Dienstag, 15. September 2009

Death Of Auto-Tune (Bonus Beats): A Brief Guide To Robot Voices

When KRS One and Buckshot dropped their anti Auto-Tune lamentation "Robot" a while back, they mentioned some pioneers of Auto-Tune that they exempted from their critique:

- Roger Troutman
- Afrika Bambaataa (Planet Rock)
- The Jonzun Crew (Pack Jam)
- Kraftwerk

One thing that these four have in common is: None of them has ever used Auto-Tune. So instead of lumping all robotic vocals together and calling them Auto-Tune, it might be instructive to have a look at the various types of voice modulation. Once you understand how they work it's actually not too hard to spot the differences (I am looking at you, KRS and Buckshot).

1. Auto-Tune

Auto-Tune is a device that tunes your voice. If used moderately - as in most of today's pop music - you won't even notice it's there. What you will notice though is the radical use of it as an effect to alter the sound of your voice. The human voice sings legato, meaning there is a smooth transition between notes of a different pitch. When you erase the transition and force the vocals to directly jump to the next note, the result will be an unnatural robot-like staccato effect that you know from too many bad songs. I will spare you the listening example.

How to recognize:
- flat and artificial sound of the voice
- sudden pitch shifts that create a stuttering effect

2. Talk box

A talk box involves two sound sources: your voice and a synth (or any other instrument). Or rather, the synth is the only sound source while the voice is only used as an effect. This is how it's done: First you play a sound or a melody on the synth. At the same time, the sound is sent into your mouth through a plastic tube. You use our mouth to shape the sound by "talking" without actually speaking - much like when you are at a concert or in a club and shape the surrounding noise by opening and closing your mouth, making "wah wah" without actually speaking.

It takes a lot of practice and articulation to get a good result, but when it's done correctly it produces a very distinct sound. Multiinstrumentalist and musical genius Roger Troutman was the master of the talk box, and I'd like to say DJ Quik is keeping his legacy alive. Posting the mandatory Roger Troutman video would be too obvious, so here is another one that I bet you all know (plus you can really see the talk box at work):

And here's a recent talk box tune that was definitely inspired by Roger Troutman:

And forget what I said before - here's the man himself:

How to recognize:
- metallic robot sound, often in the higher pitch/frequency area
- mostly monophonic (meaning there's only a single melody and no chords involved)
- can have vibrato and smooth transitions between pitches

3. Vocoder

This is basically the same principle: Two sound sources (voice and synth), one of which is used to shape the other. Technically it is a little different: First you speak into a microphone. The vocoder will analyze and filter your voice, pass it on to the synth and blend the two together to create the final sound. Vocoder voices can have a large variety of expressions, from deep and raspy to ethereal and dreamy sounds.

How to recognize:
- can have a full and polyphonic sound
- will generally sound clearer and more articulate, especially when consonants are involved

4. Speech Synthesis

Speech synthesis is the artificial creation of human speech: You type a text and the computer converts it into a sound that resembles the human voice ... or rather an artificial, robotic version of the human voice. Here's a beautiful example of speech synthesis (for the nerds: correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the 1981 Computerwelt uses a vocoder for the chorus while this one has speech synthesis throughout the whole song):

P.S. The time is 6:57 a.m.

How to recognize:
- some words might not sound right and odd pronounciations might occur
- often there is only one pitch, creating a monotonous intonation

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