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How to Tune Vocals Like a Pro

It’s a divisive topic, but tuning vocals is now a part of the modern recording workflow – especially for certain genres like pop and contemporary hip-hop. It’s even used in live performances.

Whether you’re looking for something extreme or results that are barely noticeable, it’s important to understand the technique of vocal tuning from all angles.

We’ve gone over EQ, compression, and de-essing vocals. In the following article, you’ll learn how to tune vocals and apply pitch correction like a pro.

History of Vocal Tuning

Prior to multi-track recording, if a singer was off it meant the entire song had to be performed again. When multi-track tape machines became available across the next decade, this made things a little easier.

The 70s saw the advent of “comping”, or using different parts from different takes to create a single vocal track. As digital recording started to revolutionize things in the 80s, it was possible to sample a vocal part and pitch correct it with processing, then re-record it to the master.

Everything changed when modern DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) came into their own and non-destructive editing became de facto. This is also around the time that pitch correction plugins as we understand them today started hitting the market.

We’ve all heard artists like T-Pain, Cher, and Daft Punk popularize Auto-Tune as an effect. But as plugins developed and improved, the results have become more subtle and natural. Particularly as drag-and-drop pitch correction (such as Melodyne) hit the market, it became easier than ever to apply pitch correction sparingly.

Sing it Right!!

Let’s start off with the politically correct disclaimer – the best way to achieve a great vocal is to perform it correctly. The human voice is one of the most, if not the most, expressive instruments. No amount of technology can replace emotion, delivery, and the idiosyncrasies of each individual singer’s voice.

The “3 Ps” of Vocal Tuning

Passion, pitch, and pocket. The “3 Ps” of vocal tuning is a mantra that producers swear by.

Passion is pretty self-explanatory. It’s the element that makes the listener connect with the performance and lyrics. Pitch can be relative, but off is just off. Some genres, like rock, have a little more room for error here (Sex Pistols anyone?). Pocket refers to being in the groove with the song. This covers timing and phrasing.

For further tips on how to capture the perfect vocal recording, check out our full guide on how to record vocals.

Vocal Tuning Step-by-Step

Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Here is a general workflow for the vocal tuning process. Making sure that you have everything set up ahead of time can make the vocal tuning, and mixing process overall, go as smoothly as possible.

Find the Key

Finding the key to the song is the first and easiest step. Some plugins have features that seek the key for you, but your end results will sound much better if you input the key yourself. Determining if the song is major or minor is also useful.

Having a moderate understanding of music theory is important here so you’ll know what other notes are in the key of the song. It will help you make the right pitch decisions down the line.

Comp Your Vocal Takes

Before you start adding any end of the line processing like tuning, make sure you have your vocal track(s) edited and compiled. Once you have the best take compiled, you’ll know which parts might need some further attention when it comes to processing.

Initial Processing

This includes standard processing moves like EQ and compression. Pitch correction should be on an as-needed basis, and getting the equalization and compression out of the way can help to identify what really needs to be tuned.

Vocal Tuning Tips

Here are some tips to help you get the best vocal tuning results.

Double Tracking

This is an easy recording hack that goes all the way back to the Beatles. But you hear it in modern recordings from rock and country to pop and hip-hop. All you do is double (or even triple) track the vocals. The subtle differences in pitch, timing, and delivery between takes give it a type of chorus effect. If you’re working with a decent vocalist sometimes you won’t even need to introduce any pitch correction at all.

Don’t Tune the Entire Vocal

Unless you’re working with a really bad vocalist, more than likely you won’t have to tune the entire vocal. There will just be problem areas that need a little love. Only addressing these spots will lead to a much more convincing sound. So much so that the tuning should be so transparent that the listener won’t even be able to tell that they’ve been tuned in the first place.

Know Your Tools

When tuning vocals, you need to know what type of tool you need. Do you need something surgical or something broader? In this regard, the concept is similar to EQ. Are you going to track with the plugin, or implement pitch correction when editing or mixing?

Surgical pitch correction plugins like Melodyne give you control over every note. It can be tedious and time-consuming, but the level of control you get over the vocal is unreal.

Remember that how you have the plugin dialed in will affect every note.

Keep the Vibe Alive

Passion and emotion are the most important elements of any vocal part. It’s important to not get tunnel vision when it comes to tuning them. If you’re not careful with your settings you’ll suck the humanity right out of them, turning what might be a great take into something lifeless and robotic.

Transition and Fluctuation

The transitions between notes are critical. They determine how convincing your tuning will be, and they’re also usually where the problems lie. Depending on the note that came before it can lead to the following note starting sharp or flat. If a note is off, most vocalists will lead into it one way or the other. If a note is flat, chances are the previous note was lower in pitch and the singer lead into it awkwardly.

Serial Processing

Just like with compressors and de-essers, sometimes using multiple pitch correction plugins is a more effective approach. If you’re relying on one to do all the tuning, you can end up with a vocal that sounds totally artificial.

Maybe that’s the sound you’re going for. But most of the time the vocal will sound more natural running through a couple of instances of tuning plugins than one that’s doing a lot of work. This allows for notes to be adjusted gradually instead of stretching them too far all at once.

You can also try using different software together. For instance, using Melodyne to get the vocal 90% of where you want it to be and using Waves Tune after it. The color introduced by different types of software can add shine and polish to your tracks.

