Getting Creative with Pitch Correction
Pitch correction is great for adding professional polish to vocal recordings, but it can also be a powerful creative tool. In this blog, we'll break down some of our favorite non-traditional uses of pitch correction—from recording and arrangement tips to far-out effects for vocal and instruments.
Pitch shifting is nothing new—it’s been used in popular music since the 1950's. Originally achieved by manipulating the speed of a tape machine to raise or lower the pitch of a recording, pitch shifting has been used across a variety of genres over the years.
Hip hop artists and producers often use pitch shifting to layer classic soul and R&B samples with modern drum grooves. Increasing the speed also causes the pitch of the vocals to rise, making the singer sound like a character from Alvin and the Chipmunks. The style has become so popular it even spawned a new genre: Chipmunk Soul.
To achieve this sound, start by finding a sample, then increase the speed to synch up with the BPM of your session. Shoot for something between 160 and 180 bpm—roughly twice the speed of modern hip hop tracks. Check out Kanye Wests' "Through The Wire" for an example.
The Classic "T-Pain Effect"
In 1997, Antares released their renowned Auto-Tune plug-in, designed to help producers and engineers correct out-of-tune recordings. The following year, Cher released "Believe," which is widely believed to be the first instance of Auto-Tune used as an instrument or effect. Since then, dozens of artists have incorporated the sound into their style, including Daft Punk and T-Pain.
Perhaps the most common use for pitch correction software—aside from using it to fines out-of-tune notes—is to create what's commonly referred to today as "The T-Pain Effect." Despite the fact that this technique was invented more than 20 years before T-Pain released "Buy You A Drank" in 2007, the T-Pain effect utilizes pitch correction software to create an almost robotic-sounding vocal that's always in tune, no matter what note you sing.
To achieve this effect, select the appropriate key for your song, select an Alto-Tenor voice, and set the threshold as fast as possible. This makes it so your voice instantly jumps between notes with zero pitch fluctuation—kind of like a karaoke robot.
Most pitch shifters, and especially the more advanced models, also offer formant shifting. Formants are groups of frequencies typically associated with different vowel sounds. Formant shifting is commonly used to give synths a more human-like quality, but it can also be used to adjust the tone of a note without altering the pitch.
For instance, say you wanted to create the illusion that all of your vocal tracks were sung by different people. Formant shifting allows you to alter the tone of each voice without changing the pitch or timing, so you can perfectly preserve the original performance while still giving the track its own sonic character.
Just be careful—adjusting the formants too much can create unnatural effects. However, this can be useful when you're trying to create squirrelly or demonic-sounding vocals. Check out "Nikes" by Frank Ocean for a great example of a vocal that has been formant shifted up, and "Mercy" by Kanye West for an example of formant shifting downward. Notice how both tracks feature sung vocals that stay in tune, but clearly sound altered.
Vocoder / Prismizer Effects
Fans of Bon Iver's "22, a Million" will instantly recognize this popular vocal effect. A vocoder is a digital instrument that essentially turns your voice into a synthesizer. It allows you to shift the pitch of your vocals in real-time based on input from a MIDI keyboard or some other instrument.
To achieve this sound, start by creating a software instrument track and insert your vocoder or pitch correction software as a MIDI-controlled effect. This process will vary depending on your DAW and the plug-in you use. Next, under the side-chain setting on the plug-in, select the vocal track you want to effect.
Now, when you sing into the microphone (or simply playback a prerecorded track), you can select which note the vocal is tuned to—just like a synthesizer! This allows you to sing notes and hit intervals that aren’t even physically possible, with flawless accuracy.
For added points, combine the vocoder effect with a harmonizer like the Antares Harmony Engine Evo to achieve the layered Prismizer effect popularized by Bon Iver. Be sure to use a variety of different harmonies to give you that classic "choir of robots" sound.
Chop & Screw
The chop and screw technique has become a popular sound used by a number of chart-topping EDM artists. Songs like "Where Are U Now" by Skrillex, Diplo and Justin Bieber make use of this technique, where the vocal sample is pitch-shifted until it becomes unrecognizable, then the individual syllables are rearranged to create a new melodic instrument.
