Should you Fix Every F**k Up? Proper Vocal Tuning Techniques
Vocal tuning is arguably the most crucial editing step in a song. The goal is to comb through every syllable looking for mistakes, but REALLY, this is the part of the project where a producer is in the most in danger of adding their own mistakes. A great vocal take can be ruined by bad tuning and sloppy editing. I find this to be extremely heartbreaking, so here are the cornerstones of my tuning philosophy that I've developed over years of working with a variety of singers:
Bad vocal tuning is just as bad, if not worse, than bad singing. It completely takes the listener out of the moment and knocks the credibility of the performance down to zero.
It can flatten all character and dampen the subtle emotion we're drawn to in the best kind of vocal performances.
I vastly prefer manually tuning each note by hand, so the techniques below pertain to the manual tuning process (for this I use ReVoice Pro).
As vocal editors our goal is to add a layer of invisible polish fully undetectable to both the average listener AND the vocalist, and in order to do that I always get familiar with some key characteristics of an artist’s style.
Learn How Your Singer Begins Their Notes
Most singers scoop into a note. Some singers take a whole step scoop, some singers take a half step scoop, some vary this depending on where they are in their range. Usually higher = deeper scoop, but everyone is different. Some singers do an inverse scoop where the beginning of the note is actually sharp. As an editor, you need to learn where the scoop sounds most confident for that particular person, and NEVER TOUCH THIS UNLESS IT SOUNDS WEAK. This is a crucial bit of expression you do NOT want snapped to a pitch grid.
Understand Breath Support
Weak breath support is most apparent on long notes. Most singers have:
—a note entry point close to the pitch (ex. the scoop)
—a little waver at the beginning of the note
—a middle period of dead on pitch
—vibrato at the end of the note
A big part of transparent tuning is adding a short period of flatlined or near-flatlined pitch in the middle of the note to make it sound perfectly supported, while keeping the entry and exit points untouched. This is how singers with perfect technique actually sing, and I've been fortunate enough to work with a few here in Nashville. It takes years of practice to develop that type of breath control, and when it’s there it’s pretty damn impressive.
Focus On The Ends of Notes
There is SO MUCH EXPRESSION in this part of a note. There is also usually a lot of room to add polish here when needed.
Ending a note with perfect control is really hard. Try it. Can you control your pitch with exact precision as the last tiny bit of air exits your lungs? Not many people can, and most people skew a little flat here. Some people skew a little sharp. Some people have uneven vibrato at the end of a note that can get way too wide. Some people slide down a few whole steps at the end of notes. An editor’s job is to look at what the singer is doing on their great notes and replicate that style on any weaker ones.
Some people drift sharp at the ends of notes, and THIS IS NOT A MISTAKE. This will do you a huge favor at the mix stage by getting these softer parts of the lyric to pop out above the arrangement.
Watch Your Vibrato
One of my least favorite things about Autotune is what it does to vibrato. Now do I use Autotune? HELL YES I do. I actually use a lot of the Antares Plugins. There is still nothing faster for demos and getting a performance 80% polished in 3 clicks. But for master recordings, manual tuning is a must for tweaking vibrato in a transparent way. Always double check your vibrato edits to make sure they sound natural.
Emotionally Accept That Bluesy Singers MUST Be Hand Tuned
If you have a bluesy singer on your hands, using a pitch plugin is like trying to slice cheese with a chainsaw—it has zero precision and will fully destroy the original material before you’re through. This can be an arduous process, but you just have to get a large coffee and strap in. Some performances only need to be spot tuned, but the deep eyes-closed listening you will be doing to every single note is going to take some focus.
In this style, many notes are intentionally sung 1/4 step flat. Or, they are begun 1/4 step flat and drift up to the pitch over the course of the note. Also, in phrases with closely repeating notes, the first one is often flat and then then the following one is sung at the center of the pitch. This is something that each singer does differently, so “correct” may mean different things for different people.
Expression = Connection
As you can see, there are many opportunities to improve a vocal comp but also many opportunities to make it worse. Time and experience are huge helpers in learning what “mistakes” aren’t mistakes at all, but just the natural expression that made us fall in love with music in the first place. Happy editing!