Do the Work

Don’t let the plugin make pitch decisions for you. Adjusting things by hand is the best way to get natural-sounding results.

What Vocal Tuning Plugin Should I Use?

Far and away the most common method of tuning vocals in modern recording is to use a pitch correction plugin. This workflow presents its own challenges, but can often lead to a “perfectly pitched” vocal. But if you’re not careful, you can tune the emotion right out of your track. Each pitch correction plugin is different, and so are the controls and parameter sets.

So let’s rundown the different plugins you have available to you and what makes them unique.

Celemony Melodyne

Celemony’s Melodyne is the gold standard for pitch correction. While it is only meant to work on tracks already recorded, there is no other pitch correction plugin that can go as in-depth or give you as much control when it comes to surgical fine-tuning.

Melodyne revolutionized the pitch correction market in the early 2000s by introducing their intuitive drag-and-drop interface for editing vocals. If you know how to edit midi notes, the concept certainly won’t be alien to you.

In order to give the most precise amount of control, Melodyne registers three categories for each note – center, drift, and modulation. Note correction is done through three parameters in pitch, amplitude, and timing. You can also alter the length of notes, and? create vibrato.

It’s much more than just a pitch correction plugin. It can perform analysis and address sibilance and level. And it’s available cross-platform for PC and Mac and comes in multiple plugin formats. If you want surgical pitch correction that’s subtle, Melodyne is the perfect choice. The learning curve is a bit steep, but it’s a fantastic piece of software.

Antares Auto-Tune

There might not be a more controversial plugin in history than Auto-Tune. Traditionally it’s been more of an effect than a tool, it’s come a long way with more recent versions with the addition of graph mode for Melodyne-style granular editing.

With the Pro version, the controls couldn’t be simpler. Four main controls dial in your settings: Retune, Flex Tune, Humanize, and Natural Vibrato. You can also select the register of voice (tenor, soprano, et al), key, and tuning scale.

It adds color to the signal, which many people swear by. It’s all about the Retune Speed. You can think of it like a mix or clean blend control. With Auto Mode you can also use it in real-time for tracking or the stage.

Don’t get me wrong, you can certainly use it judiciously. But it’s often popular for more heavy-handed pitch correction moves. If you want the tuning to be noticeable, or to use it as an effect, Auto-Tune is up there with the best of them.

Waves Tune

This plugin has made some big waves (pun intended!) in recent years. Along with Melodyne and Auto-Tune, it’s part of the “big 3” of pitch correction plugins. The GUI offers three timeline modes in samples, minutes/seconds, and bars/beats.

The edit interface gives you multiple views, including waveform, pitch editor, timeline, piano roll, and overview. It’s just as good as Melodyne when it comes to making surgical, precise corrections to a performance.

And if you’re looking for something to use during tracking or live performance, Waves Tune Real-Time should be a go-to. And as a tool used in real-time in studio settings, it can help boost the singer’s confidence so they give their best.

Free Vocal Tuning Plugins

There are a number of free pitch correction plugins available. Your choice of DAW probably has one too. If your budget won’t stretch to a professional-level tool like Melodyne or Auto-Tune, these can be a great choice as an alternative. They all function a little differently, but the concepts behind them are relatively standard.


Melda Production has an entire suite of freeware plugins. They are all great and worth checking out. MAutoPitch is their pitch correction offering.

Auburn Sounds Graillom 2

Optimized for vocal tracks, Graillom 2 is a very solid freemium alternative to paid pitch correction plugins. It has the surgical capabilities of Melodyne with the over-the-top effect options of Auto-Tune. There’s even a bitcrusher. The coolest feature is Pitch-Tracking Modulation. It’s a little bit chorus, a little bit octave, and a little bit dynamic EQ.

The Free edition includes pitch-shifting and correction, while the Full edition is just that. Everything!


Billed as the best free competitor to Auto-Tune, Autotalent’s GUI is bare bones. With a multitude of sliders, you dial in your sound. It’s nice that it forces you to really listen to what it’s doing to the audio, but some might find it difficult to work with. It does sound good for freeware though.

G200KG KeroVee

KeroVee is surprisingly full-featured for freeware. It’s somewhat of a mix between Melodyne and Auto-Tune. You choose the key and scale, and off you go. There are four main controls in Tune Speed, Nuance, Amount, and Calibration. Two-tone sections cover formant, tuning, and output volume. You can tune to scale, MIDI, or a MIDI chord. It only runs on Windows machines and comes in VST format, but doesn’t sound cheap.


Voloco offers six presets of pitch, key, and scale tuning. There is a pro version that provides more in-depth control, but the free version is great for testing the waters. It can work with sample rates between 24k and 96k.

Summing Up: Applying Auto-Tune & Pitch Correction to Vocals

For those seeking the most natural vocal sound, getting the performance right from the start is still the best way to achieve a great sounding vocal track. All vocal performances contain a degree of human error (after all, that’s what makes a vocal performance unique and intriguing to the listener).

That said, many modern music styles call for a degree of perfection beyond previous standards. How much correction or auto-tune effect you apply depends on the standard of performance and your stylistic decisions as the producer.

For example, if you’re recording a rock vocal, it’s traditionally less acceptable to “hear” the pitch correction in action than it would be with a modern pop track. In the first instance, you might want to consider double-tracking and comping as your go-to production techniques before leaning too heavily on pitch correction plugins to do the heavy lifting.