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7 Vocal Pitch Correction Tips

Sep 07, 2017

What’s the secret to getting a pitch-perfect yet natural-sounding vocal? How to tune those difficult vibrato notes? Go natural or robotic? Get these and more must-have vocal pitch correction tips.

7 Vocal Pitch Correction Tips

The advent of computer-based pitch correction software in the last couple of decades has allowed engineers, producers and artists not only to correct pitch with newfound surgical precision, but also to use it as a creative tool. Today, pitch correction tools such as Waves Tune and Waves Tune Real-Time are used in nearly every style of music recording and even in live shows.

The following tips will help you understand the basic characteristics of pitch and how to affect it, both for natural-sounding correction and for creative effects.

1. Natural or Robotic Sound? It’s in the Transitions

Pitch-correcting vocals effectively requires some understanding of how musical pitch tracks from note to note. It is the transitional periods between notes that make the main difference in achieving a natural or unnatural result with pitch correction.

Most vocalists will lead into a note either flat or sharp before settling on the pitch we perceive, usually depending on the prior note in the melodic phrase. If the note is moving from a higher note to a lower one, the singer will often lead into it sharp; if moving from low to high, they will usually lead in flat. The obvious exception is any note that follows a rest or breath before being sung.

How you approach this transition determines how ‘effected’ the pitch correction will sound. In your pitch correction plugin, using a slow, gradual transition will generally lead to a natural sound and a fast, abrupt transition will sound robotic.

In this screenshot of Waves Tune, notice how the corrected pitch line, in green, smooths the transition to the pitch center of the long sustained note (look at the transition to the orange area), to create gradual transition and natural pitch correction:

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Conversely, with a very fast “Note Transition” setting, the pitch will instantly track to the pitch center, creating a more robotic sound:

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2. Natural or Robotic Sound? It’s in the Fluctuation

The musical notes we most readily perceive in a vocal performance are the ones made up of vowels (A, E, I, O, U) with occasional soft consonants (L, M, N). When a vocalist lands on one of these notes, the pitch will almost always fluctuate to some degree.

Now, as long as the fluctuation is centered well around the target note, the pitch will be perceived as both correct and natural. When you pitch-correct the vocal, making sure that there is still some slight fluctuation around the note center will make the pitch correction natural-sounding. Flattening the note to its perfect pitch center will lead to a more unnatural sound, which paired with very fast note transition will achieve an overall robotic result.

In this screenshot, notice how the corrected pitch line (in green) reduces the pitch variation around the note’s center, but still retains some natural degree of fluctuation.

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However, with a very fast Speed setting and a Ratio set to 100% correction, the pitch will perfectly flat-line to the pitch center to create a completely robotic note:

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3. Choose the Right Tool

There are basically two different pitch correction methods, represented, respectively, by the Waves Tune and Waves Tune Real-Time plugins.

  • One method (Waves Tune) allows you to edit the performance note-by-note with surgical precision.
  • The other (Waves Tune Real-Time) will operate on a single set of parameters throughout a performance, either after or while the singer is singing (hence “real time”).

Both methods can be effective but there are some important considerations when choosing between the two.

Editing the pitches note-by-note will likely produce the best results for an intricate, subtle performance, or for an erratic one:

  • When the performance is intricate, with complex melodic content, you will need to edit note by note to ensure that the pitch correction preserves the performer’s desired intricate character and doesn’t smooth out the subtleties.
  • When the performances is erratic, with stray notes that go wildly out of tune, automatic tuning might ‘correct’ to the wrong notes, so you’ll need to ensure manually that the correction is always to the right note.

Fully automated real-time processing can be an effective tool for correcting performances that are generally in tune and pitch-consistent, but need a little love. In cases like this, it’s a good idea to set the key signature to match the song, which will redirect ‘illegal’ notes to the closest correct note on a given musical scale. Setting the Range will avoid pitch-correcting any erroneous sounds outside of the desired octaves, such as background noise or other present artifacts. Pay close attention to make sure that no notes end up in the wrong places; and save a preset of your settings to use during live performances.

So, to recap:

Waves Tune scans the individual notes to prepare them for intricate editing. Here’s a quick tutorial with tips and tricks on how to use the plugin for precise pitch correction:

Waves Tune Real-Time corrects notes automatically, in real time, during playback or during the performance itself. In this video tutorial audio engineer Dave Darlington demonstrates how to do this:

For a more detailed comparison, take a look at the Overview tab on the Waves Tune page, where you’ll find a chart comparing three different pitch correction plugins: Waves Tune, Waves Tune Real-Time, and Waves Tune LT (a ‘light’ version of Waves Tune).

