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Cubase: Vocal Timing Correction

Steinberg Cubase Tips & Techniques
Published November 2017
By John Walden

Where the lead vocal and double track have obvious timing differences, the first task it to fix any timing issues in the lead part.Where the lead vocal and double track have obvious timing differences, the first task it to fix any timing issues in the lead part.

Vocal perfection means timing correction — and Cubase’s AudioWarp gives you the tools you need.

Just as some singers can be a little ‘pitchy’, others can find timing troublesome. And while it’s always best to get the performance right, sometimes you need to tweak vocal timing after the recording stage. Cubase’s AudioWarp gives you all the power you need to get things right, and while the process isn’t too difficult there are a few options to explore. We’ll start by getting a lead vocal to sit better with the track’s groove, and then consider how to tighten double-tracked vocals.

Guided By The Groove

There are three main options: quantise to the beat/bar grid; quantise to a groove; or adjust the timing manually. Which of these is most appropriate depends on the project’s style and the nature of the vocal part. Slower phrases may just need small manual edits so that certain words hit the beat accurately. For faster-paced phrases with more words/syllables, you might want to experiment with either or both quantise options, to see if the part can be locked more tightly to the underlying groove.

Before we start, note these few things. First, it’s easy to overdo it, so perform vocal edits with great care — try not to tamper with the ‘human’ feel of the part, unless as a deliberate effect. You’re only looking to reinforce the groove by fine-tuning the timing of those vocal transients that should have hit the rhythm but didn’t quite make it. Second, good results can mean fiddly edits, so it’s best to work on short sections rather than taking on the whole song at once. Third, working on a copy of your vocal (via Render In Place) means you can return to the original if things go pear-shaped. Finally, let your ears guide you more than your eyes — what’s right according to the grid doesn’t always sound best musically.

Lead Vocals

The first screen shows both a lead vocal and a double-track, with obvious timing differences. It’s an up-tempo project (about 190bpm) with a fairly rapid-fire vocal, so it’s worth trying to quantise the lead part. With the clip selected, either in the Lower Zone or the Sample Editor, choose Create Warp Markers via the Hitpoints tab. This will automatically generate Warp Markers that AudioWarp will use, but once you select the AudioWarp tab and can see the markers it’s a good idea to check the results manually. If required, engage the Free Warp button and add additional markers by clicking on the waveform where they’re required. Targeting both the start of words and the ends of words will give you greater control over automatic quantising and manual editing. (Don’t move any Warp Markers using Free Warp yet we’ll come to that later).

Open the Quantize Panel and you can apply some standard quantisation to the musical grid or, if your project contains a key rhythmic element, apply a ‘Groove Quantize’ (which I covered in SOS July/August 2012: http://sosm.ag/cubase-0712 and http://sosm.ag/cubase-0812). My project had a very nice tambourine groove, so I selected this part, generated Hitpoints, and engaged the Create Groove From Hitpoints button in the Hitpoints tab. The rhythmic timing of the tambourine was added as a new option in the Quantize Panel’s drop-down menu. With my lead vocal clip selected, I could choose this groove template and see/hear exactly what this did do to the timing of the vocal.

Cubase: Vocal Timing CorrectionApplied to strongly rhythmic material such as drums/percussion, bass or rhythmic guitar, or keyboards, Groove Quantize can seem like magic, but good results on vocals are not a given — even if you cut the algorithm some slack by exploring the Non-Q, iQ Mode and Randomise settings, to help keep things ‘human’.

The Quantize Panel can be used to apply a  groove quantise, or simply to quantise your Warp markers to the beat/bar grid.The Quantize Panel can be used to apply a groove quantise, or simply to quantise your Warp markers to the beat/bar grid.If you don’t like the results, hit Reset Quantize (bottom-left of the Quantize Panel) and try a bit of gentle tightening to the grid (with or without swing). A 16th note-based quantise, with the Non-Q and Randomize set to around 5 ticks, and the iQ Mode strength to around 10, is a good starting point. With the iQ Mode, if you press the Quantize button repeatedly as you audition the results, your Warp Markers move iteratively tighter to the grid.

Whether or not you feel groove or grid quantisation has helped, some final manual adjustments will probably be necessary. Engage Free Warp mode, and you can manually move a Warp Marker: hover over the marker until it is highlighted, and then just click and drag. When you move a Warp Marker, whether dragging it forwards or backwards, all audio between the Warp Marker and the next one you’re dragging it towards/from gets time-stretched/compressed. If your markers are few and far between, this can throw out the timing of other words — this is why we need the extra Warp Markers at the start and end of words, as discussed at the outset.

Cubase: Vocal Timing CorrectionWarp Markers aren’t only for adjusting the start time of a word — you can also use them to stretch/compress words/syllables and re-position their ending (their ‘note off’ position, as it were). Often overlooked by inexperienced vocal editors, this can really help to lock a vocal to the musical groove.

Double Trouble?

Once happy with the lead vocal timing, it’s time to look at the double-tracks. You could follow the same processes described above. But once you have the lead vocal timing as a guide, I find it’s generally quicker to manually tweak the double. One feature I’d love Steinberg to add to the AudioWarp section of the Sample Editor is the option to overlay the waveforms of multiple clips with transparency between them — rather like you can in VariAudio. If this were possible, you could overlay the waveform of your doubled vocal on top of the time-corrected lead. Adjusting the Warp Markers within the double would then be much easier. You could, I suppose, use VariAudio to make such timing adjustments, but I find that a little more fiddly than using the dedicated AudioWarp tool. As shown in the main screenshot, the workaround is simply to place the lead and double-tracked vocal parts on adjacent tracks in the upper panel of the Project window. If you’ve zoomed in far enough, the alignment between the two waveforms can easily be seen, and this changes in real-time) while you adjust the Warp Markers on the double in the Lower Zone. Manual editing takes a little time but it’s a simple enough task and solid timing between the lead and double can really add the sort of polish to a track that no amount of compression, EQ and reverb can!

Vocal Harmony?

The same basic approach can be applied to stacks of backing vocals — sort the timing of one ‘lead’ backing vocal, so it fits the project’s groove, and then match the timing of the other backing vocals to that ‘master’. Perhaps the only thing to add is that just how closely you chose to match the timing of any multitrack vocal parts is a matter of personal taste and musical style. As with pitch-correction, overdo the time-correction and you’ll lose the ‘humanity’ of the performance. You can always use the Quantize Panel to add back a little random variation if you do decide you have taken things a little too far, but it’s usually better to keep some of the natural variation.

Published November 2017