Is it “cheating” to use pitch correction? Not if you use it right! Learn how to tune your vocals properly to instill human qualities and deeper emotional impact, or the classic hip hop effect!
By Craig Anderton
This is the sixth chapter of the “Recording Vocals at Home” series. Here you can find the full series.
Pitch correction is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used or abused. (Believe it or not, some critics berated the first singers who used EQ and reverb because they were “cheating”…as if singing in a concert hall didn’t add natural EQ and reverb.)
In fact, thanks to pitch correction, my vocals have become more human. I sing with less inhibition because if an otherwise good vocal has one or two wrong notes, pitch correction can fix them easily, without punching or overdubbing. Pitch correction’s bad reputation is due to being overused, which can sound truly annoying. Yet when it’s applied subtly, no one can tell pitch correction is being used, so it doesn’t get any credit.
Consider these recommendations for applying pitch correction:
- Don’t apply it early in the process of recording vocals. Instead, let the mix develop. Then, if some notes actually sound wrong, fix them. Otherwise, leave the vocal alone. A vocal’s nuances may not be technically perfect, but they support the song. For example, vocalists often start singing a note slightly below or above the pitch, then slide to the final pitch. That’s not a bug—it’s a feature.
- If you want the “sound” of pitch correction, go for it! An entire genre of vocals, mostly for hip-hop, has developed around “hard” pitch correction. This gives the human voice a more robotic vibe. Sure, some people might prefer other vocal styles…but beauty is always in the ear of the beholder.
Waves makes three pitch correction plugins: Waves Tune LT, Waves Tune, and Waves Tune Real-Time.. Tune LT covers the most common pitch correction applications and is easy to learn and use. Waves Tune is more like a pitch correction laboratory, while Waves Tune Real-Time is slanted toward live performance (although later, we’ll cover its studio applications).
We’ll use Waves Tune LT for our examples, but if you expect to get deep into pitch correction, consider starting with Waves Tune. After mastering the basics that are also in Waves LT, you can then graduate to Waves Tune’s more advanced features.
As with previous posts in this series, I’d like to thank Martha Davis, the lead singer with The Motels, who provided vocal samples for processing. Again, I asked her to do only one take and use cheap gear, so I could show how to fix vocals that have problems. However, it was a challenge for her to sing off-pitch. I recommended recording the vocal samples when she was really tired, and that provided enough material to demonstrate pitch correction.
Note: When you insert Waves Tune LT, you may see a warning that says, “ReWire link cannot be established, please check your settings.” You can simply ignore this. For more information on ReWire, please see the end of this article.
1. Pitch Correcting Individual Notes
This common technique moves notes that are off pitch to the correct pitch. Make sure the Reference pitch (in the upper left corner) is set correctly (usually A = 440 Hz). For the most natural vocal sound, set the Formant parameter below the Reference field to Corrected. When used as an effect, toggle between Corrected and Non Corrected to see which you prefer.
First, play back the vocal file. Waves Tune LT will scan it, analyze it, and generate a display that shows the vocal pitch and associated notes graphically (Fig. 1). You can play back just the section you want to correct, but some users prefer to play back an entire vocal track, so they’re not interrupted by having to scan new sections to correct. To focus on a specific vocal section, you can zoom in or out, horizontally or vertically.
The main display looks somewhat like a MIDI piano roll view. The orange line represents the vocal’s detected pitch. The rectangles represent notes based on the detected pitch. The green line represents the correction that Waves Tune LT will apply to “bend” the detected pitch closer to the correct pitch. Note that the orange line detects the actual pitch, not your intention. If you meant to sing A# but sang A instead, Tune will assume you meant to sing A and not correct it.
The simplest edit is to fix a note’s pitch. Click on it (or shift+click on multiple notes to move them simultaneously) and drag up or down. Fig. 2 shows the same phrase as Fig. 1, but three out-of-tune notes have been corrected.
In example 1a, the phrase in Fig. 1 plays back without correction.
In example 1b, the phrase in Fig. 1 plays back with the correction shown in Fig. 2.
- Example 1b – Corrected Notes
2. Refining the Correction
The three correction controls at the bottom of the plugin refine how Waves Tune LT applies correction to selected notes, which you select by drawing a rectangle around them. This correction can vary from gentle, which leaves the vocal untouched as much as possible, to extreme correction that gives “hard pitched” vocal effects. This effect was first popularized in Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe,” and has since been used as an effect by many hip-hop artists beginning with T-Pain (He’s quoted as saying, “If I was going to sing, I didn’t want to sound like everyone else”).
