Thickening vocal, harmony generation

Published in SOS January 2002
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Technique : Sonar Notes

We've had a lot of requests for a Notes column on Cakewalk's new MIDI + Audio sequencer, Sonar. Well, here it is, with news of the latest upgrades and tips on vocal thickening, harmony generation and working with different track heights.

Craig Anderton

Welcome to the first instalment of Sonar Notes! I've contributed several articles to Sound On Sound over the years, but this is the first time I've had the honour of writing a column... and it's great to be here.

I became a Sonar fan for practical reasons: at present, it's the only program to combine deep MIDI editing, digital audio recording, and Acid-style 'on-the-fly' looping. This is a perfect combination for the kind of music I create and mix. I still use other programs, such as Reason, Acid and Cubase, but these days, the

  Sonar's Vocal Harmony Generator  
  Have you used Sonar's intelligent harmony generator function? Probably not, because it doesn't exist. But if you're willing to provide the intelligence (ie. teach Sonar the rules of harmony), Sonar will provide the harmonisation. Here's how:

The project in the screenshot, right, contains four tracks of vocals. The teal-coloured one at the top is the original vocal, while the violet one below that is the cloned version, which has been processed with the doubling technique mentioned in the main text.

The next track (blue) is also a cloned track, but it's being processed through the pitch-shifter set to a major third. However, note that some elements have been cut from this track and moved to the next track down, which is processed through the pitch-shifter set to a minor third. As you've probably guessed, this is what I mean about teaching Sonar the rules of harmony: it doesn't know which notes should receive minor third or major third harmonisation, so you have to cut the track appropriately, and assign the right phrases or notes to the right tracks.

This may require zooming way in on the cloned track so that you can make cuts in the space between phrases. Also, note that although you can right-click on a digital audio clip to change its pitch, this works only if the clip is a groove clip. Odds are you won't be using the vocals as groove clips, hence the strategy of having entire tracks dedicated to major- and minor-third processing.

The standard caveat regarding pitch-shifting applies to this application: the further you stretch pitch, the less realistic the sound. Also, the Cakewalk Pitch Shifter does not preserve formants during shifts, giving rise to the infamous chipmunk sound when you pitch up, and Darth Vader when you pitch down. However, I noticed when pitching up a major third that the formant change added a bit of voice-on-helium effect, which when mixed back in the tune, actually sounded pretty cool -- if the Pitch Shifter did have a 'preserve formant' option I wouldn't have used it anyway! Of course, 'human' harmonies will sound better than synthesized ones, but if you need a quick harmony line in a few spots, or find that the perfect harmony part is just outside your range, try this out.

majority of my studio work and play gets done with Sonar. Hopefully, this column will become a clearing house for Sonar tips and information, so if you have suggestions, complaints, or ideas, please send your emails to I can't promise to reply to every letter, but I will read them!

Upgrade Time

Just before I submitted this column, version 1.3.1 of Sonar appeared on the Cakewalk web site. If you haven't upgraded yet, go to, and download the patch. It's about 5Mb, so even those with dial-up modems have no excuse to avoid upgrading.

Version 1.3.1 is well worth the download time for such new features as the Track View Scissors Tool. At first, I didn't see the value of this, because you can always split a clip by stopping, placing the cursor where desired, and hitting the S key (as in Acid, S is the 'split' keyboard shortcut). But the key word here is 'stopping', and with the scissors tool, you can split a clip without having to stop. This is tremendously handy when looping, as you can cut up and modify a loop or clip in context with the music.

Audio scaling is another useful feature, as you can now change the scaling of the track's level display without changing the track height, by clicking and dragging vertically along a track's left edge. I've been surprised how much I use this feature to cut audio exactly on zero crossings, check for DC offset, and make sure that loop endings fade out properly. It's also handy for gauging the noise floor. If you right-click on the ruler, you can choose its calibrations as dB, percentage of full scale, or magnification amount. Double-clicking on the ruler restores the view to minimum resolution.

You can also change the resolution of all tracks simultaneously. This is important when splitting multiple tracks, as it's a good idea to inspect whether you're going to be cutting in the middle of any signal that might cause a pop or click. Use Alt+up arrow to zoom in, and Alt+down arrow to zoom out. (You can also Ctrl-click and hold on the standard track height vertical zoom buttons to change scaling, but I prefer using keyboard equivalents for the fastest operation.)

There are many other goodies in 1.3.1, including the ability to extract timing information from digital audio. After installing the upgrade, load the program and go to Help / What's New to see how all the new features work.

