If you haven’t been listening to pop radio in the past few months, you’ve missed the rise of two seemingly opposing trends. In a medium in which mediocre singing has never been a bar to entry, a lot of pop vocals suddenly sound great. Better than great: note- and pitch-perfect, as if there’s been an unspoken tightening of standards at record labels or an evolutionary leap in the development of vocal cords. At the other extreme are a few hip-hop singers who also hit their notes but with a precision so exaggerated that on first listen, their songs sound comically artificial, like a chorus of ’50s robots singing Motown.
The force behind both trends is an ingenious plug-in called Auto-Tune, a downloadable studio trick that can take a vocal and instantly nudge it onto the proper note or move it to the correct pitch. It’s like Photoshop for the human voice. Auto-Tune doesn’t make it possible for just anyone to sing like a pro, but used as its creator intended, it can transform a wavering performance into something technically flawless. “Right now, if you listen to pop, everything is in perfect pitch, perfect time and perfect tune,” says producer Rick Rubin. “That’s how ubiquitous Auto-Tune is.”