Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Mathematical Genius of Auto-Tune

 Auto-Tune — one of modern history’s most reviled inventions — was an act of mathematical genius.

The pitch correction software, which automatically calibrates out-of-tune singing to perfection, has been used on nearly every chart-topping album for the past 20 years. Along the way, it has been pilloried as the poster child of modern music’s mechanization. When Time Magazine declared it “one of the 50 worst inventions of the 20th century”, few came to its defense.

But often lost in this narrative is the story of the invention itself, and the soft-spoken savant who pioneered it. For inventor Andy Hildebrand, Auto-Tune was an incredibly complex product — the result of years of rigorous study, statistical computation, and the creation of algorithms previously deemed to be impossible.

Hildebrand’s invention has taken him on a crazy journey: He’s given up a lucrative career in oil. He’s changed the economics of the recording industry. He’s been sued by hip-hop artist T-Pain. And in the course of it all, he’s raised pertinent questions about what constitutes “real” music.

The Oil Engineer

Andy Hildebrand was, in his own words, “not a normal kid.”

A self-proclaimed bookworm, he was constantly derailed by life’s grand mysteries, and had trouble sitting still for prolonged periods of time. School was never an interest: when teachers grew weary of slapping him on the wrist with a ruler, they’d stick him in the back of the class, where he wouldn’t bother anybody. “That way,” he says, “I could just stare out of the window.”

After failing the first grade, Hilbrebrand’s academic performance slowly began to improve. Toward the end of grade school, the young delinquent started pulling C’s; in junior high, he made his first B; as a high school senior, he was scraping together occasional A’s. Driven by a newfound passion for science, Hildebrand “decided to start working [his] ass off” -- an endeavor that culminated with an electrical engineering PhD from the University of Illinois in 1976.

In the course of his graduate studies, Hildebrand excelled in his applications of linear estimation theory and signal processing. Upon graduating, he was plucked up by oil conglomerate Exxon, and tasked with using seismic data to pinpoint drill locations. He clarifies what this entailed:
“I was working in an area of geophysics where you emit sounds on the surface of the Earth (or in the ocean), listen to reverberations that come up, and, from that information, try to figure out what the shape of the subsurface is. It’s kind of like listening to a lightning bolt and trying to figure out what the shape of the clouds are. It’s a complex problem.”
Three years into Hildebrand’s work, Exxon ran into a major dilemma: the company was nearing the end of its seven-year construction timeline on an Alaskan pipeline; if they failed to get oil into the line in time, they’d lose their half-billion dollar tax write-off. Hildebrand was enlisted to fix the holdup — faulty seismic monitoring instrumentation — a task that required “a lot of high-end mathematics.” He succeeded.

“I realized that if I could save Exxon $500 million,” he recalls, “I could probably do something for myself and do pretty well.” (...)

An engineer by trade, Hildebrand had always been a musician at heart.

As a child, he was something of a classical flute virtuoso and, by 16, he was a “card-carrying studio musician” who played professionally. His undergraduate engineering degree had been funded by music scholarships and teaching flute lessons. Naturally, after leaving Landmark and the oil industry, Hildebrand decided to return to school to study composition more intensively.

While pursuing his studies at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, Hildebrand began composing with sampling synthesizers (machines that allow a musician to record notes from an instrument, then make them into digital samples that could be transposed on a keyboard). But he encountered a problem: when he attempted to make his own flute samples, he found the quality of the sounds to be ugly and unnatural.

“The sampling synthesizers sounded like shit: if you sustained a note, it would just repeat forever,” he harps. “And the problem was that the machines didn’t hold much data.”

Hildebrand, who’d “retired” just a few months earlier, decided to take matters into his own hands. First, he created a processing algorithm that greatly condensed the audio data, allowing for a smoother, more natural-sounding sustain and timbre. Then, he packaged this algorithm into a piece of software (called Infinity), and handed it out to composers.

Infinity improved digitized orchestral sounds so dramatically that it uprooted Hollywood’s music production landscape: using the software, lone composers were able to accurately recreate film scores, and directors no longer had a need to hire entire orchestras.

“I bankrupted the Los Angeles Philharmonic,” Hildebrand chuckles. “They were out of the [sample recording] business for eight years.” (We were unable to verify this, but The Los Angeles Times does cite that the Philharmonic entered a "financially bleak" period in the early 1990s).

Unfortunately, Hildebrand’s software was inherently self-defeating: companies sprouted up that processed sounds through Infinity, then sold them as pre-packaged soundbanks. “I sold 5 more copies, and that was it,” he says. “The market totally collapsed.”

But the inventor’s bug had taken hold of Hildebrand once more. In 1990, he formed his final company, Antares Audio Technology, with the goal of innovating the music industry’s next big piece of software. And that’s exactly what happened.

by Zachary Crockett , Priceomics | Read more:
Images: uncredited