When making a record, integrating music theory concepts can bring your productions to the next level. Learn how to make use of instrument tuning, optimal vocal ranges, chord voicings and timbre to create better recordings.
By Charles Hoffman
It’s not uncommon to run into recording engineers and producers who aren’t that familiar with music theory. While you aren’t required to have a deep understanding of music theory to be a great engineer, maintaining a basic knowledge of the subject can greatly improve the quality of the recordings you’re able to churn out. This guide is going to cover some basic, recording and production focused music theory that will allow you to work more effectively as a recording engineer, save time when mixing, and ultimately produce better sounding music.
Tune the Band’s Instruments
Most musicians know they need to tune their instruments at the beginning of a recording session, but throughout the entire session it’s important to remind them to keep check of their instruments’ tuning. The reason for this is that through heavy playing, certain instruments will become detuned; this applies primarily to string instruments and even drums.
While an instrument may not necessarily become completely detuned through the duration of a one-hour recording session, it may become detuned just enough that it’s noticeable when you start comping different “takes” together. If half of a guitar solo in your song is tuned perfectly, while random parts are detuned by just a couple of cents, it can be noticeable enough that it becomes jarring to the listener. It’s important to remind the artists you’re recording to tune up every 20-30 minutes, or even more frequently if they’re playing their instruments continuously.
While fixing things at the recording stage is usually the best option, Waves Tune and Waves Tune Real-Time will allow you to rectify these issues somewhat. Depending on the nature of the instrument, Waves Tune can do a great job in fixing tuning discrepancies, allowing the mix to sound more cohesive tonally.
Make the Most of Percussion Instruments
Tuning all your percussion to the root note of your song can usually provide good results, but if you only ever do this, there’s a lot of musically dynamic real estate not being capitalized on. You can get rather creative with tuning drum kits in particular.
Kicks are usually tuned to the tonic, better known as the root note, while snares tend to be tuned all over the place; I haven’t seen too many producers intentionally try to pitch their kicks differently than this, which is mainly because they can conflict with the impact of a song’s bass line. However, pitching your snare up/down to create different intervals in relation to the kick can be very interesting.
The following audio example contains a drum kit and a bassline, but the snare is pitched differently throughout the recording; it moves between being tuned to the root, the major 2nd (2 semitones above the root), the perfect fifth (7 semitones above the root), and the minor 6th (8 semitones above the root). Listen to how the different tunings of this snare can affect the feeling of the arrangement.
Toms provide a lot of musical opportunity. If the drummer has three toms, which are often very tonal, that’s three distinct notes that part of the instrument is providing. These notes can be used to create arpeggiated chords. For example, if you want the drummer’s fills to resolve to the root, you could pitch the upper tom to the 7th, the mid tom to the 5th and the low tom to the 3rd, which would then allow you to resolve casually to the root (the kick). Alternatively, you could pitch the low tom down to something like the minor second, which would beg to resolve to the root.
How you tune your percussion depends entirely on the feeling and mood you’re trying to achieve with the song, as well as the key. It’s important that going into the session, you’re aware of these points so that you can work accordingly while tuning and tracking. Drums aren’t always tuned to their full potential, and many drummers I’ve spoken to have admitted to never putting much thought into how they tune their drums. There’s a whole wealth of opportunity here that you can take advantage of.
While it’s most time-efficient to tune your drums at the recording stage, you may very well be mixing a recording from a client, or simply not have had a chance during the tracking stage to properly consider the tuning. What you can do in this scenario is use Waves Torque for excellent drum pitching results. Torque is a precision drum tone shifter for acoustic and electronic drums that allows you to adjust drum pitch by +/- 1200 cents, or rather, 12 semitones. It is able to analyze the drums’ formant, amplitude and carrier information, reassemble it, and manipulate tone and pitch characteristics while preserving the natural attack, decay and resonance of the initial sound. This essentially allows you to tune the drums in a musical manner from the comfort of the mix position.
In the case that there may be significant mic bleed affecting the tuning results from Torque, you can use Primary Source Expander to remove the bleed, allowing you to pitch drums to your liking.
Choose the Key to Accommodate Your Vocalist
While some vocalists like Billie Eilish have a singing range that can span up to three octaves, it’s important that you assess the vocalist you’re working with and identify the scope of their abilities. One way to do this is to ask them to sing a song they’re comfortable with and identify the key of the song.
Pull up the song your vocalist has suggested, and try transposing it up and down the octave in various keys using a plugin like SoundShifter. Have your vocalist sing along with alternate versions of the track, then listen back to the recordings of your vocalist and discuss with them which range they were able to sing in most confidently. This should provide some sort of benchmark for the production at hand. While in the pre-production stage with your client, keep in mind that different keys will provide different moods and flavors to the same song; choosing a new key can also open up interesting creative possibilities.
