vocal tuning

When it comes to vocal tuning, one size does not fit all

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Choose the vocal tuning and pitch-correction tools, techniques, and workflow that will give your music the finished vibe you’re looking for.

The ability to change the pitch of recorded vocals opens up huge possibilities to indie artists, producers, and DJs, but it can also be a pitfall if you don’t have a clear vision for how to proceed and the right tools to make it happen.

Here are some tips to help you auto-tune appropriately and effectively for your style and genre while giving your recordings the power and vibe they need.

Experiment with different tools

Though they’re quite different, the most ubiquitous pitch-correction tools are Antares Auto-Tune and Celemony Melodyne. Companies like Waves and Izotope offer versatile software as well; click here for reviews. All are worth looking into to see what best fits your music-making flow.

Personally, I produce in Apple Logic and use the program’s Flex Pitch utility to tweak and tune as needed. For my purposes, it’s an intuitive and versatile solution, and gives me the pitch-shifting capabilities I need. “Melodyne is the most transparent to my ears,” says Kevin Blackler, a Brooklyn-based audio engineer and the founder of Blackler Mastering. “I also like its polyphonic abilities. You can use it to remove the low string of a guitar part, which is absolutely amazing.”

Every pitch-correction tool has its own nuances, so spend at least a few minutes going through online reviews and tutorials for any program you’re considering, get an idea for interfaces and capabilities, download free demos, and see which one feels best to you.

If you want a natural sound, tune manually

When working in folk, Americana, acoustic singer-songwriter, or other similar genres, you will likely want to keep things unprocessed and organic-sounding. That means making your pitch-fixing as unnoticeable as possible.

When I’m producing in this genre, it’s very rare that I’ll apply a global pitch correction setting that applies to an entire vocal track, since that can easily sound too artificial. Instead, I pitch correct manually, going through every word of every vocal track and nudging certain notes or phrases higher or lower as needed. I also make sure to review vocal tracks in different contexts — soloed, soloed with other vocal harmony parts included, vocals and bass only, full arrangement, etc. — as doing so can help me locate problem areas that I might otherwise miss.

“When you’re manually tuning a performance and a vocalist slides from one note to another, if you want it to sound organic, dividing the connected notes into two separate notes before you pitch correct is a good idea,” Blackler advises. “Then, if you process the first and second halves to the correct pitches, it will usually sound more natural and less robotic.”

Pitch-correcting this way can be time-consuming, but I always find that if I’m going for an organic sound, I’m always happier when I proceed using this technique, rather than just hitting “select all” and tuning everything at once.

If you decide to tune manually with an organic sound in mind, make sure to give your ears plenty of breaks and try to schedule your time so you can do a round of tuning and come back to listen again the next day. I know I’m done when I can listen through two or three times; not get tripped up by anything sounding crunchy, sloppy, or distractingly out of tune; and still feel like I’m listening to a human sharing something emotional and true.

If you do decide to use a plug-in like Auto-Tune and set parameters for an entire vocal performance — rather than editing manually — start with the Correction Speed very much on the longer side, avoid flattening out vibrato and pitch fluctuation, and experiment until you have a setting that sounds both organic and accurate enough to meet your needs.

One final note about manually adjusting pitch: even if you prefer pulling up Auto-Tune, setting a few parameters, and calling it a day, note that this approach may not jive with your singer’s style. Vocalists who slide into and out of notes a lot, or use heavy vibrato or other effects, may not be best served by automatic tuning treatment. As per before, trust your ears and don’t be afraid to adjust note by note, or phrase by phrase, if that’s what your track, and your singer’s style, call for.

Tuning for dramatic effect

In lots of popular music in a variety of genres, vocal tuning is used as a strong, intentional, and unmissable effect — Cher’s “Believe” introduced millions to this sound, and artists like T-Pain, Kanye West, and many more have taken it even further.

If you want this sort of effect in your own work, experiment with the most extreme settings your pitch correction software can offer; minimize Correction Speed and maximize Correction Strength, going for fast and sharp corrections between notes and keep pitch fluctuation to a minimum. Every program will have slightly different parameters for you to play with, and once you get the right settings in place, you may still need to listen and adjust manually if your software automatically snaps certain parts of your vocals to a pitch other than the one the singer intended.

Lots of popular, mainstream music is heavily pitch-corrected, but still sounds more natural and human than the heavily affected styles described above. If this sort of sound is what you’re going for, using global tuning settings will likely get you where you need to be; try making parameters like pitch drift minimal, while also avoiding flattening sustained notes into straight, robotic tones. Also, make sure that you choose the right scale or key for your song so your software pushes the vocals in the right directions, and make sure that your input settings match the type of vocals you’re adjusting.

Again, be prepared to go in manually to tweak. Even if automatic settings for your entire track get you most of the way, tuning the last five percent by hand can get you where you need to be.

Save and save again

“When you’re tuning vocals,” advises Blackler, “backing up takes is very important.”

Why? If you come back and find that you’ve over-tuned a vocal track into robotic, unemotional oblivion — or the highly-affected pop vibe that you thought you had captured just isn’t there on playback — you can revert back to an earlier version and try again… as long as you’ve saved different versions along the way.

Read more
Vocal tuning is a huge and complex subject. Check out these articles for other perspectives.
7 Vocal Pitch Correction Tips (Waves)
How to Make Your Auto-Tune Vocals Sound Like the Pros (Reverb)
Pitch Correction: Make Your Vocals Sound Professional (Musician on a Mission)
5 Vocal Tuning Mistakes (Musician on a Mission)
Pitch-Correcting Vocals With Melodyne (Sound On Sound)

How do you approach tuning in your own productions? Tell us in the comments below.

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5 thoughts on “When it comes to vocal tuning, one size does not fit all

    1. Some instances of natural sound include following melodies that can be hard to pinpoint for a recording artist even with countless years of training and practice. It can sound more natural to follow the succession of notes than to include missing one of them or splicing a separate take with a noticeable shift in the performers energy. It exists for a reason, and I don’t think writing it off as a dynamic that you don’t understand is altogether helpful either.

    1. Even professional vocalists who can sing better than any average musician use pitch correction and vocal effects. Why don’t you learn how to tune vocals so when an artist uses your services it’s helpful instead of blatantly ignorant and insulting to their craft?

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