Technology has permanently changed the way we listen to music. One of the artists credited (or blamed) for that shift is T-Pain, the perpetually auto-tuned R&B and rap hit-maker.
Some years ago, auto-tune was inescapable. Every rapper seemed to have an auto-tuned hook or run. The tacky technology was originally used by producers to help correct notes that an artist couldn't hit or hold. The hope was that listeners wouldn't be able to tell the difference.
[More from Mashable: Christmas Crafts: 8 Easy Tutorials From Snowflakes to Stockings [VIDEOS]]
In the mid-2000s, auto-tune broke onto the hip hop and R&B scene with producers and rappers exaggerating the effect to extremes. T-Pain was one of the first of those artists to feel the success and also the inevitable backlash of auto-tune. Critics said the technology was disingenuous and destroyed any need for vocal talent. Auto-tune wasn't just decried by music purists and angry bloggers -- celebrated artists such as Jay-Z came out against it, and even released a song on his 2009 album The Blueprint 3, titled "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-tune)."
Well T-Pain survived the barbs and is currently riding another wave of auto-tune success with the release of an iPhone app, novelty microphone and a brand new album, rEVOLVEr, released in 2011. The app, I AM T-Pain, lets users auto-tune their voice by singing into an iPhone, whereas the microphone, called the "I AM T-Pain Mic," is a stand-alone toy dedicated to auto-tuning.
[More from Mashable: Level Up: 4 Ways to Gamify Workplace Teams]
Mashable had a chance to speak with T-Pain about auto-tune, his app and microphone and the future of music in the age of technology.
The Road to the App Store
T-Pain has always had a mind on technology and saw a perfect opportunity to get into the app game when other celebrities, such as Britney Spears, Pink and Lil' Wayne, started releasing their own apps.
"I said, 'Well, I guess I'm so famous for the auto-tune, I guess I should make an app.' And it's just been flying off the shelves," T-Pain, born Faheem Najm, says. The app was a smart move. It has been downloaded more than 2 million times since its launch in 2009, according to T-Pain's team. That was just the start: "You know I had pretty good projections with the mic and a lot of adults buy it, like, pretending they're buying it for their kids ... Adults would call me saying they're tired of their kids slobbering all over their phones," T-Pain says of his decision to create a mic version of his auto-tune app.
T-Pain insists that the mic is all about making music fun. "I don't do the whole, 'Put my name on it, make me famous' thing," Pain told us, although there is a video on T-Pain's site in which he says of the mic: "I mean, we're just, we're milking this thing baby. We're milking it." Regardless of the intent, T-Pain's mic is selling well.
"Hard & B"
It's hard to stay mad at T-Pain, who swears by a type of music he calls "Hard & B." It's more about process than genre. "Basically it’s the hard way of doing music," T-Pain says. "I write my music. I produce my music. I sing it. I damn near record all of it myself and you gotta go out and perform it. It’s a hard way of making music. On the other hand, [some artists] get someone to write and produce it and you just sing it in the middle like a puppet."
In that sense, auto-tune is less a way for T-Pain to hide his voice but to create music in a different way. "My dad always told me that anyone's voice is just another instrument added to the music. There was a time when people had seven-minute songs and five minutes of them were just straight instrumental," T-Pain says. "I got a lot of influence from [the '60s era] and I thought I might as well just turn my voice into a saxophone." He credits the core of his music and lyric style to R. Kelly and Cee Lo Green, two R&B artists known for their expressive -- and unfiltered -- voices.
After years of success, however, T-Pain still enjoys talking about the tech he applies to his voice as a way of educating people on how it works. T-Pain says he studied the technology behind auto-tune to better understand his craft.
Auto-tune, it turns out, is actually sort of hard to pull off: "You know, because it was made to correct bad notes and stuff, of course people say you just slap it on your voice and anyone who's tone-deaf can make a half-decent song." It also turns out that T-Pain is a decent singer even without the tech. "The crazy thing is ... there's always a song [on my albums] with no auto-tune and those are always the songs that go overlooked," T-Pain says.
Social media has helped alleviate some of that frustration thanks to massive support from T-Pain's followers. Although he has more than 700,000 followers on Twitter, he tries to stay humble: "I don't know man, because you look at someone like Soulja Boy and all these other people and they have millions of followers and I'm proud to even have two follows; my mom and my dad .... The way that people show me love on Twitter? I don't know man. It's amazing."
T-Pain has a busy year ahead. After our phone call, T-Pain had a day of interviews with press before heading to Jimmy Kimmel Live! to perform "Drowning Again" on piano and without auto-tune. Through the madness, his iPhone app and auto-tuning microphone continue to sell to legions of would-be crooners and lotharios practicing their Hard & B.
This story originally published on Mashable here.