Zia Hassan

T Pains Map

A few years ago, the artist T-pain released an NPR Tiny Desk Concert without any processing from Auto Tune on his voice.

Antares Autotune, as the name suggests, is the infamous software used to fix off pitch vocals after recording. It was designed to be a touch up tool. If the software did its job, the listener wouldn’t know that any extra tool was being used – and the artist would sound perfectly on pitch.

Except that’s not how T-Pain used it. T-Pain had made an art of using the software to tune his notes so perfectly that it sounds half-robotic. He became known it for it. And other artists like Kanye on his Heartbreaks and 808s album, started following suit. Bon Iver made autotune a focus of his sound.

Many artists, like Imogen Heap, had innovated and done something similar with tuned vocals before T-pain, but T-Pain was the artist made it popular, a mainstay sound in modern RnB and eventually pop music (and eventually indie rock too).

So when this Tiny Desk was released with no autotune on his voice, people understandably freaked. Not only did he drop the computerized vocal sound, but his natural voice was… good. And not just kind of good, but… excellent.

Why, the commenters asked, was he hiding such a raw talent? Why hide behind “studio magic” when you have real skill?

Because autotune is a tool for vocalists. And with every great tool, there are those practitioners who can manipulate it, bend it to their will, and then there are those who take the easy way, and follow the map innovators created by way of their art.

T-Pain, being a great vocalist already, had the skills in place to bend AT to his will. Not just anyone could do what he did, not in a captivating way at least. For most of his disciples (official and unofficial), AT remained a way to turn bad singing into something passable.

For T-Pain, it was a way to mold the greatness he already possessed. He was becoming an innovator and musical leader in the process.

For everyone else, it became a norm, and the innovative technique led to boring art.

Keller Williams led the way with live looping (Les Paul too). Led Zepplin did it with amped violins. Eno with ambient music.

The problem with a map is that it means someone already walked the path. Most people don’t want to explore uncharted territory, but that’s what it takes to be an innovator.