Any changes these controls make are non-destructive. Tune LT always remembers the original pitch curve, so you can change these settings at any time.
a. Speed Control
The Speed control sets the time it takes to change the target note from uncorrected to corrected. Fig. 3 shows a phrase where Martha slides the pitch around to add more emotion. The top image shows the Speed at minimum. The bottom image shows Speed at maximum. The minimum speed causes the correction to reach the desired pitch faster, which flattens the slides between and within notes.
At maximum, the correction process takes longer and retains the natural pitch contour. In the audio example, you’ll hear how the faster speed takes out some of the phrase’s “feel.”
In the following example, compare how the words “are,” “long,” and “hard” compare, as well as the overall vocal feel. The difference is subtle, but it makes a difference.
Example 2a corrects audio with the fast speed, which flattens the pitch more.
The slower speed on Example 2b gives a less accurate but more natural sense of pitch correction.
In addition to altering the speed of pitch correction within notes, it’s also necessary to find the optimum speed for the transition between notes. This is the Transition control’s purpose.
b. Transition Control
When the pitch changes from one note to another, the Note Transition time specifies how long it takes for the change to happen. Slower values retain more of any gliding effects, while faster values make changes happen instantaneously, which corrects pitch more “tightly” (Fig. 4).
The audio examples below show the difference between slow and fast transition speeds and the tradeoffs that are involved.
Example 3a plays the sound of the slow Transition setting.
- Example 3a – Slow Transition
Example 3b plays the same phrase, with a fast transition. The pitch correction is welcome, but now the vibrato sounds unnatural (although you might like this effect).
- Example 3b – Fast Transition
With this example, there are two simple solutions to correct the incorrect pitches—while retaining the vibrato. The first is to select only the notes toward the left and apply a fast transition. Then the vibrato will be left alone. The second solution brings us to the Ratio control.
c. Ratio Control
Ratio sets the strength of the pitch correction. Choosing the right amount can give the best of both worlds—accurate yet natural-sounding pitch correction (Fig. 5).
Example 4 below uses the settings shown in Fig. 5, where Speed, Note Transition and Ratio all work together to optimize the phrase. The correct Note Transition setting has made the pitch more accurate, while pulling back the Ratio for less correction strength not only maintains the vibrato’s smoothness but even adds a slight bit of emphasis.
- Example 4 – Optimized Setting
On the other hand, instead of wanting the most natural sound, you might want the most artificial sound to create hard correction effects. For that, all we need to do is choose the most extreme control settings.
3. That Pitch-Corrected Hip Hop Vocal Sound
For hard pitch correction, simply set the Speed and Note Transition to the fastest possible speeds and Ratio for maximum correction…that’s all there is to it (Fig. 6). For the most continuous vocal sound, you may first want to pitch correct all the notes manually so the vocal doesn’t jump around when it hits short notes. Refer back to Fig. 2, which shows the position of the very short note fragments before they were corrected to the nearest note pitch.
- Example 5 – Hard Pitch Correction
4. Conforming to Scales
Sometimes, the right pitch to which a note should be corrected isn’t obvious. Fortunately, the keyboard on the left side isn’t just for decoration—it can indicate which notes are, or are not, valid for particular musical scales. This simplifies pitch-correcting individual notes.
Fig. 7 shows a melodic line from Martha’s song “Only the Lonely,” which is in the key of G# major. In the lower left, G# has been selected from the Root’s drop-down menu and Major from the Scale drop-down menu. The little “illegal” icons toward the left indicate notes that aren’t part of the G# Major scale. So, we can pitch-correct individual notes to “legal” notes.
- Example 6a - Illegal Notes
- Example 6b – No Illegal Notes
However, remember the importance of correcting only notes that sound wrong. Originally, I moved all the B notes up to C. However, the note on the left circled in blue—although it was on pitch—detracted from how Martha added a distinctive little pitch dip. Also, the note circled in blue on the far right is technically “illegal,” but it was part of a downward slide. Making its pitch “perfect” made the slide less compelling.
5. Creating Harmonies
We can also take advantage of the scale indicator to create harmonies. Copy a vocal, insert another Waves Tune LT, and move note pitches to create harmonies that conform to a particular scale (Fig. 8). Clicking on a keyboard key produces a tone (cool!), so you can verify that a particular harmony note fits with a vocal. Or you can just drag notes to legal pitches until they sound right.
As you move a note further from its original pitch, it’s likely that the sound quality won’t equal that of the original pitch. Using the Corrected option for the Formant parameter helps, but you can also wrap a little reverb around the harmony and mix it more in the background, behind the lead (which you would probably do anyway).
