The Vocoder, Auto-Tune, Pitch Standardization and Vocal Virtuosity

Writing assignment for History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See a more informal introduction to the vocoder here.

Casual music listeners know the vocoder best as the robotic voice effect popular in disco and early hip-hop. Anyone who has heard pop music of the last two decades has heard Auto-Tune. The two effects are frequently mistaken for one another, and for good reason—they share the same mathematical and technological basis. Auto-Tune has become ubiquitous in recording studios, in two very different incarnations. There is its intended use, as an expedient way to correct out-of-tune notes, replacing various tedious and labor-intensive manual methods. Pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music producers have also found an unintended use for Auto-Tune, as a special effect that quantizes pitches to a conspicuously excessive degree, giving the voice a synthetic, otherworldly quality. In this paper, I discuss the history of the vocoder and Auto-Tune, in the context of broader efforts to use science and technology to mathematically analyze and standardize music. I also explore how such technologies problematize our ideas of virtuosity.

Ableton vocoder

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The vocoder and Auto-Tune

This post documents a presentation I’m giving in my History of Science and Technology class with Myles Jackson. See also a more formal history of the vocoder.

The vocoder is one of those mysterious technologies that’s far more widely used than understood. Here I explain what it is, how it works, and why you should care. A casual music listener knows the vocoder best as a way to make that robot voice effect that Daft Punk uses all the time.

Here’s Huston Singletary demonstrating the vocoder in Ableton Live.

This is a nifty effect, but why should you care? For one thing, you use this technology every time you talk on your cell phone. For another, this effect gave rise to Auto-Tune, which, love it or hate it, is the defining sound of contemporary popular music. Let’s dive in!

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A participant ethnography of the Ed Sullivan Fellows program

Note: I refer to mentors by their real names, and to participants by pseudonyms

Ed Sullivan Fellows (ESF) is a mentorship and artist development program run by the NYU Steinhardt Music Experience Design Lab. It came about by a combination of happenstances. I had a private music production student named Rob Precht, who had found my blog via a Google search. He and I usually held our lessons in the lab’s office space. Over the course of a few months, Rob met people from the lab and heard about our projects. He found us sufficiently inspiring that he approached us with an idea. He wanted to give us a grant to start a program that would help young people from under-resourced communities get a start in the music industry. He asked us to name it after his grandfather, Ed Sullivan, whose show had been crucial to launching the careers of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Jackson 5. While Rob’s initial idea had been to work with refugees who had relocated to New York, we agreed to shift the focus to native New York City residents, since our connections and competencies were stronger there.

Ed Sullivan Fellows

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New online music theory course with Soundfly!

I’m delighted to announce that my new online music theory collaboration with Soundfly is live. It’s called Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, and it gives you a practical guide to harmony for creators of contemporary pop, R&B, hip-hop, and EDM. We tie all the abstract music theory concepts to real-world musical usages, showing how you can use particular chord combinations to evoke particular feelings. I worked hard with the team at Soundfly on this over the past few months, and we are super jazzed about it.

Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords

Like my previous Soundfly courses, the Theory for Producers series, the chords class is a blend of videos, online interactives and composition/production challenges. The musical examples are songs by people like Adele, Chance the Rapper, and Frank Ocean. You can download the MIDI files for each example, stick them in your DAW, and dive right into hands-on music making.

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Chance the Rapper’s verse on “Ultralight Beam”

One of the best guest verses in the history of hip-hop is the one that Chance The Rapper does on Kanye West’s beautiful “Ultralight Beam.”

The song is built around an eight bar loop. (See this post for an analysis of the chord progression.) Chance’s verse goes through the loop five times, for a total of forty bars. It’s not at all typical for a rap song to include a one and a half minute guest verse–it’s almost enough material to make a whole separate song. By giving up so much space in his album opener, Kanye is gaving Chance the strongest endorsement possible, and Chance makes the most of his moment.

Chance The Rapper

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