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Neptune Pitch Correction

Propellerhead Reason Tips & Techniques By Robin Bigwood

Wetsuits on, as we dive into Record's new pitch‑correction device, Neptune.

Neptune Pitch Correction

Neptune appeared along with Record 1.5 last year, and because it's really designed for use on audio tracks, it appears only in Record, not in Reason. On the face of it, this is a fairly straightforward Auto-Tune clone: You feed the plug‑in monophonic audio and it pulls that audio into tune, according to a musical scale you define, and with varying degrees of naturalness or (intentional) artificiality. Its other abilities (which are extensive, and often jaw‑dropping) we'll look at next time, but for now, let's get stuck into the main game — pitch correction.

Instant Impressiveness

Neptune's pitch adjustment controls.Neptune's pitch adjustment controls.

So you've got your vocal track recorded, and you'd like to tighten up its tuning a bit. Easy.

Start by finding the vocal track's device in the rack. One easy way to do this is to click the 'RACK' button at the bottom of the track's channel strip in the mixer. Record opens up a rack view if necessary and flashes the device. Now right‑click the device and choose Create / Neptune Pitch Adjuster from the contextual menu. This creates and inserts a Neptune within the Audio Track device, in its 'Insert FX' signal path.

Neptune Pitch CorrectionNow all you need to do is configure the Neptune for your needs. Towards the right‑hand side make sure the Pitch Adjust button is toggled on, but that Transpose and Formant are both off. Then you might only need to adjust the pitch correction characteristics using the Correction Speed and Preserve Expression knobs. Using them is intuitive, and very much a matter of experimentation, but in general it's the Correction Speed parameter that determines how processed the result sounds — keep this low for an in‑tune but natural performance. Preserve Expression is all to do with vibrato: high values let vibrato through, while low values iron it flat. If you have a very wobbly singer, try switching in the Wide Vibrato option (to the left of the central display), which alters the response characteristics of the system. The Low Freq(uency) option is there for when you're trying to work with very low pitches — below 44Hz to be precise — so Barry White or Jaco Pastorius wannabees should still be served perfectly well without this option switched on.

Choosing a scale type and root note can help ensure more accurate pitch correction, with fewer unwanted wobbles.Choosing a scale type and root note can help ensure more accurate pitch correction, with fewer unwanted wobbles.Although Neptune's default settings work well on a range of material, you'll get tighter results if you also choose one of its predefined musical scales and a corresponding musical key to match your song. This prevents Neptune getting the wrong end of the stick, as it were, and 'correcting' the vocal to pitches that aren't actually used in the song. You'll need to be thinking in music theory terms, of course, to pick the appropriate key and scale, so if you're uncertain, you can do it another way: just work out which notes your melody actually uses, and then program the scale from scratch. Actually 'program' is too grand a term — it's just a case of toggling notes on and off with a few mouse clicks on Neptune's miniature keyboard.

Real‑world Use

Neptune Pitch Correction

Now, choosing or defining scales is all very well, but what if your song switches tonality halfway through, or simply changes key, rendering your settings useless? For this, there's the Scale Memory function. Check out the top right of the central display area and you'll see the four numbered buttons associated with this feature. These are memories for scale settings, so you can have up to four scales ready and waiting for use at any one time. Here's how you might use them:

For 'scales' with very few notes, a wider Catch Zone ensures that Neptune stays on the job.For 'scales' with very few notes, a wider Catch Zone ensures that Neptune stays on the job.

1. Set up the scales you need for each section of your song: for each one just click a Scale Memory button and then choose a predefined scale or program your own. Settings 'stick' as you go along — you don't have to save anything.

2. If your Neptune is inserted in an Audio Track device, it won't have got a sequencer track for itself by default. So right‑click the Neptune and choose 'Create Track for Neptune'

3. In the sequencer, select this new Neptune track (it may well be selected already) and then click the Track Parameter Automation button at the top of the track list and choose the 'Scale Memory' option.

If you've recorded acoustic parts that are not tuned to an A-440Hz pitch centre, the Master Tune slider in Preferences allows you to tweak Neptune's pitch recognition to match.If you've recorded acoustic parts that are not tuned to an A-440Hz pitch centre, the Master Tune slider in Preferences allows you to tweak Neptune's pitch recognition to match.

