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Since his 2005 debut album, T-Pain has sent a dozen slightly raunchy, mechanically cheery singles into the Top 10. He contributed to four nominated songs at this year's Grammys on Feb. 8 (see page 51), and his influence is still spreading. When Kanye West was looking for an effect to match some heartbroken lyrics, he flew T-Pain to Hawaii to see how many ways they could tweak Auto-Tune. Diddy gave a percentage of his upcoming album's profits to T-Pain in exchange for some lessons. Even Prince is rumored to be experimenting with Auto-Tune on his new record. "I know [Auto-Tune] better than anyone," says T-Pain. "And even I'm just figuring out all the ways you can use it to change the mood of a record." (See pictures of Diddy.)
Other sonic tricks have had their moment--notably Peter Frampton's "talk- box," a plastic tube that made his guitar sound as if it were talking--but in skilled hands, Auto-Tune is the rare gimmick that can lead to innovation. On T-Pain's latest album, Thr33 Ringz, tracks like "Karaoke" and "Chopped N Skrewed" literally bounce between notes, giving the record a kids-on--Pop Rocks exuberance. Using the same program, West's 808s & Heartbreak is the complete opposite--angsty, slow and brutally introspective. West sings throughout, and while he couldn't have hit most of the notes without Auto-Tune, he also couldn't have sounded as ghostly and cold, and it's that alienated tone that made 808s one of the best albums of last year.
Plenty of critics raved about West's use of Auto-Tune, but T-Pain is often dismissed as a novelty act. (Not that he minds: "I'd rather be known for something than unknown for nothing.") But unlike most singers, he acknowledges the impact Auto-Tune has had on his career. Of the half a dozen engineers and producers interviewed for this story, none could remember a pop recording session in the past few years when Auto-Tune didn't make a cameo--and none could think of a singer who would want that fact known. "There's no shame in fixing a note or two," says Jim Anderson, professor of the Clive Davis department of recorded music at New York University and president of the Audio Engineering Society. "But we've gone far beyond that."
Some Auto-Tuning is almost unavoidable. Most contemporary music is composed on Pro Tools, a program that lets musicians and engineers record into a computer and map out songs on a visual grid. You can cut at one point on the grid and paste at another, just as in word-processing, but making sure the cuts match up requires the even pitch that Auto-Tune provides. "It usually ends up just like plastic surgery," says a Grammy-winning recording engineer. "You haul out Auto-Tune to make one thing better, but then it's very hard to resist the temptation to spruce up the whole vocal, give everything a little nip-tuck." Like plastic surgery, he adds, more people have had it than you think. "Let's just say I've had Auto-Tune save vocals on everything from Britney Spears to Bollywood cast albums. And every singer now presumes that you'll just run their voice through the box."