Tuning Vocals: 6 Errors You Must Avoid at All Costs
If you want to make it in modern music production, tuning vocals is a skill you must master.
Instrumentals aside, vocals are the most important part of any song. Through lyrics and melody, they connect directly with the heart of your audience.
If your song is supposed to deliver a lasting impression, the vocals need to be spot-on.
Back in the days, bands recorded the same song over and over until they got it perfect. Nowadays, it’s more common to record a selection of takes, edit them together and tune the comp take if necessary. In this post, I’ll be talking about the tuning process.
I’ll share with you 6 mistakes that you must avoid if you want to create natural-sounding vocals.
Two things before diving in:
- This post is about creating ‘invisible edits’, not ‘Believe-style’ effects.
- It doesn’t matter whether you use Melodyne, AutoTune or the pitch editors included in Cubase or Logic. Terms may change, but the concepts are the same.
1) Never rush your work
Editing. Takes. Time. Depending on the severity of tuning issues you can easily spend a couple of hours tuning vocals for a 5-minute song. It can be repetitive and boring at times.
Don’t give in to the urge to do a quick and dirty job. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ recipe that you can slap on every vocal track.
One badly-tuned phrase can kill the performance of the whole song!
So relax and take your time. Aim for nothing but perfect.
2) Never leave segment separation to your DAW
Before you start tuning, your DAW separates the vocals into segments and determines the pitch for each one.
Here’s the catch: DAWs can make mistakes during this process.
Since correct segmentation is the base of a good pitch and vibrato analysis, starting off with a bad segmentation creates a lot of problems.
Therefore, before you start pitch correction, verify the segments. Once you’ve checked that they are spot-on, proceed with tuning.
If you have vocals with extended sibilance it may help to separate the ‘s’ from the rest of the phrase. Since ‘s’ sounds are atonal, creating a separate segment for them may give better tuning results.
3) Don’t make your tuning too perfect!
Your vocalist is a human, not a machine (at least I hope so?). Pulling all notes 100% into pitch will sound artificial and suck the life out of your performance.
Instead of pressing that tempting ‘auto-correct’ button… disable the grid and slide notes into place by ear. It helps a lot if you have the score at hand!
Sometimes, leaving certain notes a bit out of tune will give them an extra edge. This is especially true for Blues and Soul – listen to Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ and you’ll know what I mean.
Oh, and if you ever find yourself working with such an amazing vocalist… just leave her performance as is.
4) Don’t kill the vibrato!
Vibrato is one of the most intimate characteristics of your vocalist. One of my favorite examples is Geoff Tate singing ‘Take Hold of the Flame’.
Be careful not to reduce or enhance it too much – both ways tend to make your edits sound unnatural.
Again, don’t rely on automated workflows. Adjusting the vibrato of each note individually gives much better results.
5) Don’t ruin pitch transitions and glides
Many vocalists glide between notes. Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ is a fantastic example. Again, be careful that your vocal tuning software does not alter these glides accidentally. Should you need to edit one, don’t overdo it.
6) Don’t forget to work the formants
It’s great fun playing with formants to create Mickey Mouse or monster-style sound effects. But did you know that careful adjustment of the formant can give your vocals an extra polish?
- If your vocals sound a bit nasal, try opening the formant a bit.
- When you are tuning a note that is far off the target, try pulling the formant in the opposite direction of the tuning.
- The key is to make really tiny changes. If in doubt, put the formant to where you think it should be and then ease it off a bit.
That’s it for today, I hope these tips give your next vocal production an extra polish. Let me know what you think in the comments!
About Norbert Weiher
Norbert is a sound designer, composer, and engineer based in Curitiba, Brazil. You can get in touch with him or check out his work at norbertweiher.com.