First off, I want to say that I’m not a huge fan of pitch correction software. I think that that the ever-growing tendency to rely on tools, tricks, and engineers to make records is a bad thing. One of the biggest abuses of this is in the pitch correction software world. I’m of the opinion that a great vocal take is a lot more about sounding “cool”, “exciting”, and “emotionally intense “ than sounding mathematically correct.
Music Improvement vs Convenience
Pitch correction software was developed so that when there is a truly special take with just the slightest pitch issues, the magical, one-of-a-kind take would not have to be scrapped. Pitch correction software was developed to make the music BETTER! The Ferrari with a little dent in it is magically fixed! It was not designed to allow singers to be lazy. Autotune and Melodyne are not supposed to be convenient in my opinion. In fact, I’d prefer that they were a little tougher to use simply to put more responsibility on the singer.
I think the average person recording at home wants to do a take or two and then rely on the tools to fix things. This is not how the big boys do it! It takes a lot of work to really get into the song and to get a singer to really FEEL what they sing! This is what the buying public pays for. When they buy a song/cd they are paying to feel something. Give it to them! You’ll know when you have a special take or even a special moment because the intensity will kind of leap out at you. You should day “Man! I believe that guys/girl!”
So while Autotune and Melodyne will allow you to get lazy with your vocals and pitch correct them, they have absolutely no method for “vibe correction”. In my opinion there are way too many terrible sounding vocals with perfect pitch these days. Don’t let this happen to you! Don’t settle for a lazy, uninspired vocal performance! Do the extra work, get an exciting sounding vocal with tremendous intensity first and foremost. When you have to decide between ditching an exciting note or tuning it with the pitch correction tools is the proper time to try out the pitch correction software. In other words, use your Pitch Correction Software to take dents out of a Ferrari, not put a giant spoiler / wing on a Chevy Lumina.
Not-So-Good Pitch or Not-So-Good Vibe
In my experience when a decent singer is having pitch issues, it’s usually because they have chosen to sing a part in a way that isn’t natural and doesn’t express the right emotion anyway. These pitch issues usually stem from not singing for the song and instead forcing the vocal into some other place. While it’s common for singers to really think about the pitch in these situations, so much more comes down to finding the right intensity and approach for the song. For example, pitch problems have a way of creeping up when sad songs don’t have sad vocals. If you having problems singing a sad song, trying feeling sad when you sing it!
I’ve found that there are times that vocals sound bad even when Antares Autotune or Celemony Melodyne says the vocal is perfectly in tune. There are even more times when a vocal sounds perfect even if the little red line in Autotune isn’t right on the line. So in the end, focus on getting an EXCITING vocal take. The pitch will fall into place. If the vibe is there and the vocal really makes the song come alive, we now have the tools to nudge a note here and there.
As far as I know, there is only one major version of Antares Autotune. They have updated it over the years. As of this writing, they are up to version 5. I have Anteras Autotune 4. Before I wrote this review, I attempted to use the demo version of Autotune 5, but it turned out that Autotune 5 would not install correctly in Cubase SX3. So, it was back to the Autotune 4.
Autotune 4 is a plugin. You can use it real-time or to do “destructive” processing in a wav editor. I generally prefer the latter. Autotune has two modes: Auto and Graphical.
I use Auto Mode when there are very subtle pitch issues that need to be lightly tweaked throughout the track. This is especially useful for harmonies and things of that sort. I have to say that this is not my preferred way of using Autotune, but it does have it’s uses. I find that many younger bands are so used to the sound of Autotune (fairly similar to a certain kind comb filtering to me..OUCH!) that something is missing if they don’t have the Autotune sound on their tracks. There is no mistaking it. This Autotune sound is EVERYWHERE! I don’t necessarily mean the infamous Cher effect. I mean the more subtle use of Autotune can be heard on just about any commercial that has a vocal. It can be heard on just about every pop and rock song out there. Personally, I put it in the league of gated snare reverbs and spandex from the 80s. (Personally, I feel the use of Autotune as a gimmicky effect is quite a bit more like spandex! I’ll be glad when this trend is dead and gone.)
