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Prepping Vocals In Cubase

Steinberg Cubase Tips & Techniques By John Walden
Published September 2022

To reap the full benefits of VariAudio, make sure you enable Show All Smart Controls.To reap the full benefits of VariAudio, make sure you enable Show All Smart Controls.

The latest iteration of VariAudio includes all the tools you need to get vocals in shape for mixing.

Cubase may not be able to guarantee a world‑class vocal performance, but it does provide all the tools you need to present recorded vocals in their best possible light. Once you’ve laid down or comped your best take and dealt with any unwanted noises, if you then bounce everything into a new audio clip, Cubase’s VariAudio is a powerful one‑stop editing shop that can be used for all the obvious level, timing and pitch adjustments that might benefit the part. We looked at this topic back in the May and June 2019 Cubase workshops, but Cubase has evolved since then and, for Pro and Artist users at least, Cubase 12 includes some further options — so let’s explore the possibilities.

One For All

We’ll start with a VariAudio refresher. When you first open VariAudio from the Sample Editor’s Inspector panel, Cubase will analyse your audio clip — it might take a few seconds for a longer clip — and then superimpose pitch Segments (rectangular ‘blobs’) over the waveform. Each Segment represents a portion of the audio that Cubase has identified as containing pitch variations that lie (mostly) within a single note (semitone) range. A continuous pitch curve indicates the pitch variation within each Segment, as well as any pitch transitions that occur as the vocal flows legato‑style between them. Segments are only created for those parts of the performance that contain definable pitch components: adjacent Segments never overlap, but there will be gaps in the display between Segments where there are non‑tonal sounds, such as breaths, consonant‑only sounds or rests. (Despite the visual gaps, the underlying audio is still there and being played back!)

Before starting work, a few settings are worth checking. First, ensure the Edit VariAudio button is active, so you can actually start editing. Second, enable the All option in the Smart Controls drop‑down menu, so you see the full set of controls. Third, note that the VariAudio tab header includes a ‘bypass’ button, so you can easily A/B compare your VariAudio edits with the unedited original.

The second screenshot (below) provides a reminder of the functions provided by each of the Smart Controls available on a Segment and, while many of these are focussed on various ways to manipulate pitch, you also have options for adjusting both volume and timing — the addition of these make VariAudio a much more efficient environment, since you can now perform most core vocal editing tasks in one place. By the way, note that while Smart Controls can be used to edit individual Segments, if you select multiple Segments for editing, adjusting a Smart Control on any of the selected Segments will apply edits to all of them.

A useful summary of the Smart Control functions.A useful summary of the Smart Control functions.

Split Sliding Away

A good first step is to inspect the Segments Cubase has created and consider whether manual adjustments might be useful. There are a couple of things to look out for. First, if the pitch curve within a Segment seems to contain an obvious step change (as distinct from pitch vibrato), consider splitting the Segment into two for greater control when editing. Simply hover the mouse cursor towards the bottom of the Segment where you wish to make a split, and a horizontal line will appear at the base of the Segment and the cursor changes to a pair of scissors; one click, and you’re done. Segments can also be glued together, if that’s required.

Second, if the length of a Segment doesn’t encompass all of the waveform that it should, hold the Alt/Opt key, and then drag the Warp Start (mid‑left) and Warp End (mid‑right) Smart Controls. Holding down the Alt/Opt key changes these Smart Controls to adjust the Segment length rather than warping the audio, but note that you can’t extend a Segment so that it overlaps with, or re‑sizes, an adjacent one when using this modifier key.

While you’re performing these edits, you can also consider the levels. Most vocals will benefit from at least some compression or volume automation when you get to the mixing stage, but you can often make that later stage easier with a first pass using the Volume Smart Control (located bottom‑right of the Segment). Simply looping playback through short sections of your vocal while you make any adjustments on individual Segments will soon let you even out any of the more obvious inconsistencies in volume.

VariAudio is an impressively flexible one‑stop shop for both corrective and creative editing.

