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Auto-tune is often seen as either a blessing or a curse. It has empowered vocal performers to punch above their weight and get away with it.

Some may say it results in the ruination of natural talent and the bypassing of natural selection. In the vast majority of cases though, it simply allows the Producer or Engineer to fix the odd tuning issue. When so many of our instruments are digitally tuned and precisely recorded a wayward voice can seem a bit too distracting in an otherwise perfect mix.

The reality is tuning vocals in post-production has become a normal and accepted process. It saves a lot of time and money and is so nuanced these days it’s unnoticeable (unless you want it to be) because the technology also offers interesting ways of processing vocals to get a particular sound.

The technology is so good these days there’s also scope for a certain amount of melody reworking and musical changes that would only previously be possible by recording the whole session again. Auto-Tuning is a helpful tool, a creative process and usually makes us sound great! What’s not to like?

Auto-Tune is a software plug-in and hardware audio processor made by Antares but it has become synonymous with the correcting of vocals since the 1998 Cher track “Believe,” where it was used to excess. So, the term “Auto-Tune” has become part of our language but can cover a range of products from many manufacturers. Here are our tips on the best software for dealing with your vocal mishaps.

Antares Auto-Tune

Well, of course, this has to be the first thing to talk about. As they say themselves, it’s the “world standard in pitch correction and vocal processing.”

They have recently introduced a brand-new version called Auto-Tune Pro, which replaces version 8 as their premium product. It operates as a plug-in inserted upon a vocal track and processes the audio directly on playback. The focus is very much on vocals and the development into the Pro version has brought with it many tools and enhancements to ensure the result is as human and natural as possible.

Its strength is in its Auto Mode, where you simply set some parameters, key, and tolerance and let Auto-Tune work its magic. When it brings things together for you in a mix, magic is exactly what it feels like.

It does have a graphical mode that allows for direct editing upon each note in a vocal line. One of the new Pro features is it supports the ARA (Audio Random Access) protocol which allows for greater integration and exchange of information between the track and the plug-in. This means you can apply edits to sections of a track without having to run the whole thing through the plug-in.

Auto-Tune is not solely about pitch. There are other factors such as Formant Correction, Throat Modeling, and Flex-tune. These ensure the changes to the pitch remain completely believable and tweakable. You can vary the length of the throat to alter the timbre of the sound. Flex-tune will preserve a singer’s expressive gestures while still bringing them perfectly into tune. Then a Humanize function will bring about a more natural and transparent correction of sustained notes.

In Low Latency Mode, Auto-Tune becomes your perfect live performance companion, either on stage or in the studio. It keeps you in tune without any processing lag or delay.

Of course, all these things are aimed at correcting and perfecting vocals. The other side is Auto-Tune is happy to be pushed into wide extremes of quantizing, vocal mangling, and retuning. There’s even an Auto-Tune Classic mode which emulates the sound of version 5 that produced the processed vocal sound so frequently associated with this product.

Auto-Tune is undoubtedly the king of hands-off vocal correction and comes in three versions. EFX has most of the stuff you need for keeping your vocals in check. The Live version is tailored to what you’d need in a live performance situation and the Pro version has it all (and so much more) for the ultimate pitch correcting studio plug-in.

In Low Latency Mode, Auto-Tune becomes your perfect live performance companion, either on stage or in the studio. It keeps you in tune without any processing lag or delay.

Street Prices:
• Auto-Tune EFX $99
• Auto-Tune Live $199
• Auto-Tune Pro $399

Celemony Melodyne

Melodyne comes at pitch correction in a completely different way. It has the ability to somehow work with a sense of musical and emotional intelligence. The algorithms Celemony have developed grasp the feel of the music to enable it to achieve quite extraordinary acoustic faithfulness. And this is not necessarily all about the vocals, it can just as well be about solo instruments and polyphonic instruments, too.

It’s quite fascinating to watch Melodyne work. You give it a piece of audio and it graphically pulls notes out into an editor for manipulation. It’s impressive on a solo melody but it’s like sorcery when it does the same thing to polyphonic instruments. With Melodyne, you can now edit a single note in a strummed chord. It sort of makes anything possible and has earned it the headline of “Photoshop for sounds.”