To achieve this sound, use your favorite pitch correction software to shift the pitch of the vocal up or down by at least 8 semitones. Then, use your DAW to chop up the audio at the transients. Each DAW will have a different tool for this, but they all work basically the same. Just adjust the threshold until you have a few samples of different lengths to choose from.
Next, assign the samples to a MIDI keyboard and play a new melody using the different clips. If you don't have a MIDI keyboard, you can manually arrange the clips in your DAW to create an interesting melody. Focus on using a few different clips that combine percussive and melodic sounds to create an interesting pattern.
Rewrite The Melody
One of the best parts about working in a DAW is that nothing is set in stone. Pitch correction software allows you to experiment with new melodies after recording simply by dragging the notes around.
Start by capturing a melody and adding an instance of pitch correction software. Tighten up the current recording so that all of the notes are in tune, then experiment with moving notes around the piano roll.
By moving a few notes up and down, you can create a whole new melody! And, if the vocal sounds heavily pitch-corrected when you're done, you can always re-record the part and use the tuned track as a vocal guide for you to sing along with.
Create Pitch-Perfect Guide Tracks to Guide Your Singing
Have you ever noticed that it's always easier to sing along with a song than to sing the vocals all by yourself? I'm not a very good singer, so whenever I want to record vocals, I always use pitch correction software to help me create a guide track.
First, I sing the song all the way through with emphasis on timing—not pitch. I honestly don't care how close any of the notes are. This also helps shake out the cobwebs and let loose some of your insecurities about recording vocals.
Next, I tune the vocals to death. I don't care how realistic the pitch correction sounds—it's just a guide for me to sing along with in my headphones. Singing along with someone hitting the right notes (especially myself) makes it easier to stay in tune while performing. Just make sure that there's no noise bleed so that the vocal mic doesn't pick up your auto-tuned abomination!
In addition to sprucing up a pre-recorded performance, pitch correction software can also be a powerful tool for creating new vocal parts as well. For instance, after recording the lead vocal line, you can duplicate the track and use pitch correction software to move the melody up or down, creating a perfect harmony.
Most songs feature harmonies at the third or fifth interval of the scale. To create a harmony of the duplicate track, select all of the notes and drag them up or down to the third note in the scale. You may have to do a little Googling if your music theory skills are rusty, but you should be able to find the right notes. Additionally, you can try moving the melody to the fifth note in the scale.
If you're feeling adventurous, you can even move the notes around to create a whole new melody that harmonizes with the original lead vocal. Try mixing and matching notes from the third and fifth intervals in the scale, or even moving notes in different directions! You can create a lot of excitement and movement in your mix by making the harmonies move in the opposite direction of the lead vocal. For instance, if the lead melody moves up, drop the next note in the harmony down—or vice versa.
Create A Doubling Effect
Ever wish you had a choir on call for those big studio sessions? With pitch correction software, you can simulate the effect of having two or more singers.
If you've ever tried duplicating a track instead of actually recording a "double" or a "stack," you probably know that it doesn't sound natural. It's almost impossible for a vocalist to identically recreate the same performance twice in a row. There will inevitably be small variations in timing, pitch and more than create distinct differences between the two tracks.
Our ears are able to perceive these minute differences, which helps our brains realize that it's actually two people singing at once—or more accurately, two recordings of the same person playing at once.
In some cases, you won't always be able to record another vocal pass. Maybe the singer already went home for the day, or you tracked in another studio and there's no way to match the sound of the takes. That's where pitch correction software comes in.
Duplicate the lead vocal track and use pitch correction to shift the pitch up or down by a few cents. To add more voices, create more instances of the vocal and use slightly different tunings for each. This will give the illusion that each take is unique, which sounds more interesting to our ears. You may also want to nudge the vocal dupes forwards or backward to make them feel even more unique from the original.
Some plug-ins, like the Waves Doubler, combine subtle pitch shifting, delay and even panning effects to create the illusion on multi-tracked vocals.
For more tips on how to enhance your tracks, check out our blog!