Vocal tuning can really be as simple or as complex as you’d like it to be. Real-time pitch correction with plugins like Auto-Tune or Waves Real-Time is very effective, especially when working with a solid vocalist. In these instances, you may sometimes be able to “set it and forget it.” Surgical tweaks on pre-recorded tracks can take a bit more time, but they also provide the most flexibility and depth in terms of what can and cannot be done.
There are some general guidelines to get started that should help you learn how to better tune vocals.
Find the Key Center
The very first thing you’ll want to do when you open your vocal tuning plugin is set the key center of the song. If it seems obvious, then that’s a good sign. Believe it or not, I’m sure there have been instances where we’ve forgotten to set the appropriate key on our pitch correction tools and wondered why a performance sounds terrible. Most plugins will provide all 12 keys and a major or minor designation.
If a passage is neither major or minor, there’s usually a “Chromatic” setting, too. You’ll have to rely on your ears for what works and what doesn’t in those instances.
Pick the Right Tool(s)
As we led with above, knowing when to use real-time pitch correction or surgical correction is important. When tracking through a plugin, or on performances that need just a slight bit of help, real-time plugins can do the trick. The thing to remember, though, is that one setting acts on every note that a vocalist performs. What sounds great on one passage or phrase may not be as useful on another.
Surgical vocal tuning, with a plugin like Melodyne, for example, gives the user control over each individual note in a take. You can probably imagine how useful this is in nearly any situation. Let’s say a vocalist holds out a note over several seconds, but loses pitch at the very end. With surgical pitch correction, you can find the errant section and fix it.
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Keep the Intended Emotion
It’s safe to say that maintaining the emotional intent of a performance is first and foremost. Pitch correction can oftentimes make a lifeless performance a bit more dynamic, but too much correction might turn a human into a robot. Unfortunately, “Emotion” isn’t a parameter you’ll find on pitch correction software. You’ll have to rely on good ears, sensitivity to the music, and good communication with the artist.
In this way, a general tip, that’s useful for the mixing process as a whole, is to zoom out your perspective from time to the time. Whether that means taking a break and stretching your legs, listening to something else, or even working on another project, you’ll need a good rest from the technicality of surgical vocal tuning.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the technical side of things, tuning to oblivion, and completely forget the musical aspect of the song itself. It will obviously vary from style to style, but make sure the amount and style of tuning suits the subject matter.
Popular Vocal Tuning Software
Auto-Tune Pro is the most complete and advanced edition of Auto-Tune. It includes both Auto Mode, for real-time pitch correction and effects, and Graph Mode, for detailed pitch and time editing.
For twenty years, Auto-Tune has been the professional standard for pitch correction, and the tool of choice for the most iconic vocal effect in popular music.
Now, with the introduction of Auto-Tune Pro, it’s more versatile and easy to use than ever before, thanks to a totally redesigned interface and powerful new processing, editing, and navigation features.
With Auto-Tune, users have the option of running it as transparent or as heavy-handed as they’d like. Many engineers have noted that Auto-Tune adds a distinctive color to the signal, even when Retune Speed isn’t set to “T-Pain.” Whether it suits your taste is of course up to you, but the plugin is still one of the most widely used forms of pitch correction in modern music.
Waves Tune is intended to surgically correct pitch on pre-recorded tracks. According to them,
Better-sounding and more versatile than any other pitch correction processor, Waves Tune will get your vocals back on track.
The Waves Tune interface has 3 timeline modes, including bars/beats, samples, and minutes/seconds. The edit graph window includes a waveform overview, timeline, piano roll, and pitch editor. When you need to precisely edit a recorded performance, this is an extremely handy tool.
Waves Tune Real-Time is designed to help vocalists stay in key while performing, whether live or in the studio. It functions similarly to Auto-Tune’s “Auto Mode,” for real-time pitch correction. Real-time pitch correction is particularly helpful for making vocalists feel confident, allowing them to focus more on the emotive content of a performance. In the studio, we tend to get the best takes when the artist feels comfortable and confident.
A quick glance the Real-Time’s interface shows it’s pretty easy to use. You can of course pick the desired key, or even input a reference tone from a MIDI device. The amount of correction can be altered as well, depending on how transparent or not you’d like it to run.
Melodyne is arguably some of the most detailed pitch correction software available. Like Waves Tune, it’s designed for use on pre-recorded takes of vocals, or anything else for that matter (noted metal producer and engineer Andy Sneap has described how he uses Melodyne frequently on bass guitar). Its algorithm detects three different types of pitch for each inputed note, including pitch center, modulation, and drift, for precise control.
With Melodyne, users can correct pitch, timing, and amplitude for vocal tuning. You can even create artificial vibrato, extend or shorten notes, and do just about anything else you can think of. That’s just scratching the surface. For the most advanced control over vocal tuning and pitch correction, you can’t go wrong with Melodyne.