Every decade an artist comes along who takes an effect initially considered a novelty and turns it into a vital part of his or her musical personality. In the Sixties, Jimi Hendrix made the wah wah pedal an extension of his soul. The talk box became a defining sound of hard rock guitar in the Seventies thanks to Peter Frampton, and Roger Troutman of Zapp took the talk box sound in a funky new direction on synth-driven dance hits in the Eighties. Tom Morello's inventive use of the Whammy pedal in the Nineties proved that an effect can be a musical instrument unto itself.
In the new millennium Antares Auto-Tune plug-in software reigns supreme, but one artist in particular is the undisputed autocrat of Auto-Tune—T-Pain. Whereas some artists have generated controversy for slyly using Auto-Tune to polish less-than-perfect performances, T-Pain employed the effect in a more dramatic and creative fashion on songs like "Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin')" and "Can't Believe It," using extreme tracking settings to generate obviously processed vocal effects that sound almost computer generated but undeniably cool."
This summer T-Pain shocked his fans when he announced that he had stopped using Auto-Tune. However, this did not mean that he was no longer using pitch correction effects, as his announcement coincided with the introduction of iZotope's The T-Pain Effect software bundle. "I just wanted to do something on my own," says T-Pain. "I didn't want to be held to somebody else's product. iZotope has been a great company helping me out with this. When I teamed up with them they immediately accepted my idea."
The T-Pain Effect consists of three elements—The T-Pain Engine (a beat making and vocal recording application), The T-Pain Effect (a pitch correction plug-in), and iDrum: T-Pain Edition (a virtual drum machine). "The T-Pain Effect is the newest, baddest, rawest, and best pitch correction software out there right now," says T-Pain. "It has multiple plug-ins in one package, so it's not something that's 600 bucks and just does one thing. I wanted to make something different for the people that can't afford the things that I use to make records. It's only 100 bucks and you get everything you need for a whole session. You can record with it. You can make beats with it. You can sing with it."
That last element—singing—is an important factor that helped T-Pain stand out from the crowd right from the start. Whereas most of T-Pain's contemporaries in Tallahassee, Florida, (the "T" in T-Pain stands for "Tallahassee") when he was starting out were aspiring rappers, he decided to shift his focus from rapping to singing to stand out from the crowd.
"A lot of people in Tallahassee were rapping," he explains, "and it just started sounding the same. Everybody was talking about the same stuff. When you're from a small city like Tallahassee, everybody sees the same stuff so they all talk about the same things all the time. I got tired of that, so I had to switch. My only other choices were singing or tap dancing, and I'm terrible at tap dancing! (laughs) I wanted to become someone different so I would get noticed. If everybody was wearing red, I had to wear all white. I needed to stand out, and I thought that singing was the way to do that because everybody else was rapping."
When T-Pain's friends were busy listening to popular hip-hop artists like Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., he initially preferred artists that weren't quite as mainstream. "My early influences were Busta Rhymes, Cee Lo Green, and Andre 3000," he says. "I liked anybody that wasn't afraid to step outside the box and weren't afraid to do whatever they wanted to do. That gave me the courage to do something different. Everybody else was doing the same thing because that's what they thought was in or hip."
As a result, T-Pain quickly broadened his horizons and soaked up a lot of different musical influences. "I would go off and listen to country music and classical music," he explains. "That way I wouldn't be stuck in the stereotypical urban music field. I also like R&B and rap, but I listen to everything and mash that all up into my own little genre."
T-Pain's intuitions were right. Shortly after he quit performing with his rap band and struck out on his own as an R&B singer, he recorded a re-worked version of Akon's "Locked Up" called "I'm F---ed Up." Akon heard the song and liked it, so he signed T-Pain to his record label. T-Pain's first album, Rappa Ternt Sanga, was released in December, 2005, when T-Pain was only 20 years old. The album peaked at #33 on the Billboard 2000 album chart and was certified Gold.
In 2007 T-Pain released his second album, Epiphany, which was an even bigger hit, making its debut on the Billboard 200 chart at the #1 position. His impressive success caught the attention of other artists like Chris Brown, R. Kelly, and Kanye West, who invited T-Pain to collaborate with them. T-Pain and Kanye West's single "Good Life" won the 2008 Grammy for Best Rap Song. Later that year he released his third album, Thr33 Ringz, which was also the first album he released under his own Nappy Boy Entertainment label.
