Why do vocals go out of tune when you’re recording them?
When the vocals are out of tune, it can come off as a big recording problem. I mean it gets really annoying when you know that you can sing in tune. Yet when it comes to tracking, the pitch just keeps drifting off. And of course you don’t have the slightest idea why.
What you hear is what you sing – revenge of the headphones
The first and biggest issue with getting out of tune while recording your singing is your hearing. What?! Your hearing is perfect, right? Well, do you or the singer wears headphones during vocal tracking? If the answer is yes, there lies your problem. It’s a can of worms… actually two cans. The phones cover your ears and close out the true reflections of your singing voice in the room. It’s a natural reverberation that you always hear when you sing. It’s the way we learn to sing, hearing those reflections of the place we’re in. So once the cans are over your ears, most the outside sounds are gone. The majority of what you hear is the vibration coming through your flesh and bones. Mostly the bones. Stop hiding your boner! Anyway. So of course the kind of outside reference you’re used to is not there. Only something else, and that different reference (the bones…) is enough for your pitch to wander. Off the scale.
Slide it off and add reverb
Yeah, those are the solutions we have. You have probably seen big name singers (even wannabes) doing this. They hold only one of the phones onto their ear, or at least slide one of the cans off. This way, you introduce those familiar room reflections back again. To at least one of your ears. The other ear is still listening to the monitor mix. Is it a perfect solution? Of course not. Because this can get you out of tune, too. The sheer asymmetry between the audio information your two ears receive does that. Damn! So what can be done to get the best, in tune vocal performance? The answer is quite simple. Emulate what the room does! Add some reverb to the vocals in the monitor mix. Actually, even delay works just fine. They both help adding back the cues that a real environment has. Well, it’s a cue mix, right? Hehe. If the singer’s real picky, try to emulate a real room. Just make sure you don’t actually record the damn thing.
Phase/polarity flip – it can help
Another little trick is to try and flip the phase (really the polarity) of the headphones. Why? Because who knows, maybe it’s more comfortable to hear that mix of your/their own voice through those bones plus the cans one of those ways. Even if the headphone output doesn’t have a phase/polarity switch, you might be able to find one on the singer’s mic preamp. Just make sure you carefully note down these settings, so you don’t run into nasty surprises during mixing.
Speakers – if all else fails
Some people are really only fully comfortable when they hear the actual room. No problem, just use monitor speakers. Okay, but what to do with the spill? Well, flip the phase/polarity of one of the speakers for starters. You can simply reverse the wires on one of them. That will create a usable amount of phase cancellation. That means that the level of the backing track and the monitored singing voice will be low enough. You can push the level of the backing track spill even lower, if you record the backing track only. The vocal mic has to be in the same exact position it was during recording the vocals. Then when you put both the vocal track with the backing track spill, and the lone backing track up in the mix, you can flip the polarity on one of the tracks. Bam! Most of it is gone. Good.
It especially happens with the more sensitive kind of singers. You know, those introverts who notice every little shit. And that usually ruins their performance for good. So they hear that clear, high pitched hiss of breathing in the headphones. Their own breathing, of course. Which makes them breathe more carefully. Which in turn means they start focusing too much on this whole crap. Yep, and they stop getting correct breathing support for their voice. Too bad. What can be done? You can try to make their voice sound more distant and muddy in the monitor mix. Roll-off treble, cut the 2-5kHz range. On the above discussed monitor reverb, too. And first and foremost, don’t feed too high of a level of their own voice. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find the perfect setting that brings out the best in the vocals. And they’re gonna stay in tune! Hopefully. Fun!