- Example 7 – Harmony (with ambiance)
6. Bonus Tip: Doubling!
This tip isn’t a traditional pitch correction application, but if a vocal’s pitch isn’t too far off, Waves Tune LT can create convincing doubling effects. Copy the vocal, and apply some pitch correction to only the copy. There may be just enough pitch differences between the original vocal and the copy to create useful doubling effects. Moving the copy 20-25 ms ahead of or behind the original emphasizes the doubling effect, but check the output in mono to make sure there isn’t excessive phase cancellation.
Diving in Deeper
To get really detailed edits by extending or shortening pitch correction within a note, use the Length tool (Fig. 9). If you click at a rectangle’s edge, a double-arrow cursor appears. You can drag left from a note’s end or right from a note’s beginning to extend a note, or right from a note’s end or left from a note’s beginning to shorten it.
Here’s a description of the remaining features:
- Select All selects all notes that have been scanned.
- Clear Selection removes any selected notes from the waveform display but not from your DAW’s track.
- The Undo function (counterclockwise arrow icon) is dedicated to Waves Tune LT. Your DAW’s undo function relates only to your DAW.
- The drop-down menu below the undo icon accesses 32 levels of undo history.
- Auto-Scroll moves the waveform display during playback, if playback goes beyond the current view.
Waves Tune and Waves Tune Real-Time
Waves Tune LT is a versatile, capable program that does the main functions for which people want pitch correction. However, the full version of Waves Tune (Fig. 10) takes pitch correction much further. It allows editing vibrato or even synthesizing vibrato where none exists in the original vocal. You have more control over how Waves Tune analyzes notes and more ways to shape the correction curve, including pencil and line tools. You can also move part of a curve up or down.
If a sustained note varies a lot in pitch, you can slice it into separate pieces and pitch-correct them individually, as well as merge notes. Additional features expand on using scales and restricting the frequency range being analyzed to provide greater accuracy.
And finally, there’s Waves Tune Real-Time (Fig. 11). Granted, this post is about using pitch correction in the studio, and “real-time” makes it clear this plugin is designed to correct vocals in live performance. Of course, it does that—but for artists who use hard-pitch correction as part of their sound, being able to hear and record what’s happening in real-time as they record is invaluable.
Perhaps even more importantly, you can use Waves Tune Real-Time in non-real-time. So, the artist can monitor vocals through Waves Tune Real-Time, while you record the dry track in your DAW. Then if the singer wasn’t totally on point when singing through Waves Tune Real-Time, you can process the dry track and make any fixes in non-real-time.
So, Pitch Correction Isn’t So Bad After All?
It’s not. It’s a valuable signal processing technique that can turn a great vocal performance into an even better one. It’s true that engineers who perhaps aren’t that familiar with pitch correction have added an annoying overlay to some recordings (which, to be fair, may have been about salvaging a vocal from someone who can’t really sing).
But now that you know what’s involved, you don’t have to make the same mistakes. Whether you want pitch correction so natural no one knows it’s being used, or so extreme that you push the human voice into different sonic territories, pitch correction can provide either one—and everything in between.
This is the sixth chapter of the “Recording Vocals at Home” series. Here you can read chapter 1 on mic choice and technique.
ReWire is a protocol that links two different programs (in this case, Tune LT and your DAW) to the timeline so that the programs follow each other. However, its originator (Propellerhead Software) no longer supports ReWire, so it has been deprecated. ReWire still works with older versions of programs, and newer versions might make it available as an optional install. No programs that run on Apple Silicon (like the M1 chip) support ReWire.
ReWire doesn't affect Waves Tune functionality. ReWire's only advantage is that you can control the playback position from within the plugin, not just from your DAW. If you don’t see the warning, it means your DAW opened the Waves ReWire instrument automatically. If you do see the warning, you may still be able to open the Waves ReWire instrument (which is installed along with Tune LT and Tune). If your DAW supports ReWire, the DAW's documentation will describe how to open ReWire instruments.
Musician/author Craig Anderton is an internationally recognized authority on music and technology. He has played on, produced, or mastered over 20 major label recordings and hundreds of tracks, authored 45 books, toured extensively during the 60s, played Carnegie Hall, worked as a studio musician in the 70s, written over a thousand articles, lectured on technology and the arts (in 10 countries, 38 U.S. states, and three languages), and done sound design and consulting work for numerous music industry companies. He is the current President of the MIDI Association. www.craiganderton.org.
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