How the oil industry accidentally created autotune

Autotune gets a bad rep. Sure, it's been abused by plenty of artists, notably T-Pain and Cher's "Believe" single. But used as a mild assistive, it can be a great way to punch up a piece of music. Like anything involving computers, it's junk-in, junk-out; with a decent base take, it can elevate a good performance into a great one is almost imperceptible ways. And the fact that it can isolate sound in such a way is pretty remarkable in and of itself.

At least, that's how I've always defended it. Autotune has always treated me well, making my voice pop just a little more. But now that I know it's yet-another offshoot of the oil industry, I'm not so sure how I feel about it.

Dr. Andy Hildebrand invented the original Antares Autotune software ("Autotune" is one of those proprietary eponyms like Kleenex or Jacuzzi; other pitch correction softwares don't call themselves autotune, but people often still refer to them as such, and they use the same basic principles). A classic flutist by training, Dr. Hildebrand ended up working for Exxon Production Research for a while. It was there that he helped to develop a software to process data from reflection seismology—that is, using seismic waves to determine whether or not there might be any oil or other substances worth drilling/fracking/mining for.

Eventually, Dr. Hildebrand worked his way back into the music industry, bringing his computer expertise with him. According to Greg Milner's book, Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music, he overheard the wife of a colleague saying how great it would be to have a device that would keep her on pitch. And that's when he had his eureka moment, and flashed back to the technology he'd worked on at Exxon.

As he explained on PBS's NOVA:

Seismic data processing involves the manipulation of acoustic data in relation to a linear time varying, unknown system (the Earth model) for the purpose of determining and clarifying the influences involved to enhance geologic interpretation. Coincident (similar) technologies include correlation (statics determination), linear predictive coding (deconvolution), synthesis (forward modeling), formant analysis (spectral enhancement), and processing integrity to minimize artifacts. All of these technologies are shared amongst music and geophysical applications.

A weird connection, but weirdly fascinating!

The astounding origin of Auto-Tune and its connection to the energy sector [CBC Radio)

How an Oil Engineer Created Auto-Tune and Changed Music Forever [Greg Eckard / Vice]

Image: Musician On a Mission / Wikimedia Commons (CC 4.0)