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The Fundamentals of Vocal Pitch Correction

by Arthur Kody, iZotope Contributor September 9, 2021
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Long gone are the days of having to nail a pitch-perfect vocal take in the studio. With pitch correction software, you can quickly and easily fix pitch problems on vocals without having to re-record, saving time, energy, and money. The development of digital pitch correction tools began back in 1975, but pitch correction software has come a long way since then. Now, it’s difficult to find a track on the radio that doesn’t use some form of vocal pitch correction.

In this article, we’re going to cover what exactly pitch correction is, some different applications for it, and how to use Nectar Pro and Melodyne 5 essential for pitch correction. 

In this piece you’ll learn:

Want to follow along as you learn about pitch correction? Start a free trial of a Music Production Suite Pro membership to access all of the plug-ins in this article.

What is pitch correction?

Most vocalists (even the pros) don’t have "perfect pitch." Even the best of singers can fall short of the note they are trying to hit every once in a while; either landing below (flat) or above (sharp) their desired note. Rather than forcing a vocalist to perform take after take in the studio in order to achieve pitch perfection, you can use pitch correction plug-ins to fix any issues with the pitch of a performance.

Melodyne 5 essential pitch correction plug-in

Pitch correction is the process of modifying the original pitch of a recording to “correct” it and make sure it fits within the key of the song. There are a couple different approaches you can take when adding pitch correction (we’ll cover these later), but first, let’s look at some ways pitch correction can be useful.

Ways to use pitch correction

There are many ways to use pitch correction. Here are some of the most common uses. 

1. Polishing a vocal performance

Imagine this: you’re recording in the studio and the singer just belted out the most beautiful, emotional take for the chorus of a heart wrenching ballad. But…they hit a few wrong notes along the way. Rather than scrapping the take and making them sing it again, you could simply apply pitch correction to polish it up, while keeping the raw emotion of the vocal performance. This is the most common use of pitch correction software because it saves on recording time, but ensures each note’s pitch is perfect.

2. As a creative effect

Many artists today choose to use pitch correction as a creative effect during the production process. Cher and T-Pain were some of the first to popularize this use of pitch correction software. But, since its introduction into pop music with Cher’s “Believe,” countless artists across every genre have found new ways of creating interesting vocal effects using pitch correction. Check it out in action on “NDA” by Billie Eilish. 

3. Creating harmonies

One little-known trick pitch correction can be used for is to create vocal harmonies. Rather than having a vocalist sing each harmony manually, pitch correction can be applied to the main melody and then used to change the notes of the original performance. This creates a harmony that’s perfectly in-sync with the main vocal.

Common questions about pitch correction

Before we get into the nitty gritty of how to use pitch correction, let’s address some FAQs.

Is pitch correction the same as Auto-Tune?

In the same way we use “Band-Aid” to describe adhesive bandages or “Kleenex” to describe facial tissues, most people refer to pitch correction as “Auto-Tune,” even though it’s only one of many pitch correction softwares on the market. Auto-Tune was the first product of its kind to come along, so its name is somewhat stuck in the public mind. But, since Auto-Tune’s original launch in 1997, many other pitch correction alternatives have popped up, each offering their own flavor and features. So, to put it simply, “Auto-Tune” is a brand name, but “pitch correction” is the process.

Is it okay to use pitch correction?

As a professional vocalist, I regularly get asked if I ever use pitch correction. The answer: “yes!” Pitch correction is a useful tool in my music production toolbox that saves time, energy, money, and my precious vocal cords. Why wouldn’t I use it?

Sure, there may be some that consider using pitch correction on vocals as “cheating.” But, that’s like telling a construction worker that using a drill instead of a screwdriver is cheating. Or telling an accountant that using formulas in spreadsheets is cheating. If you’re a vocalist, pitch correction software is just another tool of the trade.

Whether you have the voice of an angel and are just using it as a creative effect, or you depend on it heavily to fix all your pitchy problems, it doesn't really matter. At the end of the day, music production is all about creating quality work. So, if pitch correction helps you do that, then it's a safe bet to use it!