If you find a key you’re happy with but the singer is just 1 or 2 semitones away from being able to hit a difficult note, you can use a trick with Waves Tune to assist them. Pitch the instrumental down 1-2 semitones, and have your vocalist sing along with it in a more comfortable range. Once you’ve captured the vocal recording, pitch it up 1-2 semitones using Waves Tune for organic sounding results.
Alternatively, you could have your vocalist confidently sing the note they can’t quite hit a semitone flat (or however off it may be) and implement the use of some light pitch correction via Waves Tune to bump that one note into place. This can also be done live with Waves Tune Real-Time if the vocalist’s performance is close enough to the note they’re aiming for, or if they use the plugin’s MIDI input target pitch feature along with a MIDI keyboard onstage to define the targeted note. Either way, it’s very important to consider the vocalist’s needs when choosing a song’s key.
Determine If You Need Multiple Vocalists
According to Jacob Collier, “Harmony is about injecting melody with emotion, so that ultimately you leave home and you return home, and you’ve learned something along the way.” Harmony can be explained in many different ways, as is demonstrated in the following video, but ultimately, it will allow you to produce songs that are more emotionally impactful.
Artists won’t always wander into your studio with harmonies composed and ready to record; they’re often created on the fly. Single line vocal harmonies are pretty common and relatively simple to create. In John Mayer’s song “New Light” the background harmonies can be heard clearly and while quite simple, they add significant richness to the song. A couple of “ooh” and “ahhh” vocal tracks in the background of your song can go a long way.
“I Get Around” by The Beach Boys contains a number of stacked vocal harmonies. Throughout the song, The Beach Boys are constantly constructing chords with their voices, which results in a constantly evolving and immersive listening experience.
Something that’s important to note here is that The Beach Boys are capable of producing harmonies like this due to the way they voice chords, as well as the timbre of their voices. Creating vocal stacks like this may be challenging if you’re just working with one vocalist. Let’s take a further look at chord voicing and timbre to figure out why this is.
Voicing refers to the way in which you vertically arrange the pitches that make up a chord. For example, a C major chord contains C, E, and G; this can be played in various different ways, with the only requirement being that the chord only contains the notes C, E, and G.
For example, C major can be played in close position or open position. In close position, C, E, and G are spaced closely together and sit within one octave of one another. In open position, the notes are spaced further apart, and sit outside one octave of one another. The following graphic demonstrates a C major chord being played a variety of ways and alternating between close position and open position.
I’ve recorded this arrangement using the Electric 88 Piano to demonstrate the clear sonic difference between close position and open position chords.
When creating vocal harmonies while recording, it can be beneficial to choose one type of voicing over the other. If you’re looking to create a stacked vocal harmony that takes up a smaller, designated space in your mix, you may opt to use a close position voicing. However, if like in “I Get Around” the main focus is the vocal arrangement, an open position voicing may be the better option since it allows you to fill out more of the frequency spectrum; this can allow you to avoid having to fill space with additional instruments.
Another great example of chords being formed using vocals is “Hideaway” by Jacob Collier. He has quite an impressive vocal range and his extensive knowledge of music theory allows him to create incredibly interesting chord progressions. Pay specific attention to how he’s voicing the chords in the following video.
Timbre (pronounced “tam burr”) refers to the character of a sound, which is different than pitch. If you play two different sounds that are of the same pitch and duration, you’ll often be able to tell them apart due to their timbre. For example, a guitar producing a sustained E note is going to sound significantly different than someone playing an E on a trombone. Keep in mind that this isn’t due to a difference in fundamental pitch, but rather, the harmonic structure of each sound.
With regard to capturing vocals, using a different vocalist for background vocals can create clear mix separation due to a difference in timbre; different voices simply have different harmonic structures. If your lead vocalist is female, a male backup vocal can complement that quite nicely, and vice versa.
It’s up to you to decide whether the song you’re recording requires multiple vocalists. Using a single vocalist is often convenient, and perfectly fine for one-line harmonies, whereas recording multiple vocalists will allow you to create open voiced chords that are capable of filling a tremendous amount of space.
If you only have one vocalist, you can use a plugin like SoundShifter to synthetically drop (or raise) the pitch of their voice below (or above) what they’re capable of singing. This may allow you to create vocal stacks that are spread further than what would otherwise be possible. Additionally, if you want to alter the timbre of some of the harmonies you’ve recorded, you can do so with a device like UltraPitch. Mixed in well, this can often give the impression of multiple vocalists and stacked harmonies, while still being accessible in a “bedroom” style production.
Capturing a song starts at the recording level but is influenced by your production decisions and continues into the mixing. In all these stages you can bring value to the table by having a basic understanding of music theory.
Want more on recording and processing vocals? Get 7 tips on making your vocals sound huge.
Want to get more tips straight to your inbox? Subscribe to our newsletter here.