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Jonathan Sterne, “Who Tunes Whom?: Auto-Tune, the Earth, and the Politics of Frequency”

Thursday, February 20, 2014 @ 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm

Photo of Jonathan Sterne
Jonathan Sterne
Jonathan Sterne, McGill University

Auto-tune is a ubiquitous vocal effect in popular music and the best-selling software plug-in in the short history of commercial digital audio software. When used with subtlety, auto-tune fixes slight errors or variances in pitch (usually of singers); when used more drastically, it produces a very recognizable vocal effect, “locking” a voice to a scale, or drastically altering it.

Auto-tune was developed out of reflection seismology technology, which uses sound for locating natural resources underground and beneath the ocean floor. In this paper, Sterne gives a cultural history of auto-tune as a form of signal processing, drawing on patent documents, interviews, operational protocols, tuning standards and competing acoustemologies. Auto-tune effects a resource management of the voice. The obvious artifice in its most extreme forms points us back to a centuries-long project to technologize human voices through standards and tuning. While journalists and music fans may argue over auto-tune’s relationship to the authenticity of the voice, Sterne shows that it is embedded in a much broader politics of frequency.

Jonathan Sterne is a Professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, and for January-May 2014 a visiting researcher in social media at Microsoft Research New England. He is author of MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke 2012), The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke, 2003); and numerous articles on media, technologies and the politics of culture. He is also editor of The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012). His new projects consider instruments and instrumentalities; histories of signal processing; and the intersections of disability, technology and perception. Visit his website at sterneworks.org.


Thursday, February 20, 2014
5:00 pm - 7:00 pm
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MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing


MIT Media Lab, Room 633
75 Amherst St.
Cambridge, MA 02139 United States
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Andrew Whitacre Written by Andrew Whitacre