Speaking of the Cher effect, this is generally most easily accomplished in Auto Mode by setting Autotune to be very fast and extremely aggressive. It will attempt to “round” any frequency that doesn’t sit on a specific note immediately to the closest note. To explain this concept a little better, let’s just say an E note is 1 and an F note is 2. If Autotune detects a 1.49, the note will be immediately rounded down to E. If it detects a 1.51, the note will be immediately rounded up to an F. This is the Cher vocal effect to a T. It makes the vocal behave much more like that of a keyboard with fixed pitches. This sounds entirely unnatural, of course, because the human voice naturally varies in pitch. The human voice is more like a slide guitar than a piano. (By the way, the reason I’m explaining this whole Cher effect to you is so you know that if you start hearing that annoying garbly crap you know immediately to slow Autotune down. Be especially careful not to let young bands hear this warble even one time. They may want the damn effect on every single syllable! Rolaids spells “gun” “shot” “to” “head”) If you really have to use this ridiculous gimmick and I’m merely showing my age by shooting it down, do it in taste and in moderation. Do it so that it does add something to the song, even if us ancient 27 year olds don’t get it.
Auto Mode can be used both in real-time as an insert on a track or to destructively process the wav file itself. I can’t remember a time that I’ve ever used Auto Mode for destructive processing. I prefer the graphical editor for that because it means I definitely have a note that I do not like and I need to fix it. (That’s one of the few times that I’ll use “fix” when discussing recording).
Autotune also allows us to use Graphical Mode. I like Graphical Mode because I can get in there and adjust pitch myself without worrying about the software screwing it up too badly. I’ll double click on a file in Cubase SX3 to open the wav editor. I’d highly the phrase with the problem, fire up Autotune (which I have a shortcut for) and then hit the preview button. This will allow Autotune to analyze the pitch and then draw a line on the screen to indicate the pitch. Autotune is not perfect at this “tracking”. It has a tendency to leave gaps from time to time. I’ve never really understood it. It’s very frustrating when these gabs occur exactly on the note that needs to be fixed.
Autotune’s GUI (graphic user interface) is not exactly cutting edge on Autotune 4, but I hear it has improved with Autotune 5. I guess it’s better than command line, but it’s not exactly top notch in it’s ability to draw, cut, paste, etc. I frequently curse the screen when attempting to use the Autotune interface. However, when it works, it works well.
As a person who is devoid of any formal musical education, I’ve had to learn to hear pitch the good old fashioned way. After I got the hand of vocal pitch being “off”, it’s taken me years to know if a pitch is flat or sharp. I just knew it was “off”. By using the Autotune Graphical Mode as visual confirmation, I’ve been able to develop my ear to the point where I can tell if a pitch is sharp or flat. This may not be a big deal for people who are formally trained, but it’s a pretty cool side benefit for the musically brain dead. (That’s me!).
Graphical Mode gives the option for drawing lines. If you hold down the control key, you can draw straight lines. Be VERY careful with this. I’ve actually had bands who have paid me to straight line every single word on an entire album. You have no idea how demoralizing this is! It’s probably not as bad as getting raped. We’ll leave it at that! I have found that straight lining long notes that drift is a good way of dealing with that problem, but overall I’m very hesitant to straight line. There is an “auto” button in graphical mode which I usually try to use first. It will automatically draw a line, but it will often cause as many problems as it fixes. However, the problems it does fix are usually a better alternative than simply straight lining everything to death.
Among all the big boys I’ve talked to, it seems to be a consensus that Melodyne is the most popular for pitch correction software. I was excited to see how Melodyne compared to Autotune. The rumor going around is that Melodyne is more natural that Autotune. I wanted to find out for myself.
I had no idea which version of Melodyne to order. I was in a situation where I had an upcoming session and I needed to order immediately to get my new audio interface in time. I went with my gut and ordered the cheapest version (Melodyne Uno) expecting Melodyne to use similar logic to Cubase and every other software product I’ve ever encountered. I expected an upgrade to “better” versions to be discounted to encourage people to actually upgrade. I was mistaken. Long story short! Do your research before ordering Melodyne!
