From T-Pain to Travis Scott: The Rap Auto-Tune Spectrum

By | Posted June 5, 2017
You don’t need extensive research in sound engineering to understand how rap’s biggest stars are utilizing Auto-Tune.
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Photo Credit: Instagram/Instagram

By this point, I’m sure you’ve seen the adolescent, semi-viral sensation Matt Ox and his fidget spinner-rich video for “Overwhelming.” It consists of Matt Ox jumping around a convenience store holding his favorite hot snacks and discussing his post “in the trenches.” I, like many, thought it was a humorous video meant to entertain, but a little digging reveals I was sorely mistaken.

I’m not here to talk down about a kid trying to carve out a path in music for himself, but the content kept nagging for some reason. I could deliver a pedantic, self-righteous scolding against cultural misappropriation, but that’s a complex issue that requires more thought. If I’m in the mood to continue beating dead equines I could slide into my standard issue “old-head” fatigues, but that’s disingenuous and short-sighted. Other than the evasive “I just don’t like it” position, why doesn’t this music connect with me?  

Technology can be an aide or an inhibitor, and Matt OX is a case of the latter. “Overwhelming,” “Lowkey,” and the rest of Matt Ox’s tracks have been canvassed with more layers of Auto-Tune and vocal effects than Bryson Tiller’s music is with melodrama. 

The pitch-altering software, like all tools, isn’t inherently bad or good. I can appreciate the enhancement it brings to the work of Kanye or Young Thug, but something is lost when I hear it filtering Matt Ox’s voice and every other rapper who thinks it’s a one-way ticket to mass acceptance.

From what I can gauge, the litmus test for proper use of Auto-Tune is a reliance on it—an artist must be able to hold their own independent of software. This concept led me to think more broadly about the history of Auto-Tune—used here as a blanket term for vocal manipulation writ large, including vocoders, talkboxes, etc.—and the ways in which it has been used.

Though Cher’s 2000 hit “Believe” was the new age spark to the Auto-Tune wildfire (believe it), its clear artists had been seeking a similar effect for years. What “Believe” marked was the transition from hardware to software as a means for altering vocals. The original program “Auto-Tune” was created in 1996 by Dr. Andy Hildebrand, a former engineer in the oil industry. After his tenure with Exxon, he reappropriated sonar technology used to detect oil pockets and made it do the same thing with voice pitch. Originally, it was meant to be undetectable and a cheat code for artists. When it’s pushed to the extreme though, it produces the mechanically-tinged effect we recognize.

While it’s easy, and sometimes fun, to talk about the ways in which artists botch Auto-Tune, I’m more interested in the ways artists get it right. Before diving into its most prominent users, I should establish beforehand that, though I’m fascinated by them, I don’t have any technical knowledge of Pro Tools, Auto-Tune, or engineering in general. Yes, this is the same thing as trying to solve a problem without even addressing the scientific perspective. Though it might not give us the whole picture, it’s a mistake to not even consider it. However, my goal here is to document the way their music sounds to the layman, and how it adds to the delivery, content and goal of the music.

Since humans are able to note a difference in taste without understanding the chemistry behind an added ingredient, let's do the same thing and run through a brief history of rap’s use of Auto-Tune.

T-Pain

Any work that involves listening to Rappa Ternt Sanga is worthwhile. That album marked the transition for rap into the era of “Auto-Tune saturation” and T-Pain was there to lead the charge. There’s little dispute in calling him the King of Auto-Tune, but that doesn’t fully capture his relationship to the technology. ‘King’ usually implies a position of power that was simply inherited, not earned. That’s the opposite of how T-Pain assumed his role and we need to add “Auto-Tune Scholar” to his resume.

According to an interview conducted several years ago (please disregard the sensationalist title), Teddy sought out Hildebrand to teach him the inner workings of the technology and spent two years studying Auto-Tune before he first used it. It’s evident in the final product, as T-Pain has the cleanest-sounding Auto-Tune to date. Clean isn’t always the aesthetic goal and, as we’ll see, other artists successfully use vocal manipulation in ways diametrically opposed to T-Pain. Still, give the man his due. I had the privilege of seeing T-Pain use Auto-Tune live for the first time and can testify that nothing is sweeter than getting to the source of a movement.

Kanye West

In the same DJ Vlad interview I referenced earlier, T-Pain discussed how Kanye, another member of the Auto-Tune pantheon, gave him credit for his work on Rappa Ternt Sanga. Soon after, West would deliver his own ode to Auto-Tune in 808s & Heartbreaks.

Kanye wasn’t focused on preserving the technical integrity of the software, but on using it to amplify his emotional state through the soundwaves. Maybe he started using it because he could hear his own voice longer, who can say? I remember being 15 when this album came out and listening to it on my 6 a.m. bus rides across the county to attend school. The weather was getting cold and it was the perfect scene to play out my teenage angst. His vocals were almost spatial in the way they helped transmit the world of Kanye West, building a space in which you could empathize with Ye.