Melodyne recognizes digital audio as music as opposed to simply data to process. So, when you edit notes the character is retained, the emotional elements are dealt with sympathetically and then the musicality becomes part of the process. You can move and tweak notes for sure, but then you can add vibrancy, increase expression, deepen the emotion, widen the dynamics and alter the structure. Melodyne speaks the language of music.

The graphical interface appears at first glance to be a bit dated. But these blobs of data with pitch lines give you all the information you need about the character of that note. These are not waveforms; these are notes. Vibrato and movement aren’t lost as you change things, it adapts to the new position or you can redesign it. Overtones can be accessed alongside giving you full control over the tone and feel of the sound.

Melodyne invented the ARA protocol along with PreSonus that Auto-Tune now supports. It allows you to use Melodyne purely on the parts of the track you want to edit. It also now lets you see and edit multiple tracks simultaneously.

What it doesn’t do is real-time live performance processing. Melodyne is an off-line process. It does the work in post-production. It offers the producer a fantastic range of possibilities after all the musicians have gone home to tweak, reshape or even rewrite the music. And not just of the vocals, but of every instrument.

Street Prices:
• Melodyne 4 Essential (Monophonic pitch and scale correction) $99
• Melodyne 4 Assistant (Monophonic pitch editing, formant control, vibrato) $199
• Melodyne 4 Editor (Polyphonic pitch editing, single track) $399
• Melodyne 4 Studio (Polyphonic pitch editing, multi-track and overtone editing) $699

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Waves Tune

Waves produce a huge range of plug-ins and so it should come as no surprise they have some vocal processing up their sleeve. Waves Tune is a plug-in offering both an auto and a graphical mode, designed to make the whole process easy and precise. You can simply turn on the scaling mode and it will happily quantize notes to your chosen level of harshness. Or you can precisely edit individual notes in a graphical mode.

It looks pretty terrible and is largely unchanged after many years but the natural sound of the vocal corrections is well regarded and it doesn’t bog you down in a lot of intense options. There’s a “light” version which is more of a fire-and-forget type plug-in — just turn it on and have great vocals.

The only snag is the plug-in does introduce quite a bit of latency and so can only be used in post-production. However, there is a much more recent Real-Time version that sacrifices all the editing possibilities for blisteringly fast real-time processing.

If you’re on a budget, then Waves Tune is definitely worth checking out. Although the retail price is $249 it’s been on sale at $69 for a long time now. The LT (light) and Real-Time versions are only $29, which is a complete bargain.

It’s quite fascinating to watch Melodyne work. You give it a piece of audio and it graphically pulls notes out into an editor for manipulation. It’s impressive on a solo melody but it’s like sorcery when it does the same thing to polyphonic instruments.

Street Prices:
• Waves Tune Real-Time $29
• Waves Tune LT $29
• Waves Tune $69 (normally $249)

Steinberg Cubase VariAudio

Although fully supporting plug-ins such as Auto-Tune and Melodyne, Steinberg decided to integrate its own pitch correction software directly into their Cubase DAW. VariAudio offers a Melodyne style interface that can work directly on monophonic vocal recordings. Simply open the audio clip in the sample editor and edit pitch and intonation information just like you would use any other tool.

It integrates with the Chord Track to ensure your vocals track together in harmonies and choral arrangements.

If you want something a bit more automatic and real-time, then Cubase also has a PitchCorrect plug-in which works like Auto-Tune or Wave Tune Real-Time. Simply load it onto your vocal track and let PitchCorrect do the rest.

VariAudio and PitchCorrect are not available separately; they appear only in Cubase DAW products. PitchCorrect can be found in all versions of Cubase, whereas VariAudio is only available in the Pro version.

Street Prices:
• Cubase Elements (PitchCorrect only) $99
• Cubase Artist 9.5 (PitchCorrect only) $329
• Cubase Pro 9.5 (PitchCorrect and VariAudio) $579

In Conclusion

Auto-Tune and Melodyne do have the market pretty well sewn up. They coexist by having very different approaches to pitch correction.

Auto-Tune is by far the easiest to use and will give you great results without you having to know what you’re doing. Melodyne expects you to be a sober and intelligent musician who is serious about his work. In either case, it’s completely possible to rework melodies, timing, tone, and intonation without anyone ever knowing. That’s great news for you and great news for your vocalist.

Need something to record those auto-tuned vocals? Check out our picks for the best vocal mics.

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