Some products are so good at what they do that their very name becomes the verb we use to describe the action. We Hoover the floor, Scotchguard the sofa, and Google things on the Internet (even though Google are trying to prevent people from using their name like this, bizarrely), and so it is with a product called Antares Auto-Tune. In the last seven years that I've been making records the public sometimes buy, I've had to Auto-Tune the vocals more often than not.
In that time, there have been a few attempts to compete with this Goliath of the vocal processing universe, but none has really been able to steal its thunder. Now, however, Waves have taken it upon themselves to release a Vocal Bundle targeted squarely at Antares' market. It's a bold move: will it be able to defeat the industry standard?
Waves' native-only Vocal Bundle packs a fair punch in terms of what's on offer, and in truth, provides rather more than just a pitch-correction facility. What you get for your money is five different plug-ins all geared towards the taming of the human voice. Waves Tune deals with pitch, formant and timbre manipulation, while Debreath can reduce, eliminate or even enhance the inevitable breathing that humans seem to need to do whilst singing. Renaissance Channel provides EQ, compression and gating based on the popular Renaissance Equaliser and Renaissance Compressor plug-ins; there's also the Renaissance De-esser and, finally, a versatile Doubler for a variety of automatic double-tracking effects. As you can see, the Vocal Bundle really has the potential to be a one-stop shop for your voice.
As with most of the Waves world, compatibility is the key word. Pretty much everything from Digital Performer 4 to Pro Tools is covered for both Mac and PC, minimum system requirements permitting, as is operation at 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96 kHz.
The most interesting plug-in this bundle to many people will obviously be Tune. It's a monophonic pitch-correction plug-in that will tune solo voices and monophonic instrument parts. The best way I can describe it visually is sort of like the mutant child of Auto-Tune and Celemony's Melodyne. You get a big, fat, colourful edit window where the melody is displayed from left to right as it is in Melodyne, but with pitch and tracking control knobs in the style of Auto-Tune. The edit window is based around a piano keyboard that runs vertically up the left-hand side. A neat touch is that you can click any note on the piano keyboard and it will play a tone at the correct pitch, which is great for checking against your audio when making pitching decisions.
The manual puts up a big sign telling Pro Tools users to put a Tune Rewire plug-in (you get it when you install the Vocal Bundle) across an auxiliary track before you get cracking. I tried it with and without heeding this advice, and the only thing I could see that was different was that without the Rewire plug-in, Tune doesn't send out song position markers to Pro Tools any more, so you have to click in the Pro Tools Edit window rather than within Tune's own edit window to reposition your cursor prior to playback. Not something I found a problem with a big Cinema Display, but it could be a factor for those with smaller screens.
Once up and running, you simply play your audio in real time and Tune scans the track as you go. If you stop halfway and carry on a bit later, Tune works this out and only scans the new bits that it encounters. There is a buffer limit with how much audio it can deal with at one time, which I think is set at 10 minutes, but I never got near it.
Upon playback the first thing you will encounter (at least, if you are a Pro Tools user) is latency. And it's pretty huge. Tune's latency is 3072 samples at 44.1 or 48 kHz and 6144 samples at 88.2 or 96 kHz. It's not too drastic to fix, and most hosts should be able to compensate for it, but even so, it's one more thing to sort out before you can get into sorting out your vocals.
Finally, though, your sound is scanned and you can get started. The Segmentation section at the bottom left of the window carries out most of the detection work from here on, with the root and scale settings controlled from this panel. There's also a Tolerance control, which sorts out how Tune perceives the pitches it has scanned — the lower the setting, the more separate notes it detects in the audio. A higher setting will generalise the pitch detection a bit more into fewer, more manageable chunks. I found the higher setting easier to work with as a rule; however, whilst I was working in this way, I noticed little clicky artifacts affecting the audio as it moved from chunk to chunk. Rather irritatingly, it made different pops and clicks each time I played it back so I couldn't really fix it. Glueing the offending sections back together solved the problem, but reduced my pitch-correcting options, so it rather defeated the point.
In the Tolerance tool bar there's also a button called Vibrato that you can toggle on or off. Tune then scans the audio for any sections that contain repeated pitch modulation — as vibrato is when done properly — and ignores it. The areas of vibrato are then indicated on the display within a pinky-red block. In the manual, it says 'Working with vibrato is as much an art as it is a science,' which sounds worryingly like a get-out clause to me, but I experienced no trauma.
At the top left there is a formant control on/off switch that prevents chipmunking at the more extreme ends of the scale. At very high levels of manipulation, the audio does get a bit vocoder-like even with the formant button on, but this can be great for special effects such as robot voices, much like those you can get from Wave Mechanics' Pure Pitch plug-in. Check out the robot stormtroopers in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace for sonic evidence of Pure Pitch at work. Tune can do that too.
Then we get to the Correction Parameters section. These three wee knobs are much like the retune speed and tracking functions within Auto-Tune, except here we have Speed, Note Transition and Ratio. Obviously, being the shallow little pop tart that I am, I immediately tried to recreate the 'Cher' setting and work backwards from there. It was harder than I thought it would be, but perhaps that's a good thing. To be honest, Tune works best in this auto-correction mode when it ploughs the middle ground.