I received Cubase Uno the day before a big session that would require some pitch correction. This particular singer uses pitch correction liberally. (He’s the boss!) It needs to be said that I comp vocals heavily. In search of the great take, there may be 100 or so pieces that have been comped together in a session. I usually like leaving them in pieces on the track because there is almost always something I mess up, bump, delete by accident, etc.
It turns out that Melodyne Uno is just a one track editor. Regardless of the delusions I had, it’s just like Sound Forge or Wavelab but it’s only process is pitch correction (and the other Melodyne features). In order for me to use Melodyne Uno, I would have to render my comped vocal to a single wav file, find that wav file in the audio folder, and then open it in Uno. Because Melodyne Uno is a one track editor, there is no way to hear the pitch corrections in context with the song. In other words, a person just has to assume the changes Melodyne is making are going to make the track sound good. I HATE this. This is completely unacceptable. Long story short, Melodyne Uno does not work with my style of recording. Bummer! Note: Melodyne Uno has a Rewire feature and I could not, for the life of me, figure out what purpose this served.
All is not lost. There is a Melodyne Plugin. This ended up being the product for me, although it took a little time to get used to. Melodyne Plugin actually works within Cubase. This is a huge first step. When there is a problem note and I want to use Autotune, I simply double click on the wav file, highlight the phrase that has the problem, open Auto-tune, draw my lines, process it and listen back. Done. The track has been destructively edited and the changes made my Autotune are permanently embedded on the track unless I hit undo. I like this method of working. Melodyne Plugin does a hybrid of sorts. Melodyne plugin must be used as an insert. When there is a problem phrase, I hit the record button in Melodyne (the actual term is “transfer”) and then hit play on the track in Cubase. I hit stop when the phrase is over. Then Melodyne analyzes and processes the phrase. Ironically, the tuning is pretty much automatic. It’s already tuned once it is loaded in. There have been times where I haven’t wanted a word or two tuned, and that was as easy as removing those words from Melodyne. When I’m finished, I do nothing. The track is fixed.
Basically, Melodyne Plugin works like a the switch thingy on train tracks. When Cubase reaches a point in the song where I have made tunings in Melodyne, Melodyne temporarily switches from the wav file in Cubase to the wav file created by Melodyne. When the Melodyne fixes are finished, it switches back to the file in Cubase. I find this method both genius and stupid at the same time. Let me explain. I really like this way of working. However, Melodyne will continue to act like a switch for as long as it is inserted on a channel and engaged. This causes problems if we decide to re-record a phrase. Every time I play that phrase back, I will hear the old version, even if I delete that section out of Cubase and even if I re-record a new file. It’s also common for me to do very rough “automation” simply by dragging the wav file down to make it’s volume smaller. If I fixed a pitch issue in the vocal with Melodyne, if I were to reduce the amplitude on the file within Cubase (on the actual waveform itself), it would make no difference on anything that was fixed with Melodyne because Melodyne is playing a totally different wav file that simply does not exist in Cubase. I haven’t checked to see what pre-fader aux sends do yet. I’m expecting a pre-fader aux send to use the old track, which could be interesting (or TERRIBLE!). Basically this method isn’t horrendous, but it’s just one more thing a recording dude has to think about it. I hate having things like this on my mind during a vocal session. Once we are happy with a vocal, I immediately render the stupid file down and ditch Melodyne on that channel. (Luckily, using “Lanes” in Cubase I can keep all my old vocal pieces for when I need them).
It turns out that Melodyne does quite a bit more than just pitch correction. It can allow you to quickly and easily change the melody of a track. (I’ve not really found a use for that, but I guess it could be a fun joke!). The thing that does interest me just a little bit is the ability to adjust timing. You can ruin a track very quickly like this. I guess that’s a good thing. Over the years, there have been tiny little timing things that have made me want to puke. Normally, I would just have the singer do it until it is right. However, there are times when the singer likes these bad timing phrases. With Melodyne I can go in there and change it, piss off the client, and then they never come back! One down, a bunch of other clients to go!
