T-Pain's success makes altered vocals a hot trend

Auto-Tune'd vocals turning up in many new rap and hip-hop hits

Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2008

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

Actually, the Tallahassee, Fla., 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."

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.

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