It would be easy to just write a whole review about Tune, but there are four other pieces to the jigsaw that is the Vocal Bundle. The next is Debreath, and the name pretty much sums it up: Debreath takes a vocal performance, analyses it, and then can strip out, reduce or even enhance the breath noise from the take. It can even separate the take into two different elements — the vocal only and the breath only. Each one can thereby be treated individually after that with additional processing as required. Quite why anyone would want to do this is a bit beyond me, but full marks for providing us with the possibility anyway.
Fourth up we have Renaissance De-esser. Again, it does exactly what it says on the tin, but let's face it, it's hard to get excited by a de-esser, no matter how good it is. A bit like corned beef, really.
Lastly, we get to Doubler, as also featured in numerous Waves bundles from the past, and it's a beauty. It sounds fantastic — so much so that I found it hard to take it off the vocals I was testing it on. It adds a fabulous lush sound to a single vocal and even when used subtly, it seems to add a really good sheen to things. You can use it to create stereo effects from a mono source, and it can be used in two- or four-voice mode for results ranging from quite restrained thickening right up to full fat, stereo-munching massiveness. It's brilliant on synth pads, too, giving my Roland Fantom X7 a real Jupiter 8 makeover on a couple of patches. Each voice has Pan, Detune, Delay, EQ and volume settings so it's highly flexible. You can even sync the LFOs on it to the MIDI clock of your sequencer for extra movement in the sound. For such a simple concept, Waves have made an extremely versatile and highly musical ADT plug-in which can serve a variety of uses, from extra width on vocals right over to turning drums into stadium destroyers and weedy synths into analogue monsters.
Where Tune came into its own for me, however, was when I began correcting a vocal manually using the graphic tools that are situated just above the Correction Parameter controls. Using a combination of the curve and line tools I was very quickly able to tidy up the vocal so it was pitch perfect without it sounding, if you'll pardon the parlance, 'Auto-Tuned' in the slightest. (I don't know whether it's just me, but I can spot a badly tuned vocal a mile off when I hear one on the radio. The Nerina Pallot single 'Everybody's Gone To War' is the most recent one that springs to mind — I wanted to take out an ad in the Times imploring the producer to back off the retune speed, but my wife stopped me, thankfully.)
Anyway, after just a few minutes of messing about, I was able to produce some excellent results. I drew out the original vibrato in the vocal and drew in a slower, more subtle one in its place, I added little comedy swoops into a few phrases, re-pitched the second verse so it sounded like the singer was laughing and finally, I made the vocal sweep up gradually over two octaves during the last chorus. It didn't do the song any favours compositionally, but it did demonstrate the power of Tune brilliantly. Obviously it's not as quick as just using the automatic setting, but I don't think that's where the strength of this plug-in lies. I think it wants you to delve in and fine-tune things. It rewards a bit of creativity and application, and this is a good thing in my book.
Other nice touches include being able to edit your own scales by literally dragging the keyboard up and down in cents. It does all the maths for you and also turns the keyboard into a weird Dali-esque work of art. You can also play notes in over MIDI that override the note grid. As you would expect, Tune comes with a huge array of specialist scales and modes to satisfy even the most eclectic of requirements.
The Vocal Bundle also includes a Lite version of Tune, which is the same except without the vibrato section, the Tolerance controls, the graphic tools and the editable scales.
All in all (see box) Waves' Vocal Bundle is a pretty impressive collection of plug-ins designed to make your vocal production as easy as possible. Tune is a new addition to the Waves family and scores highly when stood next to its nearest competitors such as Auto-Tune and Melodyne. Monaural processing plus latency make it a less immediate hit than Auto-Tune, but in my view, the results can be a lot better. I ran a version of Auto-Tune alongside on a duplicate track, and sonically, there was nothing in it. The clicking and popping that occur when you rely on Tune's automatic correction needs looking at, though, as it renders it pretty much unusable for on-the-fly pitch correction. The latency is irritating as well, especially when Auto-Tune runs in real time and always has done with no ill effects.
In terms of sound quality and the possibilities that you can achieve with it, Tune has more in common with Melodyne than Auto-Tune, but I found it easier to use than Melodyne and far more convenient — it's all contained within your Pro Tools Session, so you can back everything up, delete it all off your drive, put it back on six months later and pick up exactly where you left off. That's not something you can easily do with Melodyne running as a stand-alone program hanging off the back of your Session via Rewire. However, unlike Melodyne, Tune can't change the timing and edit the formant or amplitude of your vocals. This is purely a pitch-correction tool.
The entire Vocal Bundle has an RRP on the wrong side of £700, which might perhaps reduce the incentive to change from a vocal effects chain you may already have, love and get great results from to a new pitch-correction solution that requires some thought and effort, a Debreath plug-in which, frankly, falls into the 'novelty' bracket, and three existing Waves plug-ins that have been around for a few years now. However, it is possible to buy each bit individually should you wish to just add a certain slice to your existing setup, and I can imagine that many people will be tempted. I certainly am. As for the star of the show, Tune is a little less user-friendly and a little more expensive than Antares Auto-Tune to buy on its own, but there is something very appealing about it that might just make it worth the investment in the long run.