Check out this video that pokes fun at singers who act like they don’t like pitch correction:

The bottom line: there’s no shame in using pitch correction to help your art be the best it can be. Using pitch correction definitely has an undeserved stigma around it. But, the fact is that most vocalists use it (whether they like to admit it or not).

Do professional singers use pitch correction?

They most certainly do. Even the pros don't hit every note every time. And, although pitch correction got its start in pop music, it’s not just pop professionals that use it. From Katy Perry to Rascal Flatts, to Bon Iver and Kanye West, pitch correction transcends genres. Again, pitch correction is a tool to enhance the quality of the work. Professionals aren't afraid to use it. You shouldn’t be either.

How to use pitch correction

When it comes to applying pitch correction to a vocal, there are two different approaches you can take. The first is to apply a pitch correction plug-in that affects your entire vocal to correct any notes that were sung off key. Plug-ins like Nectar Pro are great for this type of “blanket approach.” Once you set the key of the song in Nectar Pro, pitch correction will automatically be applied to notes that fall outside of the set key. This type of pitch correction saves a lot of time because you don’t have to manually edit each off-key note.

The second approach is to use a plug-in like Melodyne 5 essential, that gives you detailed control over each note in a performance. This is a great option if the vocal only has a few notes that need fixing, or if the vocal requires some more fine-tuned adjustments.

Typically, I’ll use a combination of both approaches when processing vocals. I’ll add Melodyne 5 Essential first in order to correct any blatantly wrong notes. Then, I’ll run the vocals through Nectar Pro’s Pitch module in order to take care of any of the more subtle pitch problems. Lastly, I may revisit my instance of Melodyne 5 essential to correct any final issues. Here’s a video on using Melodyne essential in conjunction with Nectar:

You can get access to both by signing up for a Music Production Suite Pro free trial! This membership comes with a full lineup of mixing and mastering plug-ins to help you bring your mixes to the next level. 

Using Melodyne for fine-tuned pitch correction

Melodyne 5 essential gives you full control over the pitch of each individual note in a vocal performance. By dragging a note up or down on the grid, you can effectively alter the pitch of any poorly sung note to its intended pitch. See it in action in this video overview:

Melodyne gives you extreme precision when making pitch corrections, so it’s perfect for fixing a few notes in a vocal performance. But, what if the whole vocal was a little bit pitchy? Enter Nectar Pro.

How to use pitch correction in Nectar Pro

Add an instance of Nectar Pro to your vocal channel strip and then click into the Pitch module. On the left-hand side, you’ll see the option to set the scale of your song. Here, you can choose a given key, or enter a custom scale. If you don’t already know the scale of your song, Nectar Pro has a feature called “Auto Detect” that will listen to your vocal and automatically detect the correct key. Simply click the Auto Detect button and press play. Nectar Pro also allows you to set your vocal register (low, mid, or high) to make sure the pitch processing sounds as natural as possible.

Nectar Pro pitch correction module

Now, turn the pitch correction on by clicking “Correction” toward the top of the window. Use the Strength and Speed controls to dial-in the sound that fits best with your track. If you are looking for a robotic effect, crank the strength up all the way and set the speed to 0.00 ms. But if you want more subtle pitch correction applied, turn down the strength. Nectar Pro adds pitch correction in real time, so you can hear the changes you’re making as you’re playing with the parameters.

Here’s an example of my vocal before and after using Nectar Pro’s Pitch module for a robotic effect:

Pitch Correction, Before and After

Lastly, you have the option in the bottom right-hand corner to adjust the formants of your vocal. Since formants are resonances of the vocal tract, changing the formants will affect the tonal quality of the vocal, but won’t modify the pitch at all. Turn the formant knob to the left to make your vocal deeper, and turn it to the right to get more of a chipmunk sound.

Start using pitch correction on your vocal tracks

Pitch correction is a valuable tool to have in your production arsenal. Since nearly every professional vocal from the past 15 years has been touched by some form of pitch correction, you shouldn’t be afraid to use it to boost the quality of your own vocals.

Pitch correction plug-ins like Nectar Pro and Melodyne 5 essential can save a ton of studio time and add professional polish to your vocal recordings. You can get access to both of these plug-ins when you start your free trial of a Music Production Suite Pro membership.

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