Cubase Pro 10's VariAudio 3 competes with the best pitch-correction plug-ins around. Find out how by reading our article and watching the videos.
A headline improvement in Cubase Pro 10 was the major revamp of VariAudio. Despite under-the-hood refinements to its pitch-manipulation algorithms, perhaps the most significant improvements are those which allow a far more efficient workflow. Before we dive in, it's worth saying that while VariAudio's capabilities have improved massively since I wrote about it in SOS August 2009 (https://sosm.ag/cubase-0809), some of the advice I gave 10 years ago still stands. In particular, before you start doing detailed work in VariAudio, try to get other 'housekeeping' tasks out of the way first — things like comping from multiple takes, for example, or editing breaths, plosives or sibilance. Then use the render or export options to generate a new, 'cleaned' audio event that's ready for pitch-correction work.
Although the Sample Editor's VariAudio panel contains new options, the first step remains the same: click on the Edit VariAudio button. This activates the initial pitch-detection process that superimposes pitch segments and a pitch curve on the waveform display. But the real workflow magic of VariAudio 3 lies not in the panel but in the new Smart Tools. To get the best from these, select the All option from the panel's small Smart Controls drop-down menu. Now, when you hover over a pitch segment, some 12 controls (the Smart Tools) appear around the edges of the selected segment or segments.
There's a lot to take in the first time you use this, so I've annotated the opening screenshot as a handy summary of the functions offered by each Smart Control. Hopefully, this is a useful reference, but it also serves to indicate just how many pitch-manipulation options are instantly on offer without ever moving your cursor away from the segment in question. I obviously can't explore all of these tools in detail in a single article, so instead I'll illustrate their potential by taking you through how these tools can be used to perform a few common vocal pitch-correction tasks and offer some video tutorials too.
A common first task, before performing any actual pitch correction, is to identify any pitch segments where the detailed pitch curve suggests that multiple notes exist within the same segment. Splitting such segments into two (or more) notes will provide you with a greater degree of control over your pitch adjustments. This is easy: hover the mouse over the horizontal line towards the base of the segment, and a scissors tool will appear; then click where you want to split the segment. Incidentally, if you hold Shift while doing this, you also have instant access to the option to glue two adjacent segments together.
Most of the remaining pitch-correction tasks will typically done in iterative fashion, but a good starting point is to decide which pitch segments need a general nudge to tighten their overall tuning. Set the Pitch Snap Mode to Absolute or Relative (both are useful, but Absolute is my default) and as you click and drag on a segment it will snap to the nearest note centre. That might give you the most technically correct pitch in algorithmic terms, but it won't always be the most musical-sounding result — you must let your ears be the judge here.
Two useful options give you more control over any general pitch adjustments. First, holding Shift while dragging the segment up/down will override either Pitch Snap Mode, leaving you free to adjust the segment's pitch centre as you wish. Second, clicking and dragging the Smart Control that's bottom-centre of the segment gives you precise control over pitch quantisation; you can very gradually nudge the segment's pitch centre towards the nearest scale note.
The Straighten Pitch Curve Smart Control mimics that in the VariAudio panel, but it's now also available in the segment (the square node, top-centre). This is used to adjust the amount of pitch variation inside a segment, to reduce unintentional pitch wobble, or tame/enhance deliberate vibrato. But in combination with other Smart Controls, you can shape the pitch curve with much greater finesse. For example, the two triangular Smart Controls (top left and top right) can be placed anywhere on the segment to define the time range on which the Straighten Pitch Curve control operates. A handy application is to exclude note onsets and endings; these often contain important information about the pitch transition from/into the previous/next note, and being too aggressive with pitch straightening here soon results in an unnatural sound. (If T‑Pain/Cher is what you're after, be as aggressive here as you want!) Perhaps more useful is that you can place Range Smart Controls around the note start or end, allowing you to control any pitch 'scoop' as your vocalist transitions into notes.
What's more, you can first straighten one region, and then define a different one and apply a different amount of straightening to that. A useful application is to fine-tune note vibrato: for example, apply straightening to the first half of a sustained note (excluding the very start), and then enhance any vibrato in the second half (excluding the very end). This gives you very precise control over the amount and onset of vibrato.
Another common issue is pitch drift, by which I mean there's an overall trend up or down of the pitch (with or without vibrato) of a sustained note. The Tilt and Tilt Anchor Smart Controls (the top left/top right squares and top diamond, respectively) allow you to adjust this in various ways. If the pitch drift extends through the whole segment, hold down Opt/Alt while clicking and dragging up/down on one of the Tilt Smart Controls to 'tilt' the whole pitch curve for the segment. This is another 'use ears, not eyes' adjustment, and note that the Straighten Pitch Curve Range Smart Controls don't constrain the tilting range; tilting will affect the note start/end sections. If you only need to adjust the drift (tilt) towards the start or end of a note, the left/right Tilt Smart Controls can be used without holding down Opt/Alt. In this case, the position of the Tilt Anchor Point Smart Control defines the point from which tilting is performed — reposition this by dragging the Smart Control left/right.
Natural-sounding pitch correction inherently requires plenty of manual input and critical listening, but VariAudio 3's new Smart Tools make this easy. A combination of dividing multi-note segments, pitch snapping, tweaking any 'wobble' with pitch straightening, and finessing pitch drift (tilt) will get you a long way towards that perfectly pitched vocal, and you can do all of this without moving your cursor away from the segment(s) you're adjusting. But what's really note-worthy is the speed with which this can all be done. For me, VariAudio 3 now sets the bar for efficient vocal pitch correction.
Finally, I mentioned above that I hadn't space to go into detail about everything here. Indeed, VariAudio 3 has so much more to offer than what I've described above — I've not touched on the options to warp segment starts/ends for fine-tuning the timing and/or phrasing of your vocal, the ability to adjust the volume of a segment or change its formants, the possibility of extracting detailed MIDI data from your pitch-corrected vocal, or the option to superimpose a MIDI reference track as you perform your VariAudio edits — so I'll probably pick up on these in another column soon.