While I was young and far from truly understanding the feelings Kanye was presenting, the way he used Auto-Tune to emphasize lines helped me scale the wall that stands between listening and understanding. Only true experience in the world can cause that wall to tumble, but peaking over it is a smoother transition than staring at a pile of rubble.

Future

If T-Pain approached vocal effects like a Ph.D. candidate, Future is the classmate who pisses everyone off because he excels just improvising on test day. I’m not saying Future hasn’t studied this facet of the game, but the range of effects across his hits catalog shows he can carry his audience on a whim.

Future made a name for himself as the “Auto-Tune Wizard” and, in the years since, engineer Seth Firkins has become his closet alchemist. There’s a noticeable difference between the in-your-face doctoring of a song like “Magic” or “Showed Up” and lighter HNDRXX cuts like “Fresh Air” and “Incredible.” His experimenting pays off in all these cases and they add to the Future personas we can indulge for any mood.

“Reliance on Auto-Tune” was a critique hurled at Future in his early career, but he’s done enough with his natural voice that he’s buried that criticism under a pile of ever-growing music.

Young Thug

Moving to the work of our favorite linguistic gymnast, we have to be careful about our terminology. From this point on in “Auto-Tune’s History,” I can’t say whether or not the artists are using Auto-Tune or some other manipulator from the endless array of plug-ins at their disposal. Like I said at the beginning, though, I’m more concerned with the taste of the final dish than the herbs and spices used to season it.

Regardless of the program, Thug’s use of digital vocal alteration is characterized by its spontaneity. Engineer Alex Tumay has repeatedly said in interviews that Thug came to respect him because of his quick ability to “drag and drop” plug-ins while Thug was recording. According to Tumay's Red Bull Music Academy talk, Thug prefers to hear the modifications in real time and has an acute ear for subtle shifts in the engineering.

Throughout Thug's discography, Slime Season 3 features the heaviest use of Auto-Tune that I can hear. “Memo” alone is a case study in how to use the software well. No matter what he does to his vocals, though, he’s able to convey the griminess of his pre-rap world and color it with the glitzy joy of 21st-century technology. ‘Slimy’, Thugger’s self-assigned adjective, ends up being the most appropriate word to describe his use of vocal modifiers.

Migos

Quavo, Offset and Takeoff have a complicated relationship with Auto-Tune. Quavo is by far the fondest of the software and has used it to perfection on Migos tracks (“Kelly Price”) and his features (“Oh My Dis Side”).

The other two members of Atlanta’s triumvirate use it more sparsely, sometimes only in their ad libs or for emphasis at the end of a line. Takeoff can utilize it to deliver a punishing hook (“Call Casting”) and Offset can use it in his more esoteric appearances (“What the Price”). Still, they’re versatile in whatever they manifest.

The real beauty lies in the collaborative attitude they bring to rap, willing to bounce ideas off each other and test the experimental methods of their companions. If nothing else, I’d be thankful for Auto-Tune because it gave us Quavo freestyling while Zaytoven plays a keytar, a tune equally appropriate at a club, wedding reception and, one day, my funeral.   

Travis Scott

Perhaps his moniker “La Flame” was a warning for all the heat he would take as a “biter” and a “sentient Tumblr account.” He didn’t start the Auto-Tune wave or, quite frankly, add any seismic activity to the tsunami of output the technology has produced. However, Scott is important in the history of Auto-Tune because he sits at the intersection of technical virtue and a willingness to experiment.

Though Tumay engineered some of his early work on Days Before Rodeo, the console was handed over to wizard Mike Dean for his next two projects. Dean's decades of engineering experience make Travis’ Auto-Tune sound notably polished compared to his contemporaries, even when they’re aiming for a gritty aesthetic (“Impossible”). He can also take the same tools and apply them to a dancehall appropriation that outperforms Drake’s attempts, despite not getting the same recognition (“guidance”).

Travis takes pieces from different regional sounds and stylistic traits, stitches them together with superb engineering, and presents us with a quilt that gives the most accurate picture of rap in 2017.   

Lil Yachty

Since his Lil Boat mixtape, Yachty has been the catalyst for larger discussions on what constitutes “hip-hop,” what it means to be a “rapper,” and, redundantly enough, the peaceful transition of power from one era of rap to another. In keeping with the narrative, he was criticized for his heavy Auto-Tune use, but a cursory review of Boat’s catalog proves he doesn’t rely on the software.

You don’t have to like it, but we must be honest and fair in our assessment. Lil Boat, his strongest output to date, features Auto-Tune ballads as well as Yachty attempting to stretch the limits of his voice naturally. Like the Taoist symbol representing the complementary forces yin and yang, Yachty’s breaks from the technology allow for his Auto-Tune use to have more meaning in the context of his work.

From veterans like Lil Wayne to relative newcomers like 24hrs, Auto-Tune has been and will remain an integral part of the hip-hop landscape. As is true with most tools, it's up to the user on how to best shape it to fit their objective, and the best part for a listener is hearing the experimentation with different methods and approaches.

You don't need extensive research in sound engineering to understand how rap's biggest stars are utilizing software to their distinct advantages, only an appreciation for subtle differences and a desire to hear it from those not named Matt Ox.

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