The Death of Analog, AutoTune Edition

One of the things that makes Snoop’s “Sensual Seduction” video so compelling is his outstanding use of vocal effects. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

In the video, Snoop makes liberal use of a breath tube on his keytar, an obvious homage to the talkbox made (in)famous by Roger Troutman of Zapp fame. (If you don’t know and love the funk, then you at least know Roger from the hook to Tupac’s “California Love”.) Snoop even even explicitly credits Troutman in an MTV interview, along with the much-more-obvious nods in the video to Prince and Rick James.

The thing is, “Sensual Seduction” doesn’t use the talkbox, nor does it use a vocoder, which is a completely different instrument that often gets credit for the talkbox’s outbut. The vocoder is an amazing instrument; There’s an interesting background on the technology in this survey of milestones in electronic musical instruments, and the good folks at O’Reilly will even tell you how to make your own, if you’re so inclined. I’ve been hoping for the vocoder and talkbox to return to the top of the pop charts for a solid decade now (ever since “California Love”, really) and am somewhat chagrined that so much of the recent voice-distortion on pop singles is in the context of rather uninspired songs. But I digress.

Music today isn’t made by connecting breathing tubes to home-built contraptions. Instead, commercial music is made in Digidesign’s ProTools. ProTools is to commercial audio what Photoshop is to commercial design: Platform, product, and verb. And the first, and signature tool for performing pitch-correction on ProTools was Antares’ Auto-Tune. The fun part is, now that we’ve entered this brave new world of digital distortion of vocals, Auto-Tune isn’t just correcting pitch, it’s being used to arbitrarily alter them.

You know the rest. Cher’s “Believe”? Auto-Tune. Snoop’s “Sensual Seduction”? Auto-Tune. And all of T-Pain‘s career? Auto-Tune. Now, it’s possible that some producers are using other software to perform similar pitch-correction/pitch-manipulation duties; There are even free clones of Auto-Tune’s functionality. But as often as not, the software that’s become synonymous with the effect is the one that’s responsible for the sound.

And so, another bit of analog sound-hacking makes way for its digital successor. Even if he’s using the latest software, I gotta give props to Snoop for honoring the low-tech inspiration.

I’ve written a lot more about Auto-Tune: Check out When Auto-Tune Strikes, about the fact that T-Pain can’t sing, and Last of the Auto-Tune, which Gawker hailed as the “ultimate analysis” of this phenomenon.