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Beware: The voice of the robot is taking over

The New York-based sketch comedy group Olde English recently unveiled a Web cartoon that parodies the robotic voices currently prevalent on the R&B and pop charts. In the sketch, two of that sound’s biggest proponents, the star singers Akon and T-Pain, use the robotic effect while having a routine cell phone conversation.

The two-and-a-half minute bit--which sounds a little like Al Green and R2-D2 melodically arguing over directions to the mall--launched on the Web site Super Deluxe and became a viral smash, landing on numerous hip-hop blogs as well as on the Web sites of VH-1’s “Best Week Ever” and even The New Yorker magazine.

“The sketch hit something that everyone’s been thinking,” said David Segal who wrote, directed and provided the voice of T-Pain for the sketch. That sound “is just everywhere. We were looking at the Billboard charts at one point and half of the top 10 singles featured either Akon or T-Pain.”

T-Pain, the Tallahassee, Fla.-based singer (born Faheem Najm), is a ready target for caricature. He first broke out with his trademark style in 2005 with “I’m n Luv (Wit a Stripper),” and became a cultural force with the release of his 2007 album, "Epiphany." His catchy hooks and heavily computerized vocals drove the album to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 and he soon became a frequently featured guest on other records.

“The sound has now become so successful and so influential that you have other artists not even working with him who are imitating it,” said Chris Molanphy, a music writer who does a weekly column dissecting the Billboard charts for the pop music site, Idolator. Molanphy pointed to recent popular experiments with robotic vocals by established artists such as Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg, who used the effect in his hit “Sensual Seduction.”

So what's the allure?

“Our ears are conditioned throughout our life to expect . . . voices [to] sound a certain way and do certain things,” said Marco Alpert, vice president of marketing at Antares Audio Technology. That robotic effect “is not something we’ve been conditioned to expect voices to do. When you hear a voice do that, your attention is grabbed.”

The California-based Antares Audio Technologies develops Auto-Tune, the industry standard in pitch correction software, which is the tool most widely used to generate the effect. Studio engineers produce the robotic twang in a singer’s voice by using Auto-Tune to alter the amount of time it takes to move a sung note to its programmed target note. The faster the note is corrected, the more noticeable the effect, a trick first deployed memorably on Cher's No. 1 single, “Believe” in 1998.

“For the longest time we called it the Cher effect,” said Alpert. “It’s clearly the T-Pain effect now.”

The idea of giving the human voice a robotic sheen isn’t a new pop music phenomenon. In the 1970s Peter Frampton and Roger Troutman used a device called a talk box to make it appear as if their instruments were speaking. Other acts, such as the German electronic group Kraftwerk, have used a vocoder effect to give lyrics a computer-like sound. Never before, though, have these kind of electronic voices been at once so widespread and so popular.

“It’s a reflection of a particular historical moment,” said Alexander Weheliye, an associate professor of African American Studies and English at Northwestern University. Weheliye has used a T-Pain song in a contemporary African American culture class to talk with his students about the post-soul moment. “People are used to interacting on the Internet, on cell phones, on pagers, on PDAs and so on. In that sense the kind of electronic mediation or transmission of the voice doesn’t seem quite as strange anymore.”

The blurring of the line between human and machine could provide an even deeper explanation for the sound’s popularity. As such communications devices become more prevalent, the human relationship with them can become, well, complicated.

“Some aspect of this music is coming from an object which is being substituted for something real and alive and that is twisted in a kind of very exciting way,” said Robert Fink, an associate professor in the department of musicology at UCLA, who has taught courses in electronic music. “What you’re often seeing with this sort of vocoding effect is the voice as fetish.”

Fans, of course, tend to be less analytical--but they know what they like.

“I just think it’s really unique and it sounds great to listen to, especially in the clubs,” said Chelsea Pritchard, 20, a member of T-Pain’s Facebook fan club who lives in Vancouver, B.C. “The way it sounds is really cool and sort of very futuristic.”