How to Tune Vocals

Vocal tuning can be a very difficult task.  Depending on the singer it can be almost no work or a seemingly impossible task.  There are many ways to tune vocals based on the desired outcome.  

Before tuning a vocal, it is necessary to decide on the final outcome of the edits. Should the vocal sound natural, or should tuning be used as an effect?  

This blog will cover not only how to get either outcome but will teach the fundamental question of why vocal tuning sounds the way it does, either natural or unnatural.  It can then be applied in almost any tuning software that allows you to manually tune vocals.

Before we get started, we need to take a look at a concept almost every audio engineer is aware of.  The ADSR Envelope.

As we can see by the above image, attack is how quickly the sound reaches full volume after the sound is activated, decay is how quickly the sound drops to the sustain level after the initial peak, sustain is the “constant” volume that the sound takes after decay until the note is released, and decay is how quickly the sound fades when a note ends.

The great part about this is that we can also apply this to tuning vocals.

In the above image, I have applied this theory to the vocal.  When we think about the physical aspect of singing it becomes more clear.  

  1. The singer takes a breath in
  2. The singer starts the breath out
  3. The vocal cords start vibration and the note begins (This is the attack portion)
  4. The  breath becomes more steady and the note becomes more stable (This is the decay portion)  
  5. The note stabilizes and becomes dependant on constant breath control (This is the sustain portion)
  6. The singer stops the breath and the vocal cords stop vibrating (This is the release portion)

To achieve a natural-sounding vocal the “attack, decay, and release ” portion of the vocal needs to be left somewhat intact.  It can be adjusted slightly but flattening it out too much will result in the “Auto-Tune” sound.

Alternatively, if the desired outcome is to use the tuning plugin to create an effect, the opposite is true.  The “attack, decay, sustain, and release ” portion of the vocal needs to be set as close to the desired pitch as possible with as little pitch variation as possible.  

You may ask why I left out the sustain portion in the first example.  I agree that the sustain portion of the vocal is quite important, but if you want a natural-sounding vocal it can be quite beneficial to keep the sustain portion untouched if the singer has good breath control.  If the singer does not have great breath control, you will still need to adjust it while keeping some natural variance in pitch. This can mean tightening up some extreme vibrato. It can also mean adjusting portions that go sharp (to much air) and portions that go flat (too little air).  

A great side effect of tuning your own vocal is that you can coach your breathing in near real-time.  You can see if you are using too much air to get the vocal cords vibrating, if you have enough steady breath control to maintain a near-constant pitch, as well as if you are releasing too much air at the end of the note.  

This video will cover all of the above topics.  To watch this video, please use quality speakers in a treated room, or decent headphones as some of the topics are subtle. 

Posted in Tutorial, Vocals and tagged , .