4. Separate the Notes Using Tolerance Settings

Should you decide to edit note-by-note, separating each note is critical to your success. Note Tolerance settings allow you to determine how sensitive the note separation will be:

  • Low Tolerance settings will result in more note separations.
  • High Tolerance settings will result in fewer notes separating.

Generally, use lower settings for faster paced performances and higher settings for slower legato performances.

With Low Tolerance settings, this vibrato is quickly separated into individual notes:

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With High Tolerance settings, the same vibrato can be easily centered around a single note:

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5. Vibrato: Hitting a Moving Target

Long sustained notes often create the most difficult situations for pitch correction. The primary reason for this is the presence of vibrato. Because vibrato is such a powerful form of emotional expression, correcting the pitch requires the utmost in care and attention.

There are two common dilemmas with vibrato: (1) How to decide whether the singer intended to reach one note or two; (2) What to do when the average pitch of the vibrato drifts sharp or flat.

  • Reaching for two notes: The wider the pitch variation, the more likely it is that the performer intended to be trilling the two notes. That said, sometimes vibrato will start as a single pitch and modulate into two, or vice versa. The tricky part here is trying to gauge the intention of the vocalist. When the vibrato modulates between two notes, it is usually better to decrease the Pitch Tolerance settings so that the notes are separated during correction.
  • Tuning sharp/flat vibrato: Often, the average frequency of the vibrato will drift sharp or flat. Sometimes this variation carries the pitch center to a different note. In this case, it is often better to separate modulation pairings so they may be centered onto the targeted pitch. In other words, separate in complete up/down cycle increments. This approach will keep the average pitch centered and will smooth out the transitions more naturally.

6. Keep It Emotional: Get Some Sensitivity Training

Correcting a vocal can bring dynamic into a lifeless performance. Over-correcting a vocal can easily suck the emotion out of it.

So, the most important attribute one can have while pitch correcting a vocal performance is emotional sensitivity. No, you won’t find that setting on your pitch correction software, so you will have to turn that baseball cap around regularly and change your listening perspective from that of a technical one to an emotional one.

Understanding the difference is not as easy as you may think. Emotional perception can easily be influenced by balances in the mix – for example, by whether the vocal is totally dry as opposed to lush with reverb and delay. It is important to regularly step out of your pitch correction duties and zoom your ear out for an overall perspective.

One approach that works well is to pitch-correct a verse and then zoom out and blend the dry vocal back into the mix with effects. A/B the difference between the pitch corrected and non-pitch corrected track. Determine if your approach is working. If it is, then continue the process. If not, try a different approach with a second pitch correction plugin so you can quickly compare the two. Once you have established the best approach, sculpt your way through the rest of the song.

7. No Two Vocals Are Alike

One last bit of advice is to keep in mind that no single approach to pitch correction will work all the time in every situation. Every song and vocal performance is unique and will present different challenges.

Be sensitive to ‘pitch patterns’ that a particular performer may have. Some vocalists will consistently drift sharp or flat with their vibrato. They may have problems with certain notes or phrases. When you crack the code on a problem, quickly correct the same problem if it occurs throughout a song.

It is always best to understand the musical perspective of what you are doing before diving into any technical task. Remember that the listener will only actively notice pitch if the overall performance does not shine. You have both the power to harm and to help, so it’s important to be sensitive to this. Always make sure that you are enhancing the emotional aspect of the performance, no matter what type of processing you’re applying.

A Little History…

The treatment of vocal pitch in music has come a long way over the past six decades. A vocal performance with bad pitch in the 1950s meant that the whole band had to record again. The evolution of multitrack recording in the 1960s meant only the singer would have to perform again.

By the 1970s, multiple performances could be recorded and compiled together on the same tape machine to create one ‘in-tune’ performance. In the 1980s, new technology allowed individual words to be sampled, pitch-corrected by ear and then re-recorded back into the multitrack.

But it was in the 1990s that the way we work with pitch correction was forever changed, with the inventions of non-destructive pitch correction / vocal tuning plugins like the ones discussed in this article. The watershed moment was Cher’s 1999 meta-hit “Believe,” and since then it was followed by creative uses of vocal tune effects by T-Pain, Kanye West, Daft Punk and many more, alongside more ‘natural’ pitch correction on virtually every major pop, rock or R&B vocal recording you hear.

The latest step in the revolution – vocal pitch can now be tuned live in concert using the Waves Tune Real-Time plugin. But does that mean individual talent is no longer required? Hardly – no software can (yet?) replace an expressive voice, an emotional performance or a singer’s personality: all these are still needed for a truly memorable song. As for further developments in vocal tuning – we’ll see what the future holds…

Want more mixing tips? See our 8 tips on mixing with reverb and learn how and when to use multiband compression.