The concept of completely reshaping audio is one of the most fascinating aspects of 21st-century production. But whether audio can be made as truly elastic as some programs would have you believe is another matter. What do the people want? They want to be able to bend and stretch any loop they fancy until the pitch and speed suit them and to be able to drop their finished sounds into any tempo arrangement as simply as they perform any other audio operation. To these ends, there is Melodyne.
Melodyne, which is produced by the German outfit Celemony, takes an analytical approach to processing audio — tagged Local Sound Synthesis — that goes beyond standard time stretching and pitch shifting by separating sound and time from individual note data. Because of the powerful behind-the-scenes wizardry of the Melodyne algorithm, you can also alter the character of a sound (known as the formant) and the individual volume. You can surgically manipulate audio to correct for bum notes (think Ricky Martin) or completely mangled beyond recognition (think Matmos). All of these changes can be executed in a standard point-and-click fashion with the sort of ease that makes you wonder why you've been slaving over another audio editor to perform these same tasks.
Since version 1.0 landed back in late 2001, Celemony has tacked on several substantial improvements to the software, such as quantization, multiple undos, support for Mac OS X and Windows (Melodyne was originally only available for the Mac platform) and sampling rates that are now as high as 192 kHz.
UNWRAPPING THE PACKAGE
Melodyne's principal interface is a multitrack window in which each piece of monophonic audio can be loaded into separate tracks. Melodyne prefers that users not work with heavily processed or polyphonic audio files that can throw off the accurate detection of audio data. The manual even warns that even the use of reverb can create the sort of false polyphony that can also produce incorrect processing.
The Arrangement window is much like that of any familiar audio sequencer: Tracks can be individually soloed, muted or set for recording. Yes, you can record straight into Melodyne but don't let that distract you from the real magic of this program. The idea of recording any performance (vocal or otherwise) and not having to rework it after another major part of the project changes is incredibly useful. For example, when remixing a track, many producers often need the original singer to revoice a track because the existing performance no longer suits the project.
A basic real-world scenario goes something like this: After selecting a percussive, monophonic loop from the directory, the loop appears in Melodyne's Arrangement window in its own separate track. The loop appears more or less like a standard waveform and is ready for processing. You must then put the loop through Melodyne's Detect Melody process so that the software can analyze all of the audio data. To ensure that all of the nuances of the loop are identified properly, gliding the mouse cursor over the individual peaks with the Play Note tool reveals that the software has accurately sorted out all of the beats properly. You can also select the first beat in your melody (Melodyne refers to all audio it works with as a “melody”) and use the right or left cursor to walk through your audio beat-by-beat, checking for appropriate beat separation.
If Melodyne misses a portion of the loop, you can redetect the melody with the Show Parameters drop-down option exposed from the Detect Melody window. That reveals a whole slew of advanced parameters, including sensitivity sliders for amplitude and note separation. Additional Ratio buttons are also available to ensure that the correct notation (tonal or rhythmic) and portamento of a melody are calculated during the detection phase.
After I loaded a 140 bpm house loop into the Arrangement window and clicked on the Detect Melody drop-down, Melodyne recognized that the loop as an unpitched, percussive parameter set. If you'd like to give Melodyne a head start, however, you can inform the program of the instrument category and type. Melodyne has options built into to its algorithms that allow it to more easily recognize common signal types such as plain speech, voice (broken down into soprano, baritone and so on), plucked and bowed strings, woodwinds, brass and even pitched percussion.
Nevertheless, on occasion, Melodyne makes errors while detecting tempo. The software identified the 140 bpm loop that I was working with, for instance, as having a tempo of 146.1. To correct this, I simply entered the correct tempo in the Definition window with the Define Tempo tool selected. Making sure that the bar-and-beats background actually fit my loop, I saved my work and took the Melodyne-defined version of the loop back into the Arrangement window. Using the Define Arrangement tool, I reset the entire arrangement to 140 bpm by pulling down the Tempo From Melody pull-down menu. From there, I could change and export the loop — at whatever tempo I required — to a WAV, AIFF or Sound Designer II file.
