Sound Design Workshop: Guerilla Tuning Tactics

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When you're accustomed to fixing performance errors by using pitch- and time-correction plug-ins, it's easy to overlook their more creative applications. Despite being overused to the point of absurdity, the infamous Cher effect is a shining example of the imaginative misuse of a pitch processor. In that spirit, I'll show you what happens when I abuse some tuning software.

What better place to start than with an unpitched drum loop? I tried a couple of different automatic-tuning plug-ins, but because their first objective was to identify pitches, they didn't like my drums very much. I turned instead to Digidesign X-Form.

Because X-Form doesn't care about the starting pitch of an audio region, it's perfectly content to operate on unpitched material such as drums. Pitch-shifting drum loops is gratifying not only for the added heft created by unnaturally large-sounding drums, but also for the distortion caused by feeding the processor inappropriate source material.

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FIG. 1: Cakewalk Sonar''s V-Vocal Pitch Follow control determines how the formant tracks pitch changes. The formant envelope lets you fine-tune the results.

Like many current pitch processors, X-Form offers independent control of formants. For no better reason than perverse curiosity, I cranked the formant control in the opposite direction of the pitch control. To hear the result, listen for the drum pattern that enters second in Web Clip 1.

For the first loop in the Web Clip, I used a different approach. The only thing I changed in that loop was the first kick drum in the first and third bars. I wanted to emphasize the downbeat with a larger-than-life drum and simultaneously suspend the rhythm for a moment, pausing the driving pattern every two bars. For this, I cheated.

Digidesign Pro Tools 7.4's Elastic Audio is not intended for correcting pitch. However, one of the algorithms available for its time-stretching, called Varispeed, accomplishes its time manipulation by speeding or slowing the slice in question, thus changing its pitch. I enabled Elastic Audio, chose Varispeed as the track's algorithm, and made the track tick based. I then deleted the three 16th notes between the kick on beat 1 and the snare on beat 2 and stretched the kick to fill in the hole. The kick now stretches to four times its original length, giving a nice sustained pause. At this speed, it sounds two octaves lower than before. The fact that it had a lot of tone to begin with made it a good candidate for this treatment.

Next in line for abuse was Antares Auto-Tune 5. I ran a 4-note vocal phrase through it and restricted the phrase to a single pitch. Because the original was a repeating motif of four notes, none of which was the pitch I selected, Auto-Tune had to retune every note by a different and comparatively large amount. The plug-in came too close to doing a convincing job, though, so I had to beat up on it a bit harder.

I adjusted the Retune Speed to its fastest setting in order to increase the artifacts on each attack. Last but not least, I lowered the Pitch Tracking slider (under Options) all the way to Relaxed (100) to make it even worse — that is, better.

For my final crime against tuning plug-ins, I recorded a single word and transposed it across a 4-octave range. I used Cakewalk Sonar's V-Vocal plug-in because it offers easy graphics tools to manipulate pitch, formant, and timing. I sang the word four times, intending to transpose the words in the order I sang them. I found, however, that the third and fourth transposed up with fewer glitches than the first two, so I rearranged them.

V-Vocal offers variable formant tracking. A setting of 100 yields the classic chipmunk effect, and zero gives the most natural effect. I set it to about 35 so that the timbre would track the pitch without sounding too cartoonish. I then edited the formant envelope to fine-tune the results (see Fig. 1).

Striving every day to learn the right way to use processors is all well and good. But it's important to occasionally set the manual aside and experiment. Give yourself permission to do something bizarre, dumb, or just plain wrong, and keep your ears open for that happy accident.

Brian Smithers is course director of Audio Workstations at Full Sail Real World Education.


EM's Square One introduction to vocal processing by Larry the O

A survey of vocal-processing software by EM's Geary Yelton