Vocal Cords: Turning Dreary Vocals into Pop Star Performances, Part I

In a perfect world, every vocal session would have a singer as amazing as Beyoncé, as diverse as Fergie, and as passionate as Mary J. Blige. On the other hand, how could audio engineers truly master their craft if they were only working with singers on those levels? After all, it doesn’t take a genius to make a great singer sound good. So I would like to pay tribute—and say “thank you”—to all of the non-Beyoncés who have helped me develop my vocal-recording techniques. Now, I’d like to share some of these hard-learned applications with EQ readers. This month, we’ll deal solely with lead vocals. Next month, we’ll tackle recording background vocals, harmonies, and a few tricks.


Well, okay, we’re going a little backwards here, because I typically do my lead vocal sessions after all the background vocals are recorded, edited, and processed. I feel this gives my future pop star a more exciting and energetic feeling about their song, because the arrangement is really coming alive. But, as I said, we’ll delve into those sessions next issue.

Before I allow my vocalist to begin recording lead vocals, I have my demo singer set the pace by giving me one perfect lead-vocal track with all the feeling, timing, and spot-on pitch I want. Not only will I use this as a guide for our performer to follow, but I will also use it in the editing process as a template for my lead vocal.

Comping in Logic

As the caliber of singer we are discussing is not likely to give me a breathtaking first take on our lead vocal track, comping is the only option. There are many ways to accomplish the task of creating a perfect composite vocal from four or five less-than-perfect takes, but thanks to the revolutionary design of Apple Logic 8, I now use it to record all of my lead vocals. Logic makes the process of creating a composite vocal painless. With my future pop star in the booth, my audio track armed, mic preamp set, and monitoring volume low, all I have to do is record take after take. With Logic, there is never a situation where I say, “Man, I wish I would have kept the vocal we did two takes ago,” because the software converts all of my audio regions into a take folder.

After I get five or six takes I feel are the best the performer can give us, it’s time to start comping. In the Arrange window, all I have to do is select the lead vocal that we just recorded, and choose the Region menu >Folder>Pack Take Folder. As soon as this process is complete, a small arrow pointing to the right shows up. By clicking this arrow, you open the Take Folder, and you’re ready to begin. All of the audio takes are listed directly below the most current take, so you simply swipe across any of the previous audio takes with the pointer tool to start the process. You will notice the top track in the Take Folder begins to display an adjusted waveform with all of the selections separated by white vertical lines. What makes this amazing is any selection you make on any of the audio regions within the Take Folder will deselect the same section automatically in all other takes. Once we get the perfect comp, I simply export my newly created lead vocal—along with my demo singer’s vocal—and import the audio into Melodyne for further processing.

Pitch Correction

During this phase of the process, I spend hours perfecting every note. As I am going to use the guide vocal as the template for my pop star’s vocal to follow, I do a quick tune up of the demo vocal’s pitch, and then move on to the real challenge at hand—editing the lead vocals. In the upper right-hand corner of Melodyne’s Editor window, I can easily shuffle through the two takes pretty quickly. As soon as I select the lead vocal track, the correct timing and pitch of the demo track is shown as yellow blobs, while my lead vocal is displayed with red blobs. When using the pitch tool in Melodyne, a blue silhouette appears symbolizing the correct pitch (see Figure 1). To make this process easy, make sure you have a scale snap set. (Snap options can be found in the lower left-hand corner of the Editor window.) With all of my settings ready to go, all I have to do is connect the dots. I want all of my red blobs to not only lock into place with the blue silhouette, but I also want every movement in pitch to match the yellow blobs of the demo vocal.

Feeling and Timing

With our guide and lead vocals tuned to perfection, I can now begin working on the feeling of the lead vocals. For this process, the guide vocal helps tremendously. Not only will it give me an accurate pitch reference, but it will also help me insert portamento onto the lead vocal where there was none before. By placing the pointer tool at the beginning or ending of a note, the pointer tool will give you the option to edit the portamento either one note at a time, or, if you prefer, you can do the entire track. Adding portamento gives a singer a natural pitch transition and feel at the beginning of every phrase. In the areas of the vocal where vibrato is lacking, I can increase the amount present by using the Pitch Modulation tool, and if the vibrato is completely wild, I can easily gain control of it using a combination of the Pitch Drift tool (which keeps the pitch from drifting all over the place) and the Pitch Modulation tool (which will help increase or decrease the actual amount of vibrato).

By now the vocal is sounding really good, and the only thing left for me to do is make adjustments to the actual timing of the singer’s performance. Once again, because our demo singer had such a great performance, the easiest way to breathe life into a dead vocal is to edit its timing to match the rhythm and phrasing of the guide vocal. Melodyne makes this easy with its time-editing tools. This process can be looked at as quantizing without a grid, because instead of using bars and beats as a sync point, I use the demo vocal as the guide. One note at a time, I use the Move Notes and the Edit Time Handle tools to inject a little more feeling into the lead vocal. To move notes, all I have to do is hold the option key, click on a note, and adjust it to match the yellow blobs in the background. When the length of a note is too long or too short, adjustments can be easily made using the Edit Time Handle tool (see Figure 2). Once this tool is selected, a blue horizontal handle appears on every note of the vocal. To adjust, you simply grab one end of the handle and drag it up or down to lengthen or shorten the end of a phrase. I find that if you take your time, and truly explore the depth of this program, you can make natural-sounding miracles happen.

The Chaser

Once I get the lead vocal to my satisfaction, the last thing I like to do before exporting it back into Pro Tools is create what I call a “chaser”—a software instrument triggered by the MIDI information that provides support to a thin or emotionless performance. The chaser could be created in Melodyne, but I prefer to create my chaser in Pro Tools or Logic. After importing the vocal into Pro Tools, I route the track’s MIDI information to a virtual instrument of choice. Now, I can choose a patch, and—just like that—have a software synth playing along with my lead vocal. This is a very effective way of adding additional energy and emotion to a vocal. Of course, it’s important to pick a synth sound that has a similar tonality to the pop star’s voice so it can go almost undetected in the mix.