4. Switch to Edit Mode, and in the Scale Memory lane use the Pencil tool to write an automation event relating to one of the four values, at the appropriate point in your song. In Record 1.5.1, at least, the values range, unhelpfully, from 0‑3 rather than 1‑4, but it's not difficult to work out.

5. Now, on playback, Neptune's scale settings will be switched at the appropriate moment.

Another scenario that comes up quite often is the need to switch off pitch correction completely for a section of a song. For this, we need to automate Neptune once more. Start off by repeating most of steps 2 and 3 above, but instead of choosing 'Scale Memory' opt for 'Pitch Adjust On/Off'. Then, in Edit Mode, in the Pitch Adjust automation lane, use the pencil tool to write a value of 1 (on) or 0 (off) at the relevant locations in your song.

The MIDI factor

The Scale Memory feature lets you set up a number of different scale types and then switch between them using Record's automation — essential if your song changes key.The Scale Memory feature lets you set up a number of different scale types and then switch between them using Record's automation — essential if your song changes key.

So far we've only considered what Neptune can do using pre-defined scales. But there is another way to feed it pitch correction information: with notes from a MIDI controller, either played live or recorded into a track. This approach can generate both delightfully subtle and downright bonkers results.

1. Right‑click Neptune and 'Create Track' for it if it doesn't have one already.

2. Record‑enable the newly created sequencer track.

3. Back in Neptune, make sure the '[MIDI] To Pitch Adjust' option at the left of the central display is selected.

Now, during playback (or indeed recording), try playing some notes on your controller. The display indicates the target pitch you're playing with a green rectangle, and Neptune should pull the current pitch towards it, subject to the Correction Speed setting. Interestingly, MIDI works in addition to the normal scale system, overriding it for as long as there's note input. That means you can use it for brief overrides, perhaps for when your melody steps outside of your programmed scale. But you can also toggle off all the scale pitches, using the mini‑keyboard, and then you'll get a natural, uncorrected performance except when there's MIDI input. This is good if there's just one or two notes out of tune in a vocal take.

It goes without saying, too, that the MIDI input allows you 'play' the pitch correction in remarkable ways, twisting vocal and other lines into bizarre and wonderful shapes. Many hours of happy noodling lie ahead...  

Catch Zones

If you program a lot of your own scales, and especially if you ever select just one or two pitches for a scale, to force some very 'quantised' pitch correction, you'll see gaps appear in the red line above the pitch display. The red lines (for there are actually many, one associated with each pitch) are called 'Catch Zones'. To put it simply, Neptune won't even attempt to correct a note's pitch unless it falls within a catch zone. However, the size of the zones is adjustable, using the horizontal slider above the pitch display. So how do we use Catch Zones to best advantage?

In some circumstances, reducing Catch Zone size is good. Let's say you're working with a really good jazz singer. You might already have set pitch-correction parameters to allow a more natural effect, but going a step further and setting Catch Zone Size to its minimum forces Neptune to only correct notes that are a tiny bit out of tune, and to actually completely ignore a microtonal pitch range between scale pitches. This can allow portamento, swoops, glissandos and deliberate note bends to pass through more naturally.

On the other hand, increasing Catch Zone Size has its uses too. Imagine you've programmed a 'scale' with only three pitches, relating to the notes of a minor chord. You're aiming for a highly processed, robot‑like effect of a vocal line jumping between these pitches, almost in the manner of sa synth arpeggiator. As well as the obligatory settings of maximum Correction Speed and minimum Preserve Expression, it's also essential to increase Catch Zone Size so that the zones fully cover the gaps between the pitches. In this instance a setting of above 260 cents does the trick. In fact a higher setting makes no difference — Catch Zones can't overlap.

Reference Material

One thing conspicuous by its absence in Neptune is any sort of pitch reference parameter. You need this if the fundamental pitch centre of your song is a little way flat or sharp of A-440. This could have happened if you sang to a guitar accompaniment, but the guitar was only in tune with itself.

Actually the parameter does exist, but it's a global setting, in Record's Preferences, on the Audio page. There's a Master Tune slider there that allows you to adjust either side of A-440Hz by up to a semitone.

Published June 2011