ROB LONG EXPLAINS HOW TO GET YOUR TUNES INTO TUNE.
In the last issue, I discussed the importance of timing, feel and groove, and looked at various ways to assess the project and deal with the issues at hand. In this one , I’d like to look at the equally critical ‘sister’ issues of tuning and pitching, which I’ll treat separately.
It could be broadly stated that between pitch and timing, it’s timing that is more flexible. Feel and groove are highly fluid and genre-specific elements of music. Tuning and pitching, on the other hand, tends be more universally understood and agreed upon, irrespective of genre.
It’s typical for an instrumentalist to tune their instrument, but it’s far less typical for them analyse their rhythmic performance against a grid in a DAW. Generally, people will notice tuning issues long before they’ll pick up on timing issues.
Even the casual non-musical listener can usually tell that there’s something not quite right, even though they may not have the language to explain it. Needless to say, if you make computergenerated, auto-tuned music, scroll on! There’s nothing to see here!
CHEWING OVER TUNING
Having said that, I’d have to say that I spend a lot of time helping performers of various stringed instruments working through the finer details of tuning. Nine times out of ten, they can’t hear the problem!
TRACKING ONE HEADPHONE OFF
To a certain extent, this is understandable. So many people treat an electronic tuner as ‘ the final word’, tuning at the beginning of a rehearsal, gig or recording, and that’s it. They figure that the tuner looks happy and then sign off on it. End of story. Factors like playing at high volume and the chorusing effect of lots of instruments playing simultaneously tend to mask the finer tuning problems.
Personally, I’ll tune between songs, recording takes, every time I put on a capo or remove it... All the goddamn time. When recording, I’ll take it even further – I work through the chord shapes I’m intending to use, one at a time, and test for discrepancies and adjust as necessary.
People work under the assumption that a good instrument with healthy strings will, once tuned with an accurate tuner, will be in tune at any point on the neck, and will stay that way. They can then relax and enjoy perfect intonation and
never need to give it another thought. In essence, they stop listening out for the hiccups.
Unfortunately this is rarely the case. Having put super high-end, collectible instruments through their paces, I can attest that the instrument’s price tag does not assure perfect intonation – the most important aspect of good tuning is the player’s ears.
Possibly the biggest telltale sign of a tuning or intonation issue is when either unison or octaves notes are played. If it’s not bang-on, you’ll soon hear an unpleasant dissonance. Hence, I’ll always tune an open string against an octave on another string, as discrepancies here will be more noticeable.
If a capo is being used, always tune withthecapoon , and the tuner in chromatic mode. Putting a capo on a guitar or banjo neck changes everything! The player’s technique is another can of worms. It’s so easy to sharpen a note by pressing too hard on the fretboard, or to throw a whole chord out by bending one string, but people often don’t realise it’s happening until it’s under the studio microscope.
Getting intonation correct is a dark art, and many (arguably most, to be honest) instruments are simply beyond ever being perfect. Generally, the position of the bridge and saddle is the most critical element. But the depth of the nut slot has a huge effect on the intonation of the first five frets – too shallow a cut will mean you’re fretting sharp up that end of the neck .
So, often it becomes a compromise, to the point where it’s actually plausible in some cases to alter a par t or arrangement in order to avoid weak spots on the instrument.
One little trick I often do is to simply lay down a piano or keyboard track, even if it’s not necessarily for keeps, purely as a tuning reference. It should only take around 10 or 15 minutes to lay down the basic chord patterns – simply turn the track off once it’s no longer required.
WHERE TO PITCH IT?
It really pays to listen to the singer work through a song in the control room with the track, or playing campfire style with a guitar or piano before sending them into the fray. You’ll learn a lot about simply hearing them perform acoustically in the room with you, without the technical and psychological minefield that is the ‘red zone’. They’ll be more relaxed, less likely try and impress everyone in the room, and you’ll hear the natural timbre of their voice that you’re about to try to capture.
