idea." About eight or nine months into the year, I'd gone to work for a different project, and I came back to that idea, I said, "you know, that's pretty straightforward to do, I'll do that." At the same trade show a year later I had producers ripping it out of my hands.

Was it ever bothersome to you that people seemed more interested in the synthetic, "discretized" sound, rather than how you intended the technology to be used?
Well, my emotional response was more surprise [laughs]. When I first heard the Cher song, my reaction was more like, "She did that?"

That's how I felt when I heard it too.
I almost didn't put that feature in the software, but I was told, "Why not, you know? It won't hurt." So that's how it got to be.

Where is the line for using technologies like Auto-Tune in an artistic way, versus a manner that "cheapens" music, as some people accuse it of doing?
Well, this is all very subjective. You can ask ten people, and you'll get ten different answers, and it really doesn't matter. I'm not a religious person, but you have to have kind of a religious commitment to things to be positional about them. I don't mean that as a discursion of organized religion, but you need to be set in your ways not to be accepting of something different.

In the history of Western music, there's just been one long innovation after another, in terms of how music is produced, modified, and recorded, broadcast. So, in a way, Auto-Tune isn't any different from that. I imagine people were upset when stereo was invented. It just doesn't matter. It's just new; some people like what's new, some people don't.

Almost 20 years after Cher's "Believe" came out, Auto-Tune is still incredibly popular. Why do think that is?
Well, I think it makes the human voice un-human in a way. That's certainly a surprise to hear for everyone at some point. The person might sound more like a synthesizer than a person, but it's still not incongruous with the music.

Can you think of any artists that you've heard that use pitch correction in a way that, I don't know, is maybe excessive?
Well, I think as a pop cult fad, it's a bit overused in general. I wouldn't want to name names, but I think it's become an effect that people recognize when the singer's pitch is discretized, and they say, "Oh, that's Auto-Tune." What they don't realize is that Auto-Tune is in many, many songs where you don't hear it being used, and that's the way it was intended. I just build the car, I don't drive it down the wrong side of the road.

This interview has been edited and condensed.