Duly Noted

Nova's Science Now on Tuesday evening seemed to promise me a miracle cure. When I was in first grade and the class was singing, my teacher told me to mouth the words. And my own mother seemed to accept the verdict. Today's parents would probably march off to the principal's office to protest such a withering blow to self-esteem. But for us, it became a family joke. The announcement's reference to "pitch-correcting software" seemed to promise a vocal training program that could teach us tonally challenged folk to sing on key.

Auto-Tune turns out to be less -- and more. It's not some kind of tutorial for self-improvement. Rather it's an acoustic Photoshop that retains a singer's tonal quality while altering pitch to correct errors and assure consistency. It's been an open secret of sound engineers in live as well as recorded music, famous since its over-the-top use in Cher's Believe over a decade ago. And it worked wonders for the host Neil deGrasse Tyson, even if it took hours of work by a top audio engineer to create presentable crooning.

There's more to it than that. Auto-Tune is now the focus of debate on whether the processing of sound has gone too far (as in Jay-Z's video D[eath] O[f] A[utotune]) or as Jace Clayton suggests in Frieze Magazine, the software's global popularity

creates a different relation of voice to machine than ever before. Rather than novelty or some warped mimetic response to computers, Auto-Tune is a contemporary strategy for intimacy with the digital. As such, it becomes quite humanizing. Auto-Tune operates as a duet between the electronics and the personal. A reconciliation with technology.

And on the classical side, the most prophetic ideas may have been those of Glenn Gould, who embraced recording as aesthetically (and ethically) superior to concert performance, as Michael Hiltzig reminds us in the Los Angeles Times:


He frequently scorned the notion that a recording could never be as "real" as a live performance, or that inserts, splices, overlays and other engineering manipulations somehow violate artistic integrity.

One time he challenged a panel of 18 friends, ranging from audio engineers and professional musicians to his doctor and a librarian, to identify by ear the splices in eight sample recordings.

No one caught more than a handful.

"The tape does lie and nearly always gets away with it," Gould concluded.

Auto-Tune doesn't have much to offer people like me; it's not clear whether any voice training software program could help. But the Nova program does show a major side of technological change in the arts. Ever since Voltaire scoffed at the future of the newfangled "tinsmith's instrument," the piano, in its challenge to the "magnificent harpsichord," creative people -- for better and for worse -- have always developed and used tools in ways their inventors never foresaw.

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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