Last month, we showed how to comp a great vocal performance. Now we look at how you can use editing tools to improve both timing and tuning.
In last month’s mag, you’ll find an article (https://sosm.ag/dec21-vocal-comping) in which I offered some tips about how to comp a great vocal performance from multiple takes. Once you’ve done that, though, there may well be more editing work to do. There’s been a lot of hand‑wringing over the years about whether vocal pitch correction is ‘a good thing’, but it’s so widely used in mainstream music styles that the listening public have for the most part come to expect recorded singers to sound superhuman in this respect. And while it gets less press, vocal timing is also comprehensively manipulated in most chart productions, because lead parts are often faded up in the mix to the point where they significantly impact on the song’s overall groove.
As such, there’s little avoiding corrective editing if you’re trying to put out commercial‑grade song productions. But achieving decent‑sounding results can be far from straightforward, because it’s easy to suck the life out of a vocal performance during the process. So in this article I’d like to provide some tips for tightening your vocal performances effectively without sacrificing their naturalness and humanity.
You can make your life a lot easier just by preparing properly for the recording stage. After all, singers respond to what they’re hearing, which means any inherent backing‑track problem can make it tough for them to bring their ‘A’ game. So make an effort to complete corrective edits elsewhere in the production before the singer steps up to the mic, and try to put together a sensible mix balance too. If the drums and percussion are too loud, for instance, it can be difficult to accurately judge pitch; too quiet and the rhythmic accuracy may suffer.
Some headphones don’t have great bass fidelity, which can cause sub‑heavy bass or kick‑drum timbres to all but vanish from the foldback mix, thereby robbing the performer of vital pitching/timing reference points. Monitoring latency, however small, can also mess with a singer’s pitching, which is why I usually prefer to avoid software monitoring if I can — either by setting up analogue monitoring or by asking the singer to slide one side of their headphones off so they can hear themselves acoustically. Some singers swear that adding vocal reverb to their headphones helps them pitch more accurately but I’ve never found that personally, so your mileage may vary!
Minimising the capture of room reflections and background noise on your vocal mic can be another wise move. Pitch/time‑processing algorithms find noisy and reverberant signals more challenging to analyse and process, and this basically translates into a greater likelihood that you’ll end up with unpleasant processing artefacts. And one further recording tip for rhythmic songs: encourage the singer to move a little with the song’s beat while they perform, since that can do wonders for the rhythmic accuracy.
There’s a plethora of great pitch‑correction software these days but, whatever you’re using, and assuming you’re not using it as a deliberate effect, the main principle to follow is to keep the processing to a minimum. The simpler and more targeted your pitch correction, the fewer unmusical side effects it’ll produce. With this in mind, it makes sense to avoid set‑and‑forget automatic tuning‑correction processes, because they process pretty much everything to some extent — irrespective of whether the music needs it or how much the processing is damaging the vocal sound. The fact is that most top‑tier professionals still prefer to do lead‑vocal editing work manually, so they can be guided at all times by their own ears.
I normally suggest working through the performance methodically, phrase by phrase, but then, within each phrase, correcting the most problematic notes first. What you’ll discover by working this way is that many notes aren’t actually that important to the impression that the singer is fundamentally ‘in tune’, and as long as you get the most important ones sorted out, any other pitching vagaries just add emotional colour to the performance. Trying to nail every little syllable to the pitch grid, on the other hand, is great way to kill a performance stone dead.
In a similar vein, try implementing your desired tuning via simple pitch offsets to whole words or syllables, rather than trying to iron out all the tiny variations within each syllable. Now, I realise that you sometimes encounter longer syllables during which the pitch wanders undesirably, and that some tuning software offers a pitch‑variation slider that seems to offer a quick fix for this. It’s a slippery...