Manipulation Of Time

If your vocals also need some timing tweaks, you could flip to the Sample Editor’s AudioWarp panel. But in VariAudio, without the Alt/Opt key modifier, the Warp Start and Warp End Smart Controls also provide AudioWarp functionality and could be all you need. As you make these edits, you see the underlying waveform being stretched/compressed and how any transients align with the Sample Editor’s musical grid. It’s powerful stuff and, once you’re familiar with how typical changes might affect the underlying audio, it’s an extremely easy way to tighten up vocal timing where required.

The AudioWarp algorithms are pretty robust, so the Warp Start and Warp End Smart Controls can be used for rather more than minor timing correction: you can also explore changing the underlying rhythmic phrasing of a vocal line. This might include shortening or extending a sustained note, compressing a phrase to fit a specific number of beats, or separating and shortening individual words to create a staccato‑style delivery. Yes, you can obviously push things to the point where the audible artefacts become obvious, but used with care it can be a great way to get creative with new phrasing ideas, and you can always undo the changes if something doesn’t quite work. The audio examples illustrate what might (and perhaps what should not!) be done.

Scaling New Heights

The pitch‑manipulation Smart Controls combine to make VariAudio a powerful tool for corrective and creative pitch editing, particularly if you learn to make best use of the Tilt/Rotate Anchor Point and the two Set Range For Straighten Pitch Curve controls; these allow you to finesse exactly which portions of the overall pitch curve your edits will be applied to. But in Cubase 12, VariAudio has been treated to the Scale Assistant system, which was previously only available in the MIDI Key Editor.

Providing you know the key/scale of your project, the new Scale Assistant features within VariAudio – and the option to colour‑code the Segments by Scale/Chords – makes both corrective and creative pitch editing straightforward whatever your level of music theory.Providing you know the key/scale of your project, the new Scale Assistant features within VariAudio – and the option to colour‑code the Segments by Scale/Chords – makes both corrective and creative pitch editing straightforward whatever your level of music theory.

The Scale Assistant won’t impact on your more detailed pitch‑curve edits, but when you’re editing the pitch of a whole Segment (manually, or via Snap or Quantize) you can now force those pitch changes to use only notes within a specific scale. You can configure this using the new Scale Assistant sub‑panel, where you can specify a scale or opt to follow the Chord Track. A couple of visual options can be enabled but perhaps the most useful is to select the Scale/Chords option in VariAudio’s Segment Colors drop‑down menu: Segments are colour‑coded (by default: grey in key, red out of key) so that anything initially lying out of key is really easy to spot. And if you enable Snap Pitch Editing in the Scale Assistant sub‑panel, when you move the pitch of any Segment only ‘in key’ notes are permitted. This combination makes pitch correcting your vocal parts quicker and, should you have a less‑than‑strong grasp of music theory, easier.

Scale Assistant isn’t useful only for pitch correction, though. It also makes it easy to experiment with creative pitch editing. For example, if you wish to re‑write the melody ‘after the fact’, you can explore moving Segments to different pitches, knowing that they’ll only snap to ‘in key’ notes. This can be a lot of fun to try and, while the results are obviously genre‑ and material‑dependent, it’s often surprising what you can get away with. Two things are worth noting. First, breaking a long Segment into multiple shorter Segments provides plenty more options for re‑working a melody. Second, I find that pitch‑shifting artefacts are often most easily noticed during the transitions between Segments. Adjustments to the pitch curve slope within the transition can improve the flow, and you can often achieve that by making slight timing changes to the Segments involved using the Warp Start and Warp End Smart Controls.

Ready, Steady, Mix

Cubase has various other options for making edits and polishing your vocal recordings, but sometimes it’s helpful to do as much as you can in one place — and VariAudio is an impressively flexible one‑stop shop for both corrective and creative editing. If this approach appeals to you, be sure to use the VariAudio Bypass button to check the edited version against your original starting point and, when you are finished, execute the Flatten Real Time option from the VariAudio panel’s Function drop‑down menu (located at the base of the panel), since this will avoid any possibility of your careful volume, timing and pitch edits getting accidentally lost. With that done, hopefully, your vocals will be ready for the typical mix processing that will make them the star of the show.

Audio Examples

If you want to hear each of the key steps in action, you can find some short audio examples on the SOS website:

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