Who is Harold Hildebrand and why are people saying such weird things about him (at least about his creations)?
As a co-founder of Landmark Graphics in the 1980s, “Dr. Andy,” as he is widely known, is praised for helping move seismic interpretation to the desktop and reshaping exploration economics in the process.
Then, in the 1990s, Hildrebrand applied his knowledge of autocorrelation, digital signal processing and seismic deconvolution to (what else?) music.
The result was Antares Technologies and a gizmo called Auto-Tune, which has become pervasive, if not indispensable in the music industry.
It’s also been called pure evil.
Because of that creation, Hildebrand is hailed by some as an innovator who helped reshape the workings of the recording industry – and accused by others as the guy who, to put it politely, totally messed up the industry.
The truth might be in the ear of the beholder.
Auto-Tune is a plug-in that can tweak a singer’s missed notes to be pitch perfect, while maintaining the original vocal quality, both in the studio and live performances.
“The real value is, we’ve changed the economics of the studios,” he said.
“In the past, a singer would make multiple takes of the same phrase or same song, then the engineer would slice them up and piece together the song from different takes.
“Now they can sing it twice, take half an hour, and the engineer can fix the problems. It’s dramatically more efficient – better quality and less expense,” he said.
“It’s opened up opportunities for many people,” he added.
And singers aren’t the only ones to benefit from the technology. Antares’ newest big product, unveiled in January, allows real-time pitch correction for guitar players.
Some stars eschew Auto-Tune, saying it is dishonest. Others say it’s a safety net that helps them give audiences the performance they deserve. Still others – Cher and T-Pain are two examples – jack the settings around to create an extreme effect that’s been likened to a robot voice or singing into a fan.
Such extreme use “is faddish, and fads get overexposed,” Hildebrand said.
“I explain, I just build the car‚ I don’t drive it down the wrong side of the freeway.
“We enjoy the controversy,” he admitted.
So how did Hildebrand get from rocks to rock?
After a stint with Exxon, he headed software and later engineering development for Landmark. He also led the team that developed the OpenWorks database system.
By 1989, the company was doing well and “didn’t depend on entrepreneurship any more,” he said. He retired from Landmark to study music composition at Rice University.
“I was a 40-year-old student among primarily a bunch of high school kids,” he said. “They got me interested in the technical aspects of music, synthesizer algorithms and such.”
Solving so-called “impossible” challenges became Antares’ mission.
“Look, it costs millions to drill a well and you can’t predict the results. Oil companies spend a lot of money to maximize their gamble,” he said.
“We bring that maturity in technology development to this industry,” he continued. “In seismic, an artifact in the data can be a disaster. The need for quality in that science, I carried over with me.”
Hildebrand’s Auto-Tune wasn’t the first algorithm (for pitch correction), “but it was the first one that worked,” he said.
Deconvolution is another “huge” crossover from the oil patch, he said.
First applied to seismology in the 1950s, then to speech in the ‘60s, the technique allows computer modeling of a speaker’s or singer’s throat as they vocalize. In a nutshell, it allows the pitch to be changed without making the speaker “sound like a chipmunk.”
“This company has taken its understanding of that kind of arithmetic to do a superior job,” he said.
Hildebrand estimates 90 percent of current radio playlists involve his products.
In some ways, the science that located the fuel that’s in your car also put the songs on its radio.
That comes as no surprise if you’ve ever visited the Antares website, which outlines the company’s mission as “world domination.”