Can't carry a tune? Andy Hildebrand's pitch-correction software can help you sing like a star. Airing June 30, 2009 at 9 pm on PBS Aired June 30, 2009 on PBS

Program Description

(Program not available for streaming.) NOVA scienceNOW talks to the engineers behind Auto-Tune, the pitch-correction software that turns sour notes into sweet ones. Professional musicians from Madonna to Snoop Dogg use Auto-Tune, but can the software turn host Neil deGrasse Tyson into a singing star?



PBS Airdate: June 30, 2009

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: "Our love was like a supernova,"

Yeah, I sing.

"In the nebula of my soul."

Okay, I'm not great.

"But now I find her heart is like a big black hole."

All right, I'm terrible. But here's what I'm wondering: if, digitally, you can remove red-eye, smooth over wrinkles, make people look thinner, then why don't we have the technology to make me sing better?

ANDY HILDEBRAND (Antares Audio Technologies): We can fix Neil.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: This guy invented a way to do it.

ANDY HILDEBRAND: We can fix Neil's pitch. He's still going to sound like Neil, though.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Electrical engineer and inventor Andy Hildebrand designs pitch-correction software. He calls it Auto-Tune.

"Pitch correction?" Is that a euphemism for "fixing bad singers?"

ANDY HILDEBRAND: Yes, we fix bad singers.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: I visited Andy at Antares Audio Technologies in Scotts Valley California, where he and engineer Justin Malo...


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: ...showed me how it works.


ANDY HILDEBRAND: Great. There you go. You did that.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: That wavy line represents the exact frequency of my voice. This line shows where a perfect A should be, so, not too bad.

ANDY HILDEBRAND: He's right dead nuts on in tune. Look at that.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: So how does a computer know that?

ANDY HILDEBRAND: When you hear A, you're hearing 440 vibrations per second.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: So somebody at the beginning of time said 440 vibrations per second is an A?


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: So, if you sing or play a pitch at 440 cycles per second, the computer calls it an A and it rests on this line. B-flat would go on the line above it, G-sharp below, and so on.

"But now I find her heart..."

When you're out of tune, the notes don't fall so neatly onto the lines of the grid.


That's awful.

" hole."

ANDY HILDEBRAND: Well, it's creative, it's creative. Okay.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: "...supernova..."

Those lines are me singing the word "super."


My pitch is all over the place. If anything, it's closest to this note, here.

JUSTIN MALO: Neil, you sang an F, which normally is okay, if you're in the key of F. And we're not, so we moved your F to an E.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: "Supernova..."

So Justin gently nudges it down to where an E would be.


You're changing the frequency of the sound that came out of my vocal cords.

JUSTIN MALO: Actually, yes.

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS (Audio recording):"Christmas, Christmas..."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Changing pitch isn't new. You can change someone's voice by fast forwarding on a tape recorder, but you'd sound like...

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS (Audio recording): "Christmas, Christmas time is here."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: ...well, a chipmunk.

Pitch correction software lets you change the pitch...


...while keeping the essential tone of a voice the same.

And so, although few engineers are willing to admit it, pitch correction software, like Auto-Tune, has become an indispensable tool in most recording studios.

ANDY HILDEBRAND: It's been used by a lot of people: Madonna...

MADONNA (Film clip): "Music makes the bourgeoisie..."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: ...Celine Dion...

CELINE DION (Film clip): "You got one heart you are following..."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Reba McEntire uses it live?

REBA McENTIRE (Film clip): "Starting over again..."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: You're telling me a singer can sing into a microphone a bad note, and out the speakers comes a good note?


NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Now, that's evil.

ANDY HILDEBRAND: To modify something isn't necessarily evil. My wife wears makeup. Is that evil?

Is that okay, honey?

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Evil or not, the recording industry kept Auto-Tune on the down-low.

ANDY HILDEBRAND: The secret popped out of the bag when Cher did "Believe."

CHER (Film clip): "Do you believe in life after love?"

ANDY HILDEBRAND: I couldn't believe it.

CHER (Film clip): "...aside and I can't break through..."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Rather than gradually and naturally reaching up to each note...

CHER (Film clip): "I can feel something inside me say..."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: this, Cher's producer forced Auto-Tune to jump suddenly from one pitch to the next.

CHER (Film clip): "I feel something inside me say..."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Is this some knob that you turn?



ANDY HILDEBRAND: And we can turn this knob to zero, which means "move instantaneously to the new pitch." And so, if we do that, your voice would sound like this.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: "But now I find her heart..."

Did you plan for people to use it that way?

ANDY HILDEBRAND: No. I didn't think anybody in their right mind would ever use it that way.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Well a lot of artists do.

T-PAIN (Film clip): "She got me doing the dishes

Anything she want for some kisses"

OJO (Film clip): "I was young and in love..."

SNOOP DOG (Film clip): "She might be with him but she's thinkin' bout me, me, me."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: But it's mostly used to tweak out-of-tune performances—a kind of cosmetic surgery.

"...big black hole."

In my case though, more like triple-bypass.

ANDY HILDEBRAND: Try to change this to the key of C.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Moving the traces of my voice up in pitch or down...


...Justin coaxes me into tune.


of my soul..."

It took several hours.

"...of my soul..."

How well did it work? You be the judge.

"Our love was like a supernova

In the nebula of my soul, but now I find

her heart is like a big black hole..."

JUSTIN MALO: It's a lot more pleasing.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: I thought the first one sounded pretty good myself, I don't know.

Kidding aside, there's no substitute for training or talent.

ANDY HILDEBRAND: If the singer doesn't have a good tonality to their voice, we're not going to make that better.

Do us a favor. Don't go on American Idol.

Broadcast Credits


Produced and Edited by
Vincent Liota

NOVA scienceNOW

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0638931. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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(Neil deGrasse Tyson singing) Courtesy T. Robin Hirsh


Andy Hildebrand
Antares Audio Technologies


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