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Rubin, who's produced artists as diverse as the Dixie Chicks and Metallica, worries that the safety net of Auto-Tune is making singers lazy. "Sometimes a singer will do lots of takes when they're recording a song, and you really can hear the emotional difference when someone does a great performance vs. an average one," says Rubin. "If you're pitch-correcting, you might not bother to make the effort. You might just get it done and put it through the machine so it's all in tune." Rubin has taken to having an ethical conversation before each new recording session. "I encourage artists to embrace a natural process," he says. (See pictures of Rick Rubin.)
With the exception of Milli Vanilli's, pop listeners have always been fairly indulgent about performers' ethics. It's hits that matter, and the average person listening to just one pop song on the radio will have a hard time hearing Auto-Tune's impact; it's effectively deceptive. But when track after track has perfect pitch, the songs are harder to differentiate from one another--which explains why pop is in a pretty serious lull at the moment. It also changes the way we hear unaffected voices. "The other day, someone was talking about how Aretha Franklin at the Inauguration was a bit pitchy," says Anderson. "I said, 'Of course! She was singing!' And that was a musician talking. People are getting used to hearing things dead on pitch, and it's changed their expectations."
Despite Randy Jackson's stock American Idol critique--"A little pitchy, dawg"--many beloved songs are actually off-pitch or out of tune. There's Ringo Starr on "With a Little Help from My Friends," of course, and just about every blues song slides into notes as opposed to hitting them dead on. Even Norah Jones, the poster girl of pure vocals, isn't perfect. "There's some wonderful imperfections of pitch on 'Don't Know Why' from Come Away with Me," says Anderson, "and most of the other tunes on the album as well. But I wouldn't want to change a single note."
Let's hope that pop's fetish for uniform perfect pitch will fade, even if the spread of Auto-Tune shows no signs of slowing. A $99 version for home musicians was released in November 2007, and T-Pain and Auto-Tune's parent company are finishing work on an iPhone app. "It's gonna be real cool," says T-Pain. "Basically, you can add Auto-Tune to your voice and send it to your friends and put it on the Web. You'll be able to sound just like me." Asked if that might render him no longer unique, T-Pain laughs: "I'm not too worried. I got lots of tricks you ain't seen yet. It's everybody else that needs to step up their game."
Perfect Pitch? To hear Auto-Tune in action, go to time.com/autotune