Melodyne vs Autotune – The Sound
Simply put, Autotune is more aggressive than Melodyne when it comes to fixing pitch. Autotune has way more controls for auto mode, even though I don’t consider these controls to be exactly intuitive. (“Intuitive” may not be the right word. I start playing with the knobs and it’s not always obvious what I’m changing.) I think the reason most of the big boys consider Melodyne to be more natural has to do with it’s subtle nature. I found that Melodyne, even at it’s most aggressive setting was less likely to fix issues with long, sustained notes drifting. Autotune can fix these easily.
If I had to choose between slapping up Melodyne or Autotune in auto mode, for most things, I would probably go with Melodyne. It’s least likely to screw up. This may be due to it’s more relaxed nature or may be due to some kind of superior technology. I’m going to go with “relaxed nature”. I found that when a pitch problem came along, I was reaching for Melodyne first. If Melodyne sounded weird, didn’t fix the problem, or the problem was a little drastic, I would open it up in Autotune for more surgical work.
The big thing that separates Melodyne and Autotune is the handling of vibrato. I’m not sure if it’s just a fluke or if the times are a changin’, but I’ve had three projects in a row that had used TONS of vocal vibrato. I’ve found Autotune to be useless in this setting. Maybe those knobs that don’t appear to do anything would fix this. They haven’t for me so far. Maybe I’m just an idiot, but Autotune on vibrato is absolutely horrible. However, Melodyne is AWESOME on vibrato. Without having a clue I was able to shift vibrato so that it sounded great with no effort.
I find that some singers like to take their time sliding into notes. The best singers just hit the note: BING! It’s an “A”. Most singers have to kind of ramp up or down into each note. Some singers are slower about ramping up or down to the desired note. This ramping issue needs to be dealt with in front of the microphone and not after. Autotune HATES this ramping thing and Melodyne isn’t exactly perfect with it either. I’ve never had luck using tools to fix this ramping issue. If you try to redraw the ramp up so that it’s quicker, you can clearly see that you are asking quite a bit out of Autotune. It may have to shift up 3 or 4 semi-tones. This is always going to sound funny. It sounds even funnier when you hear the shift of 3 or 4 semi-tones in the middle of a ramp. However, of the two, Melodyne handled this better than Autotune in my opinion.
Melodyne vs Autotune – Workflow
As explained above, both Melodyne and Autotune used different methods of working. Melodyne Uno simply did not fit my style. Melodyne Plugin was much better for me, but I HATE the fact that I have to remember that I have Melodyne inserted on a given channel. I would greatly prefer for it to work in destructive mode so that I could immediately apply it to the track at hand and not have to think anymore. I think Autotune is much more user friendly in this regard. In the end, I guess the Melodyne Plugin’s workflow method isn’t horrible, but it could be better. It does waste time in a session because I’m an idiot and can’t remember to take it off when necessary.
When it comes to Melodyne vs Autotune, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need both of them. I love the fact that pitch is sort of a given in Melodyne. It makes the process very simple. If the vocal doesn’t work in Melodyne, I try graphical mode in Autotune. If that doesn’t work, we fix it the old fashioned way. It seems that everything that Autotune fails at, Melodyne does well in. Examples of this include vibrato and overall natural, subtle processing. The same could be said for Autotune. Melodyne doesn’t always get aggressive when it needs to, but Autotune excels at the aggressive stuff. Melodyne has a bunch of fancy timing features and such. I wouldn’t pay for these, but I’m old school. You might. If you are into the idiotic Cher effects, Autotune is better at mangling audio than Melodyne. (Please don’t do this! I’m begging you!)
In terms of workflow, I think Autotune has the upper hand. I have to use some of my own brain’s limited short term memory when I have Melodyne on an insert. I DO NOT have RAM to spare. (Again, this is my own brain’s RAM, not my computer’s RAM.)
If you actually took the time necessary to read this entire article, get a life! Ha ha ha!