Auto-tune makes producing music easier. It can also make understanding music theory easier. The way you dial up different keys and scales doesn’t just guide your ear, it also guides your eye.
Your voice can produce a smooth continuum of pitches. To sing, you eliminate most of those possibilities, vibrating your mouth and throat only at certain frequencies, the pitches of the melody. Auto-tune helps by shifting the voice’s frequency to the closest desired piano-key pitch.
Towards the bottom left is a knob labeled Retune Speed. Even the best singers waver around their intended pitch for a few milliseconds before converging on it. If you correct away that wavering, the result sounds artificial. So Auto-tune can be set to delay its effects. Slower retune speeds allow more human-sounding shakiness to pass through the filter. If you set the retune speed to zero, there’s no wavering allowed, and you get the robo-vocal sound beloved by T-Pain, Kanye West and Lil Wayne. It’s more widely known as the Cher Effect, because a lot of people first encountered it in her song “Believe.”
There’s a persistent and false story that Cher used a vocoder for “Believe.” The producers lied in interviews, not wanting to give away their trade secret. Auto-tune isn’t exactly a software vocoder, but it’s based on the same math.
Music-theoretically, the interesting part of Auto-tune is the center of the window, listing the twelve pitches on a piano. By default, Auto-tune is set to the chromatic scale, all the piano keys, starting on C:
To Auto-tune yourself in C major, you need to remove C sharp, D sharp, F sharp, G sharp and A sharp. (There are no flats for some reason.)
This is a lot like the way you set up a xylophone or marimba for a beginner. By taking the bars for the undesired notes off, you make it impossible to play anything wrong.
A bit of fun for music nerds: the notes you omit from the C major scale, the black keys on the piano, form the F sharp major pentatonic and E flat minor pentatonic scales.
To make the C natural minor scale, you omit C sharp, E, F sharp, A and B.
To get the other minor scales, you’d just need to toggle the sixth and seventh notes differently. For C dorian you’d leave A in and remove G#.
Here’s how you’d set up the C blues scale:
In the key of C, the fanfare’s three pitches are C, F and G.
This is one of my favorite Auto-tune settings. It sounds amazing on speech.
It’s even more fun to strip the pitch set down even further, taking out the F and even the G for maximum posthuman warbling. Being limited to a smaller group of pitches forces you to concentrate on rhythmic patterns. Check out how cool it sounds when we Auto-tune Barbara to just the root note for the second verse, or just the fifth on the outtro:
Auto-tune’s binary representation of the combinational possibilities of music theory is similar to the way I learned how to conceive my chords and scales in jazz training. You can derive any scale or chord by starting with the chromatic scale and omitting the wrong notes.
Sometimes you want to be constrained to a traditional scale, but more often the blend of pitches you want is more idiosyncratic. In major keys, you very often want to use the minor third and sometimes minor sixth. For a blues feel in any key, you can include the flat fifth. Omitting the fourth and seventh from a major or minor scale makes a dissonance-free pentatonic.
Here’s how you can build your own scales, chords and pitch groups in the key of C, in or out of Auto-tune.
C: The root or tonic. Probably leave it on.
C#: The flat second. Leave on for Middle Eastern music, turn off for Western.
D: Second. Usually leave on, except for Middle Eastern music.
D#: Minor third. Leave on for tragedy and blues.
E: Major third. Leave on for happy, turn off for sad.
F: Fourth. Probably leave on unless you’re making major pentatonic.
F#: Flat fifth, sharp fourth. Leave on for blues and exotica.
G: Fifth. Probably leave on, though try turning it off for fun.
G#: Minor sixth. Leave on for tragic feel.
A: Major sixth. Leave on for bright/happy feel.
A#: Minor seventh. Leave on for blues, minor, rock, or mixolydian.
B: Major seventh. Leave on for major and harmonic minor, brightness, and suspense.
Symmetry and patterns register on the ears and eyes differently, but there’s substantial and intriguing overlap. If you illuminate every other note on the list, you get the whole tone scale. If you alternate skipping a note, not skipping the next one, skipping the one after that and so on, you get the diminished scale. The symmetries of those scales announce themselves to the ear immediately, though you may not be able to figure out what specifically the symmetries are.
I’m pretty psyched about the convergence of the mind’s eye and the mind’s ear. All digital music-making tools have a synaesthetic element. For visual thinkers like me, the computer’s music visualization tools have opened up some big new swaths of sonic terrain.
Any interesting related music visualization systems out there? Hit me in the comments.