Linking & Resizing Track Heights

If you've used Sonar for any length of time, you've doubtlessly come to appreciate the way you can change the track view height to reveal fewer or more parameters. Doing this also changes the height of the digital audio waveform display, but adjusting each track to show exactly what you want (for instance volume, pan, trim, and meters) can be a tedious process. That's why the following shortcut is so helpful, as it can force any selection of tracks, or all tracks, to take on the same height as any individual track you adjust. Here's the process:

1. Select the tracks that should follow your 'template' track. If you want them all to follow, use Edit/Select/All, or the key equivalent Ctrl+A. To select or deselect tracks, Shift-click (Ctrl-click does the same thing) on the track number.

2. Press and hold the Shift key, then adjust the divider bar at the bottom of any of the selected tracks to set the track height.

3. After adjusting the track height, release the mouse button. Now all tracks are the same height, and display the same parameters. (Note: you could also press and hold Shift after adjusting the track, as long as you haven't released the mouse button yet. Adjust as desired, then release the mouse button while the Shift key is being held.)

4. If you change your mind, just release the Shift key before the mouse button.

Incidentally, note that this doesn't work with the minimise/maximise buttons or any controls, just the track height. In other words, you can't for example select all tracks, hold Shift, minimise one track, and then have all the other tracks minimise when you release the mouse button.

Better Vocals

Here's a quick tip for thickening/doubling vocals: Select the vocal track you want to thicken, and ch

  Sonar Tips  
  Lining up clips in the Clips Pane can be made a lot easier by switching on the Gridline display. Right-clicking in the Clips Pane and selecting View Options allows these vertical lines to be switched on.
The Snap To Grid function provides plenty of control when placing or moving Clips around the Clips Pane. Snap To Grid can be toggled on/off via the button above the Track Pane or using the N key.
The Shift+N keyboard shortcut quickly opens the Snap To Grid options dialogue, allowing the resolution of snapping (whole bar, half bar, quarter note, and so on) to be easily set. John Walden
oose Track / Clone. Tick the Events, Properties, and FX (if the track uses any effects) boxes, but do not tick Link to Original Clip -- the clone needs to be independently editable. Click on the Clone function OK button, and you now have two vocal tracks.

Now, right-click on the copied track's FX field, and choose Audio Effects / Cakewalk / Pitch Shifter. Set the Pitch Shift parameters as follows:

Pitch Shift: -0.24
Dry Mix: 0
Wet Mix: 100
Feedback Mix: 0
Delay Time: 2.61
Mod Depth: 12.16

These are just suggested settings that work well with my voice -- feel free to adjust for the best effect with your vocals. For the thickest, smoothest sound, pan the two vocal tracks to center. If you pan one vocal full right and one full left, you'll hear two individual vocals instead of a rich, composite vocal. Panning to opp

  Further Reading: Sonar Power!  
  It's been out less than a year, but already, third-party books about Sonar are starting to appear. Sonar Power! (Muska & Lipman: soft cover, 470 pages) from Scott Garrigus is written for beginner to intermediate readers who need assistance to get up and running in today's computerised world. It doesn't rewrite the manual, but covers much basics-oriented material and also gets a little deeper into Sonar's fundamental concepts. The book is written in a friendly, relaxed, but not at all patronising style: quite frankly, even though I'm very familiar with Sonar, this book helped fill a few gaps in my knowledge.

Cakewalk get credit for technical editing, but unfortunately the book was published prior to the most recent program revisions. If you make it through Sonar Power!, though, you'll know enough to be able to make sense out of the update notes. If you actually read manuals, are experienced with computers, and familiar with Cakewalk's Pro Audio series, this book is probably redundant. But for those who want to get started with a good focus on the most important tools and techniques associated with Sonar, then Sonar Power! is an excellent point of departure. W

osites works very well for processing something like a background vocal chorus, as the individual parts should be thick enough by themselves: shifting pitch widens the stereo spread.

You could also try panning lead vocals slightly left and right (for instance with the left channel at 10 o'clock and the right channel at 2 o'clock). This gives a somewhat fuller sound and a somewhat wider stereo spread, which can also be useful under some circumstances.

DXi Watch

One of the complaints about Sonar when it first appeared was that the availability of native DX Instruments lagged well behind that of those compatible with VST 2.0. I got around that problem by using FXpansion's VST-DXi Adapter, and had no problem getting VST Instruments working in Sonar. But that's becoming less of an issue as more DX Instruments show up. Native Instruments have been particularly good about adapting their products for Sonar, and FXpansion's DR-008 drum module is also Sonar-friendly. The latest company to offer DXi compatibility is SpeedSoft, whose VSampler is, as you might suspect, a soft sampler.

Despite being quite inexpensive, VSampler has many very useful features, like being able to load patches for the two onboard virtual synthesizers, one FM and one 'analogue'. And yes, there are complete editing functions, including messing around with operator settings for the FM synth. It's great to see that more DXi devices are starting to appear -- now if we can just get more DirectX 8-compatible audio plug-ins so we can have more fun with automation...

DAW Techniques


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