Not to be too cynical, I dropped several retempo'd versions of my 140 bpm loop into Steinberg Cubase SX to make a practical check on how the Melodyne versions of the file worked in another package. The sequencer played back the new versions of the loop perfectly at the new tempos, and when I made an A/B comparison with the original, I noticed no loss of fidelity (even through close examination with headphones) from the original.
But the beauty of what Celemony has done with its software truly shines once you're far into your project and decide to make those crucial decisions concerning your arrangement. Whether it's pitching a piece of audio or just an individual section of audio, Melodyne's GUI makes even the most minute alterations quick and easy operations.
Returning to my house loop that has now been refashioned to 135 bpm, I decide that the kicks will sound a bit more dramatic if I drop them down an octave. By Shift-clicking on the individual beats and selecting the Edit Pitch tool, I can move all of the notes as low or high as I like without sacrificing the integrity of the sound. Subtools that change the pitch's alignment can be used to tweak the notes' individual phrasing (as in reducing the amount of vibrato in a guitar line, for example) are available by right-clicking either on or off the audio data. This can all take place while the loop is playing in Cycle mode, which allows you to hear all of your changes as they're made on the fly. The same procedure can be used to transform the material's volume and formant characteristics. And with the logical inclusion of the handy Reset button, you can bring back any of your manipulations to their original state.
On the vocal front, pitch correction down to the semitone level is as easy as using the Note Snap function under the Quantize pop-up menu, but once you begin to explore Melodyne as a quick means of creating harmonies, the full breadth of the program begins to appear. Basically, it's a simple editing operation in which you cut-and-paste the original vocal melody onto one or more separate tracks.
By selecting Bar Quant in the Quantize menu, the new notes will line up exactly with the original. If you open the first melody in the Editor window and layer over the individual copies, you are now set to shape your harmony however your ears dictate. By using the Edit Pitch with the Scale Snap mode enabled, you can create new harmonies by dragging sets of notes up or down from their original positions. Tweaking the result to sound less-similar-sounding is up to the user from there. Combining this functionality with the Paste Notes feature (with which you can superimpose melodies from other audio data on top of your work) boggles the mind. Imagine taking a snippet of your favorite complex guitar line and running it over a single vocal or horn note — the creative possibilities are seemingly endless.
Melodyne also seems to be particularly easy on a machine's processor. Although my 800MHz PowerBook with 1 GB of memory should easily handle most operations, Melodyne barely scraped the surface of the processor's capacity, according to the System Load window, despite having five major applications humming in the background. That means you can keep it running alongside your other audio tools for quick and continual changes to whatever it is you may be working on.
On the downside, Melodyne's superuseful interface is not the most intuitive. The mouse and toolbar combinations are helpful, but you can feel quite lost when first attempting to perform specific operations. Even after reading through the documented procedure for shifting the tempo several times, I still didn't understand the nuances of what I had to do. Luckily, the Celemony support staff was responsive and helpful despite the German-to-English language barrier. Although the full studio version of the product is expensive, a scaled-down version that offers as many as eight tracks of audio (as opposed to a virtually unlimited number) and only simple undo and redo functionality is available for significantly less.
If the 21st century is supposed to free musicians from many of the restrictions once imposed upon them by nondigital platforms, Melodyne fulfills that prophecy by making audio appear like onscreen taffy — and makes playing with it just as fun.
MELODYNE 2.0 > $695 (STUDIO EDITION); $395 (LITE EDITION)
Pros: Possibly the best tool for precision audio manipulation. Processor load negligible.
Cons: Interface not particularly intuitive. Documentation lacks clarity. Pricey.
MAC: G3/400; 128 MB RAM; OS 9.x/OS X; Sound Manager —, CoreAudio- or ASIO 2.0 — compatible hardware
PC: Pentium III/400; 128 MB RAM; Windows 98/ME/XP; DirectX- or ASIO 2.0 — supported hardware