It’s also important to ascertain
ASAP whether the vocal part is actually set, arranged and finished. Are they improvising or changing it every time they sing it? Are they attempting to recreate some demo from eight years ago when their range was two tones higher? Are they making it up as they go and never quite nailing it? If so, they’re more likely to be focussed on creating a part than singing well.
The old ‘one headphone off’ trick is an oldie but a goodie. It allows the singer to hear at least a percentage of their voice naturally. Headphones create an airtight seal around the ears which greatly alters the natural, free-field listening environment which people are used to.
If it’s a a capella piece, simply play a drone as a pitching reference. It’s super quick and easy to set up, and just helps the vocalist(s) from wandering too far off the mark. If the piece begins with a solo vocal entry, make sure you lay down an intro chord. If you forget, simply copy and paste a bar from somewhere in the track.
When things really aren’t going well, sometimes it’s necessary to reach for the big guns. This could mean literally playing the melody on a keyboard, using a suitable sound such as a flute. Some producers will go as far as to auto-tune a vocal take to use as a reference. Obviously this is fairly extreme, and does railroad the vocalist into a trying to perfect ‘set part’ – but it’s a solution! MELODYNE
Monitoring is obviously critical in any recording situation, but never more so than tracking vocals.
Always have a good listen to the headphone mix you’re sending. Don’t rely on the performer to tell you what’s going on – they may not have the experience to know what’s ‘normal’. Even if they are experienced, they may not be familiar with your setup or headphones.
You need to know that everything is working as expected before you go chasing your tail with someone who may have a whole different language for describing what they are hearing. I don’t know how many times I’ve had someone say, "It sounds great," only to realise they are singing a semitone flat because all they can hear is a muddy mix through the talkback mic.
Getting the volume right is important. The genre will guide you – it’s hard to rock out at ‘elevator’ volume. Likewise, don’t blow the folkies out of the room! When the vocals are too loud in the phones, many singers will actually back off and project less, which can cause them to sing flat. If the vocals are too quiet, some singers will sing too hard to hear the vocals properly, causing them to hit the notes sharp.
It’s often advisable to simplify the mix, thinning out complex, distracting elements which inhibit more than they enhance. If the singer normally plays an instrument, focus the monitoring around that and make them feel at home.
Try skewing the headphone mix to give the vocalist some audible separation. Pan the backing track pan left by 75 percent and the vocal track right by 75 percent or similar.
Allowing vocalists to sing along with the track and find their pitch well before a punch-in point is far more desirable than a tight drop in, where they are forced to suddenly pitch perfectly from a cold start.
Sometimes headphones simply just don’t fit the bill. It could be the genre, or it may be their volume or singing style. It could just be that the vocalist feels like they’re wearing a sonic chastity belt!
Using studio monitors or even setting up a small PA to monitor them isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Send a mono mix to two speakers on either side of the mic . Put one speaker out of phase and the sound cancels at the mic ( once you get the placement correct). Then, the singer can dispense with headphones and just sing to what they're hearing through the speakers.
There will be some bleed of music onto the vocal track depending on how loud you run the speakers, but it’s often no more than you would get from someone running loud headphones while they’re doing a vocal track.
Likewise, for some genres, it’s a matter of feel and performance style. Changing the vocal session from a sterile ‘ studio capture’ with a big intimidating large diaphragm condenser into a live performance using a more familiar handheld dynamic mic could be the ticket.
Most of all, build confidence! Support is often the game-changer. Nerves cause a singer to tense up and create an efficient breath flow. So praise them when they nail it, and support them when they struggle. If they get some of it right, they can get all of it righ t!
Rob Long is a multi-instrumentalist and producer working @FunkyLizardStudios in Newcastle.
LEFT: ALWAYS KEEP AN OPEN EAR
ABOVE: A CLASSIC TUNER FOR SOME CLASSIC TUNES
ABOVE: GET YOUR STRINGS INTO SHAPE
LEFT: SCREW THIS!
ABOVE: WHEN IN DOUBT, DAW IT OUT