Manual Vocal Editing vs. Vocalign UltraApr 17, 2023
Let's talk about making your background vocals and harmonies perfectly aligned with your lead vocal for a super tight, clean pop sound. It's all about making your waveforms line up so that the individual words of each track start and stop at the same time. Depending on the mood of your song and the sound you're going for, or you may want a little bit of give, slight imperfections to give the sound clean togetherness but a little more body. Think: the looser the alignment, the more is will sound like a crowd of people, versus the tighter alignment gives us clean pristine pop.
You've got options - you can do this by hand or your can use a plugin to automatically do it for you. With careful manual editing, attention to detail, and perceptive ears and eyes, you can get the most perfect sound doing it manually to avoid artifacts. When the vocals were sung choppy with spaces between words, it's way easier to edit than when the words were sung more connected in the vocal recording. Let the lead be your guide, and edit the backgrounds to line up to the lead vocal. You'll use time stretching, cutting, fading, and nudging to achieve this. When I'm manually time aligning, my approach is to line up the first word of our first background, then the first word of the second, etc. so we're aligning all the stacks from top to bottom first, the moving from left to right as the line continues. Make sure to place cuts before and after words that you're going to nudge so you don't end up nudging the entire rest of the line. Use your DAW's time stretch trim tool to time stretch words that are too short or long as you nudge things along (just be sure to not accidentally time stretch trim something that you only meant to regular trim). Every new audio file must have a crossfade or an in-and-out fade. Avoid us hearing any click or pop noises by keeping your edits clean!
I highly recommend the Audiosuite or Selection-Based Processing plug-in SynchroArts Vocalign Ultra. It's an amazing time aligning plugin that saves me tons of time editing vocal recordings. How it works is you select your lead vocal and then press the Guide button in Vocalign to set the lead as the vocal to follow the alignment of. Next select your first background vocal which you sang all the same words in time with the lead, then click the Dub button in Vocalign. Vocalign with the analyze the differences between your dub and guide vocal and asses how it can stretch some words to make them even more close to the exact timing of the lead guide vocal. You can adjust the amount of perfection using the "loose/tight" knob. I find myself using anywhere from 16 ms to 24 ms. Then hit the Render button, and Vocalign will print these changes to the audio file.
Note if you are worried you may want to remove the Vocalign later, you just printed it so it's permanent unless you hit command z right away. So consider duplicating and muting your original audio if you feel you may want to come back to it.
That's about it for time aligning, but we can take it a step further with Vocalign Ultra. Ultra comes with a function called Match Pitch that kinda blows my mind. If you check the Match Pitch parameter on, Vocalign will actually analyze the pitch of your lead vocal and match your background vocal to those pitches based on how you've set your "loose/tight" knob. I sometimes Melodyne my lead vocal to perfection, and then simply Vocalign pitch match my background doubles to the lead and I'm good to go. Often I'll throw some light autotune on the backgrounds as well.
There are a couple things to look out for though. If you match time and pitch too tightly, you will hear some phasing issues. A quick fix might be to nudge the backgrounds off slightly left and right, you'll hear it sound more like a chorus effect. If it's just too tight, command z them and try again with looser settings. Secondly, if you solo your processed background vocal, you will hear small glitches of the time stretching. I believe this is inaudible when played in the full mix, and it is worth it to use Vocalign for speed and perfection. But if your song is a bit sparse in production and you feel like you can hear the glitching, then consider lining up by hand for this song.
There are 3 different versions of Vocalign: Project, Pro, and Ultra. I kinda feel like Project and Pro are nearly identical plugins (time aligning only). However, Pro enables you to process longer audio selections and multiple vocal tracks at once. I prefer to only process small sections and one line at a time even though Pro allows you to load all your stacks at once. In my experience, the less work you give the plugin to do, the better it will perform. Vocalign Ultra is the version that gives us pitch matching along with time aligning.
I'll leave you with a fun vocal arrangement trick... You might want your background vocals to only emphasize some of the lead line's words rather than the entire line. This adds dynamics to your composition and keeps it engaging. However, obviously you can't Vocalign backgrounds that don't sing all the same words as the lead. So what I like to do is copy and paste the lead to a new track, and delete the words that don't appear in the background vocals. Make this the guide vocal for Vocaligning, and then just delete your fake guide track when you're done with it!
Are you still pretty new to recording vocals? I made an easy to follow Recording Routine Workshop you can check out for free here: https://www.kimeramorrell.com/recording-routine-access
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