Let’s be honest: the process to making vocals sound professional is hard. It always has been, and it always will be. The fight to keep the true sound of the singer without turning them into an auto-tuned robot version of themselves is constant.
I don’t know about you, but every time I turn on Spotify, I sit and listen, and just wonder…how did they make them sound that good??? From raw recording to final product, the process is pretty elusive. So that’s why I decided to help you guys out today.
Here are 5 vocal editing tricks that are SO COMMON – but so subtle, that you probably never even realized they were being used.
How to make Vocals Sound Professional
1. Use Pitch Correction
I hate to break it to you, but everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – uses pitch correction. Even the most talented musicians. The question is no longer IF it is used, but rather HOW MUCH of it? We all know what over-usage of it sounds like…
However, the secret to a fantastic vocal line is the subtle use of auto-tune.
If you as the producer find yourself fixing nearly every note, you should probably re-record…or find a new singer. Sorry. Hard truth. BUT – I promise this will help you and your client to stay sounding original and less cookie-cutter like the large majority of popular music.
Using pitch correction in moderation will help to round out the tone of your singer, putting a bit of that professional gloss over the audio – which is something you may not have even known that your mix needs.
The key here, is to be frugal with the amount of pitch correction you use. I know it may be tempting to scan through your vocal line and fix every single note, but that’s what will inevitably make your singer sound like a robot. Now obviously, if there is a wrong note, fix it. (Or a better option would be to find a different take that has the correct note and use your super-editing skills to fit it into the audio file.) But spot-checking is really the goal here, not radical pitch change.
2. Vocal Doubling
Probably one of the simplest but most effective ways to make vocals sound professional is to use vocal doubling.
Have you ever listened to a song transition from the verse to the chorus, and basically explode with power and punch? This happens through vocal doubling! This is simply a series of multiple vocal takes stacked on top of one another.
Even with just two takes, you INSTANTLY have a fuller, more powerful and professional-sounding line.
What I like to do is keep one line as the primary, then add at least two more tracks and pan them to the far left and right. This gives a good amount of subtle variance, while spatializing the subtle differences in syllables and pitch.
It can also be useful to add vocal doubles on certain words to emphasize those moments.
This can be a cool effect when done with harmony as well. If you spatialize two melody tracks AND harmony tracks at the same time, the result is pretty fantastic.
The cool thing is that this probably hasn’t crossed your mind as something that makes vocals sound professional. At least, it hadn’t for me! The moment I realized how vocal doubling worked, my mind was blown. I went back and listened to all my favorite songs and as it turned out, they ALL had used doubling at some point.
The key to all these effects is that they are used in moderation. That’s what gives a pro-mix that high-quality sound.
3. Pitch Shift Portions of the Melody
Pitch shifting never sounds natural. Ever. So don’t use it for your lead line. Unless you’re going straight for effect. Like the beginning of this.
Instead, it can be a glorious effect to add to a rather bare vocal line.
Pitch shift a high melody down an octave and mix it under your lead to add support.
OR pitch shift a low melody up an octave and mix it behind your lead to brighten up a dull moment. This trick is extremely helpful when you’ve already recorded and just can’t get your talent back into the studio. And sometimes, your talent can’t sing an octave higher or lower than the melody, or maybe it just doesn’t sound good. If this is the case, then by knowing about this effect beforehand, you can eliminate even the chance that the talent will feel bad about their inability to sing it.
4. Formant Shifting
If you tried pitch shifting and it still sounds just too unnatural for your taste, another route is to shift the formant. The formant is the shape of the vocal sound, or the ee to ooh ratio, as I like to call it.
There’s this awesome fun video of a vocal warmup that demonstrates exactly what formant adjustment is. About halfway through is when they start singing with different formants. Check it out:
By shifting the formant upward, you transition the vowels into the ee sound, which can give the effect of increasing the pitch without actually adjusting it.
And it works the other way too! By decreasing the formant, the vowels turn into the ooh sound, and it gives the effect of lowering the pitch. Layer this underneath your lead vocal or add it to small chunks of audio to add cool effects to your music.
Most pitch correction plug-ins should have a formant knob or value that you can adjust.
5. Use a Vocoder
Vocoders are awesome. Adding a vocoder beneath your lead vocal can add support like no other instrument can, and can give you a professional sound that is unique to the way your singer sounds.
A vocoder takes whatever audio is being sent into it, and turns it into a synthesizer that you can play on a MIDI keyboard.It will only make sound when audio is being sent into it, so when the singer pauses or takes a breath, the vocoder does as well. This means that it takes the shape of all the words sung by your talent, allowing it to mimic the vocal line exactly, which can have a very nice effect on your song.
Here is a vocoder plugin you can download for FREE!
An effective way to do this is to play through the chord progression of your song while the singer sings above it. Playing the vocoder in a lower register can provide spectral balance if the singer has a higher melody, and blends nicely if the melody is down in the same range. Using the vocoder to play in a higher range is not as common, but can yield some cool results! I recommend using this for effect rather than for blend.
WARNING: be careful not to overuse this effect, as it can become boring quickly.
Similar to pitch correction, over saturation of this one effect can be the detriment to your song. However, it can sound pretty stinking cool when used in moderation.
Other Vocal Editing Techniques
All of these effects are commonly used in the industry to make vocals sound professional, but are hardly talked about (with the exception to pitch correction, which is really overly talked about). Much like a magician never reveals his or her secrets, the production engineer commonly has a few of his or her own.
These are only a few of the common secrets to editing vocals. If you are interested in more tips and tricks in editing, check out the 3-Step Process to EQ Anything. This is a great way to get started with EQ.
I also suggest reading 5 EQ Tips that will Drastically Improve your Mix. These are great tools for production engineers and musicians alike.