Producer Ronan Chris Murphy reveals how he gets better vocal intonation using software, but without applying it to finished tracks.
By Ronan Chris Murphy
Since the beginning of recorded music we have had to deal with the fact that some vocalists do not sing quite as in tune as they or the public might want. Since then producers have been trying to find ways to improve the performance of singers on recordings. In the earliest days the solution was to try and have the singer perform better, or pick easier material, or just let the performance stand as is and let the public decide.
By the late ’80s and early ’90s, when I was first getting serious about recording, digital technology had opened up a few options for actually fixing a vocal performance. A few of the common techniques were to record a flat or sharp word into a sampling keyboard, change the pitch in the sampler, and then “play” the pitch corrected word back into the vocal track. The other common technique was to use a hardware pitch shifter, such as the legendary Eventide H3000, to digitally shift a word more sharp or flat to get it in pitch. While these techniques provided options for fixing recorded vocal tracks, they had two main drawbacks: the first is that they were extremely time-consuming. It was necessary to evaluate the pitch word by word, and then make adjustments one word (or even one syllable) at a time. Getting it to sound right often required quite a bit of experimentation. The second problem is that you could only lower or raise the pitch of the entire note or syllable. If a vocal gradually changed pitch, such as starting flat and eventually getting into pitch by the end of the word, there were only a few options, which required very, very detailed audio magic.
This all changed in 1997 with the introduction of Auto-Tune by Antares Audio Technologies. Available as both a Pro Tools plug- in and standalone hardware unit, Auto-Tune was able to analyze and correct pitch problems in real time. It also allowed pitch to be gradually adjusted within a single note. This changed everything! (Fun geek fact: the inventor of Auto-Tune, Dr. Harold (Andy) Hildebrand, developed the process based on his research using similar theories to analyze seismic activity.) Although Auto-Tune is a trademark of Antares, the term is often used generically to describe all automated pitch correction, such as that done with Melodyne by Celemony (the most popular alternative to Auto-Tune), or Waves Tune by Waves.
In the early days, “Auto-Tuning” was a stealth activity carried out by producers and engineers in secret late night sessions—something that needed to get done—but producers prayed the artists would never know it happened. Artists would often get furious at the idea that someone had messed with their vocal. And it would have been somewhat scandalous if the fans found out about it. Since those days, things have completely changed and producers are often met with just the opposite. Nowadays, when asking a vocalist to perform a part again to improve their intonation, the artist often asks the producer to just fix it in the computer (or “just Pro Tools it” as they say). In fact, it has now reached a point where the artifact of poorly applied pitch correction (known as the Cher effect) is considered a cool effect, and extensively used by artists such as T-Pain and Kanye West.
Despite the ubiquity of pitch correction in modern recordings (and even live concerts), there are still many instances where it is not appropriate to fix the vocals. This is usually where the producers and the artists want to preserve the integrity of the recording for personal pride, or to be able to honestly tell their fans and the press that their vocals were not fixed. However, as the excessive auto-tuning craze seems to be reaching its apex, a reverse trend is growing. Artists and their fans now desire authentic performances. But the reality is that even after vocal training, some artists still need a helping hand to deliver vocal performances with good intonation. And pitch correction software can help without actually being printed on the final mix!
Everybody sings better in the choir!
There is an old but true adage that everybody sings better in the choir. When singing in a group, especially one with good singers, it is much easier even for a poor singer, to sing with better intonation. This is something we can use to our advantage when working with a singer that needs a little extra help with intonation, but does not want to have their vocals fixed.
The technique is very simple but very effective. If I am working with a vocalist who is having trouble with pitch, I will often record a few vocals tracks with them and send them away while I use pitch correction software to make every note of the vocal track in tune. After that, I will get the singer back in the studio, but now I have them sing the vocal track while listening to one, or several pitch-corrected vocal tracks in their headphones. This gives them a very similar benefit to singing in a choir by allowing them to adjust their intonation to the voices around them. This is something that most vocalists do naturally without even thinking about it. Now the vocalist is free to concentrate on the energy of the performance and less on the intonation. If they are still having trouble, I will often double the most difficult notes with another instrument such as guitar or piano.
One of the great things about this technique, aside from the fact that it can be very effective, is that artists who are staunchly anti-Auto-Tune are usually completely fine with this technique—even when they know exactly what you have done. It’s just a modern variation of the old trick of playing the vocal melody on a piano or synth along with the singer to help them with their pitch.
In the end you can end up with a vocal track that the singer and all involved can feel proud of—and rightly claim as 100% authentic!
Somewhat unrelated, but if you have made it this far I will throw in one more bit of advice: If you are going to be using pitch correction software on the final vocal, do not auto-tune in autopilot and fix every note. Much of the energy and emotion of a song comes from vocalists singing slightly above or below the pitch. The vocalists on some of the biggest-selling albums of all time would have never made it past the “fixing” of some current overzealous producers.
Ronan Chris Murphy’s many credits include King Crimson, Robert Fripp, Terry Bozzio, Tony Levin, Steve Morse, and projects with members from Wilco, Tool, and Weezer. His Recording Boot Camp offers musicians the chance to learn first hand from the renowned producer and engineer.