Bobby Crown is one of the most sought-after live engineers on the rap and hip hop scene. He’s become the go-to for all things Auto-Tune Live, whether that’s replicating essential studio effects or interpreting and shaping artists’ live vocal needs on tour. Crown spends half the year on the road—a two-month run here, a summons to build an Auto-Tune rig there—translating the sonic visions of Young Thug, Ty Dolla $ign, Freebandz Test, Gunna, and Future for big audiences with even bigger expectations.
A St. Louis kid fed on metal and punk, Crown remembers his years as a skateboarder and later, club engineer, devoted to those genres. He moved to L.A. in the early 2000s and soon held mixing positions at the Roxy, the Key Club, and the Troubadour, spending nine years mixing band showcases and impromptu secret shows by mega-stars at these iconic venues (including one memorable night mixing both FOH and monitors on two consoles for Tom Morello and a staggering lineup of guest artists including Slash, Steve Vai, Jerry Cantrell, Jane’s Addiction, Cypress Hill, Travis Barker, Stewart Copeland, and System of a Down).
Crown infused patience, hard work, and critical people skills into his craft, earning a reputation that would get him invited to tour first with a lineup of nu-metal, alt-electronic bands, and then with Nas—which led him to build deep and wide relationships in the hip hop scene. “Looking back on my relationships with artists in the hip hop genre, it’s difficult to imagine what my career would be without them,” he says. “I feel like this is where I belong.”
There’s some irony in the way Auto-Tune Live has become the magic tool in Crown’s kit. In his early, rock-focused years, he sometimes would hear references to ’Tune as a crutch for less-than-stellar singers. “That was the running joke,” he said. “But in the hip hop game, it’s just as important an effect as the distortion pedal is for a rock band. It’s here to stay. It’s not used on every song, but it definitely adds that flavor to their sound.” That said, every approach is different: Most artists Crown collaborates with rely on Auto-Tune to achieve their signature sound, though a few use it just as an icing now and then. Some rap or hip hop performers might apply Auto-Tune for a song or two, while others require a dedicated live engineer or technician to focus entirely on those effects. Future’s live setup, for example, has Crown running monitors and two redundant Ableton rigs to provide main and backup Auto-Tune effects. “With Future, even though it’s on 100 percent, it’s a full lead effect on his vocal; , he’s learned how to keep his voice in a certain range, where it only accents certain syllables,” he says. “It sounds like there’s a hairball in his throat, and that hairball is what’s triggering the effect—so he can rap a whole lyric and it will be fine, but you’ll hear this one little instance of a pronunciation that made that effect stand out, and that’s what I really love listening to when I hear his new music.”
Crown says Auto-Tune Live is the best way he’s found to deliver Auto-Tune from the studio to the stage. He describes his process of re-creating a studio track with Auto-Tune Live, as a live vocal effect: “When tracking a record or a song, the tracking engineer will know what key the song is in, and he’ll put the Auto-Tune on the vocal—full-on, generally, in that key,” he explains. “And as they start doing their verses, the artist will then tell the tracking engineer, ‘take it up an octave, or down an octave, ’cause I’m going to be triggering it this way for this song.’ So it’s kind of set. When I get it, the song’s done—published, on iTunes, the artist is performing it—so I’ll call the producer or the management and get the screenshot of the actual plug-in settings that they use to track it. I’ll get a set list, I’ll get all the songs together, and then I’ll get all those keys together, and then I’ll program the Auto-Tune, usually through Ableton Live as a VST plug-in. I’m able to create clips, so each clip is the name of a song, and then you can save all of those changes for the key, the scale, and the pitch to that clip.” He adds that this process is helpful for last-minute set list changes, which always happen. “We just drag the clips in the correct order. As new songs are implemented to the set, we build upon the existing session. Now, Future’s Auto-Tune session has more than 75 songs he’s performed at least once live.”
Crown’s specialty is not only knowing when and how to use Auto-Tune, but when to pull it back. This may mean establishing a preset to make the vocal effect completely wet unless he hits bypass to turn it off. Or, it may mean turning off Auto-Tune until someone’s ready to sing. “It’s the same with the rock stuff,” he explains. “When you’re mixing a rock band, you don’t keep reverb and delay on after the song’s over, because then it takes the mystery away from the desired effect. So it’s a constant bypass, on and off, on and off, for my technique. You have to understand that and be very delicate with mixing with that. Some people have a different approach; some people leave it on. I like to keep it off until they sing.”
Whatever the technique, Crown is convinced Auto-Tune is on the rap scene to stay. “You can’t release a rap album without having at least one song that’s got a little bit of it on there,” he says. “That’s the norm, that’s the sound, that’s what we’re gonna be used to hearing.” And that means for Crown, Auto-Tune will be that dynamic tool that helps him realize whatever vocal sounds his collaborating artists can dream up. “Once people dig into Auto-Tune, it opens up their brains,” he explains. “As far as training my ears, it helps a lot. It can be a really useful tool for educational purposes and for entertainment and production. That’s what I really like getting out of this multifaceted, multi-purpose tool. I don’t like things that just do one job…I like discovering things that you can do with it.”
Crown credits Josh Sarraulte, Future’s FOH engineer on the Purple Reign and Summer Sixteen tours, for showing him how to find song keys on the spot while programming the TASCAM TA-1VP vocal processor. He also expresses tremendous thanks to Andy Barnes, Ty Dolla $ign FX guru, for sharing his Ableton skills that organize and complement the Auto-Tune Live setup that Crown uses weekly. “I love looking back and remembering how nervous we can be when facing new technology intertwined with art,” Crown says. “None of us get here alone, so I’m thankful to be in an industry with a lot of open-minded individuals who share their knowledge, innovations, and creativity with each other.”
Music and Technology Writer
Sarah Jones is a writer, musician, and content producer who chronicles the creative and technical forces that drive the music industry. She's served as editor-in-chief of Mix, EQ, and Electronic Musician magazines and is currently the live sound editor of Live Design magazine. She’s a longtime board member in the San Francisco chapter of The Recording Academy, where she develops event programming that cultivates the careers of Bay Area music makers.