T-Pain's various collaborations have often led to him taking the producer's role as well, and he is particularly proud of the various production projects he's participated in over the years: "I love the challenge. When I'm producing artists, making their vision come to life is the biggest challenge for anybody. There's no bigger enjoyment for me than seeing the excitement on people's faces when you bring the music out exactly how they heard it in their heads. You can just see that light go off."
T-Pain admits that he developed his production skills mainly by being a good listener, which involved both listening carefully to other music as well as what the artist he's working with wants. "In 2003 I really started paying attention to different productions," he admits. "I would listen to songs, and when I would hear a breakdown I would think, What made that a breakdown? What did they take out? I would analyze different kinds of music, and that made me get more into it. Once you realize how intricate something can be, you study it to see what makes it what it is."
Those detailed, methodical observation skills have translated to his production skills in an unusual manner: "When I did ‘Good Life' for Kanye, I came up with the song's concept after watching him order lobster and Cristal. He didn't know that I was coming up with ideas for a song in my head while I was watching him order that stuff. I noticed that he had a driver in a Maybach outside waiting for him. I was thinking to myself, This is the good life. As soon as I heard the beat I knew that was what the song was going to be about.
"I did a song for DJ Khaled called ‘Fed Up,'" he continues. "He came to my house and showed me the beat. He left to go to the bathroom, and when he came back the song was done. He just had to tell me how he was feeling at the time—like if there was someone out to get him or if there was someone who was hating on him too much—and I just absorbed all of that and went right to work. It's like, I know how you feel. Here's a song to go to your life."
Although T-Pain's fourth album, RevolveR, just came out in December—more than three years after Thr33 Ringz—he hasn't been idle. RevolveR was actually completed in June 2010, but T-Pain wanted to wait until the timing was right to release it. In addition to producing several projects, he also recorded several singles (including collaborations with DJ Khaled) and mixtapes, acted in the Aqua Teen Hunger Force television show and the film Lottery Ticket, and developed the "I Am T-Pain" iPhone app and ProTunes "I Am T-Pain" microphone toy.
"I'm an entrepreneur," T-Pain admits. "I noticed that apps were getting real big, and I started seeing a lot of artists with apps. Lil Wayne had one; Pink had one; so did Britney Spears. I've always been into technology, so when I saw that it was actually OK for artists to do that I was like, Oh, I have to do an app now! It made sense for me to do an app that featured pitch correction software. That's what everybody was talking about and knew me for, so of course I was going to do that. Eight million dollars later, I can tell you that it was a smash. It's the number one artist's app in the history of apps. I feel good about that."
Although T-Pain is best known for using new technology like pitch correction software, he admits that he's become more of a traditionalist as his career has developed. "I'm leaning more towards old school Neve and TubeTech preamps and tube compressors," he says. "I think that stuff just sounds better. I was amazed at how they made Amy Winehouse's Back to Black sound like it was made in the Fifties, and I think a lot of that had to do with the old school hardware they used when making the album. There was so much wetness and girth on that whole album.
"I feel like my sound comes from a similar place, like old crooners like Sam Cooke or even the old Stevie Wonder stuff. I want to go towards that sound, so you need the right hardware to do that. You can't just get a bunch of plug-ins and make that happen. You have to record to tape and use old tube hardware. That's what's going on on my new album, and that's what I'm putting in my studio right now. I'm still using pitch correction software, but I always do one song without it just to let people know that I'm not only about that. People think that I have hits just because of pitch correction, so I like to let them know I can still write a song and perform the music."
Regardless of whether he's using cutting edge plug-in technology or vintage tube gear, T-Pain says the most important element of his music and the artists he produces is the song itself. His primary goal is to always make music that people can relate to. "If you want to reach the world," he says, "you have to see what the world is going through and talk about it. There are plenty of songs happening out there right now. A lot of artists fail to see that, and they just talk about what they are going through. It may be real to them, but a lot of other people can't relate to that. Not everybody can travel all over the world. A lot of people never leave their state, city, or even neighborhood. I like to sing about things that get people inspired, but you can only do that if you can relate to them."