The idea of tuning vocals is often a heated topic with musicians and producers. Often, it's that audible "T-Pain" vocal effect that you're thinking of. And while this effect has its place in some genres, vocal tuning goes way beyond this particular use case.
Vocal tuning is a very practical, if not a necessary step for most modern music productions. And it may be just the thing to get you to feel more confident in your recording and release more music.
What I'm about to show you has been used on Grammy-nominated and Dove-winning records.
I use Celemony's Melodyne because of its power to quickly tune a vocal track without the listener, or even the artist, knowing.
These tips and tricks will work on any version of Melodyne.
Also, it's worth mentioning that this is for the Mac version. If you are a Windows user, the workflow will be the same, but the commands must be translated.
#1 Set Up Global Commands
Before you dive into Melodyne and begin hacking away at your vocals, you’ll save time by properly setting up your global parameters and quick keys.
For global parameters, be sure to input the two following pieces of information before importing any tracks:
- The key of your song
- The BPM of your song
As you import your audio, it will sync to the BPM that you have set. This is why it’s essential to select your tempo before importing your track to avoid that frustrating feeling of your track no longer syncing to the song in your DAW!
Melodyne does a good job of determining the song's key and highlighting the "in key" notes on the left-hand side of the screen. This is a great visual cue (and guidelines) for engineers and musicians who don't have a firm grasp of music theory and primarily create music by ear.
Melodyne is an extremely powerful software, and it can be easy to get bogged down in everything it can do.
However, to keep your workflow fast, you need only four key commands for 90% of what you're about to learn.
These quick keys are:
- The Pitch Tool (F2)
- The Cut Tool (F6)
- Undo All Changes (u)*
- Correct Pitch (Shift-CMD-P)*
You'll notice that for the first three, you can rest your pinky finger on F2, your pointer finger on F6, and your thumb on the “u.” This small, but important workflow hack, will keep you moving quickly through what can be an extremely tedious editing task.
*You may have to manually set up these quick keys before proceeding
#2 Make Your Cuts (Isolate the Notes of the Melody)
When you first see a Melodyne session, you'll be tempted to tune by selecting the big orange blobs and “snapping them to the grid.”
However, the blobs in Melodyne only represent Amplitude.
It's the pencil-like line you want to pay attention to if you're going to properly tune a vocal transparently.
This line represents the pitch and movement of a singer's voice.
To tune the performance, separate the notes of the melody from the breaths, vocal scoops, and musical drifts. It's in these "parts between the notes" that give a performance its life and authenticity.
You'll have to manually go in and use your eyes and ears to cut out the melody to get this right. This way, when you go to tune it, you keep the performance intact.
This is also the secret sauce for tuning a vocal of someone else's performance and them never knowing you touched it.
#3 Tune the Notes, Not the Scoops or Breaths
Now that you've isolated the melody, tuning the track becomes easy.
Instead of tuning one note at a time, you'll find it more efficient to work in bars and phrases.
Simply select all of the notes you want to tune, then hit the short key (shift+cmd+p) to open the "Correct Pitch" box.
You'll see two sliders for "Pitch Center" and "Pitch Drift." Now, this isn't an exact science, but it was what was the ratio taught to me by award-winning engineers.
Here's the 3-step "trick" with Correct Pitch:
- Put the Pitch Center to 90%.
- Put the Pitch Drift to 70%.
- Hit Enter.
As you listen back to your track, you should have a very in-tune sounding vocal that doesn't sound tuned.
If you aren't sure that the tuning is accurate to the song's melody, simply select the note that sounds off and hit "u." This will reset any changes you made, and you can then troubleshoot the section.
#4 Advanced Tuning
The human voice is highly dynamic, and not one voice is alike. There will be many nuances and problems that you will have to navigate to get the vocal as transparent as possible.
While we can't go into every different scenario in this post, I'll cover a few common things you might come across and some basic tips on how to solve them.
#1 Slanty Pitch
Slanty pitch is when a singer begins singing the note sharp and slowly drifts flat, or begins flat and goes sharp.
Slanty pitch often happens during vocal runs. However, if you try to fix this by perfectly tuning it, you will make the vocal sound unnatural.
The key to fixing slanty pitch is to isolate the meat of the note the singer is hitting and only tune that portion.
Sometimes it is easy to spot by eyeballing if there is enough length to the note. However, if the note is short, you will have to use your ears and experiment with the tuning.
#2 Pitch Overshoot
Sometimes singers overshoot notes and then quickly overcorrect.
You'll want to avoid hard tuning overshoots; otherwise, you risk losing the naturalness of the performance, and you'll get a vocal that sounds "auto-tuned."
Instead, use your cut tool to remove these overshoots and leave them untouched.
Sometimes after correcting the note, the overshoot will sound wrong. In that case, manually nudge the note using the option key towards the pitch center of the desired note of the melody.
#3 Wide Vibrato
Some singers have lots of vibrato, and trying to tune vibrato can be tricky if you don't approach it right.
First, don't cut the vibrato; keep it one singular blob if possible. Determine whether the pitch center is flat or sharp. Then, holding the option key, manually move it to where the center of the vibrato is in line with the center of the pitch block.
This will keep the range of the vibrato natural while ensuring that it sounds like it is hitting the right note.
Comparing To Pro Sounding Tracks
When tweaking your tuning, it's always worth listening to your favourite productions to compare how your vocal tuning compares. This helps set a frame of reference for what sounds 'too processed' and what sounds 'natural'.
Comparing your mix to mastered music can be difficult, as the mastered version is louder. This makes it more difficult to know what changes are necessary to improve your production.
Mastering The Mix created REFERENCE to make this process super easy. REFERENCE gives you the tools and insights to get your music sounding more like your favourite songs. Learn how REFERENCE can help improve your productions.
Whether you like it or not, tuning vocals is a skill that every producer, engineer, and home recording artist should master.
A transparently tuned vocal helps the track sit better in the mix, makes the performance less distracting to the listener, and ensures that the vocalist loves the recording when they listen back.
This breakdown will help you get started; however, tuning does take practice. You will run into unique situations, and often you'll have to rely on your ears to make the right decisions.
It's also important to remember that not every note has to be tuned. If it feels good, then leave it alone.
After reading this article, I hope that you'll be inspired and encouraged. My goal is that this will help you finish more songs with confidence and pride.
Thanks for reading!
Brad Johnson is a musician and producer from Southern California. When he isn’t spending time with his wife and kids at the beach, he is helping songwriters and musicians at Song Production Pros.