Timing: Aligning Vocal Stacks

Timing: Aligning Vocal Stacks

Yes, we’re definitely talking Vocalign.

This article is all about getting your background vocals and harmonies lined up to each other, or to the lead vocal, perfectly. Or, not completely perfectly, but closer to perfect! Depending on the vibe of your song and what sound you’re going for, you may want your wave forms to be exactly in alignment from track to track so the individual words of each track start and stop at the same time, or you might want a little bit of give, slight imperfections to give the sound clean togetherness but a little more body. An even looser sound, so basically not aligning at all, will give more of a crowd singing effect.

All of this can be done with skillful editing by hand, attention to detail, and sharp ears and eyes. It’s certainly harder to do on vocal lines where words are more slurred together, but when there are spaces between words and the singing is more choppy, it can be a lot easier to edit. You’ll want to treat your lead vocal like the guide and leave it untouched, and just line your background vocals up to match the lead. You’ll utilize cutting, fading, nudging, and time stretching (if needed). I feel it’s easiest to edit all tracks from top to bottom, gradually continuing down the line, rather than editing one entire track and then going back to the beginning of the line for each track. Place cuts before and after words that need to be nudged into place. Nudge things, and if certain words are too short or too long, time stretch them using your DAWs time stretch trim tool (just be sure to not accidentally time stretch trim something that you only meant to regular trim). It’s very important to place either a crossfade or a fade in and fade out of every single new audio file. Skipping fades will lead to click/cut sounds, and no one wants to hear bad edits!

I am a big advocate of SynchroArts Vocalign Ultra, an Audiosuite or Selection-Based Processing plug-in. This is not a plug-in you’d insert on each track, but bounce the effect in place, printing the audio with the effect. Vocalign analyzes the lead vocal which you’d “capture” as the “guide” vocal, and then when you select and capture the background vocal as the “dub,” Vocalign analyzes how it will automatically time stretch and nudge the background to be the same timing as the guide. To commit to this change in audio, hit the process button, and the background audio selection will process on the track and be in time with the lead. Although Vocalign lets you select and capture multiple background tracks at once, I recommend doing one background track at a time. When you give the plug-in less to process, it will perform better, resulting in less artifacts and weird warp sounds. *Note: you must make the starting point of the guide and background audio files to be the same on your timeline- so trim the beginnings on the audio files you’re processing to start at the exact same time. It is ok if the end of the audio selection is a little different.

That is the super simple way to get started with Vocalign. The standard preset settings will work well. But as you get used to using the plug-in, experiment with adjusting the flexibility parameters and see how you like more tight alignment, or looser alignment.

There are 3 different versions of Vocalign: Project, Pro, and Ultra. It is my personal opinion that Pro is not necessary. Project and Pro are almost the same plugin, but Pro allows you to process longer selections of audio, and multiple tracks at once. However, again, I find it best to not over work the plug-in, and the result is cleaner audio. Vocalign Ultra is another story! We get an added parameter with Ultra, which I find incredibly advantageous to an even tighter, cleaner, professional sound: pitch alignment. When vocaligning your background doubles of the lead, which are sung in the same pitch, turn on the Match Pitch parameter and based on how tight you set it, you can get your bgvs to be singing the exact same pitches as the lead. I recommend to not set it to 100% tightness, but I love it to be pretty close. If you set both your Match Pitch and Match Time to 100% tight, you might hear some phasing issues and unwanted chorus effect. Give them a tiny bit of give, and they’ll still be super tight while also sounding like multiple takes. Loosen them a bit for a different texture. Make sure to turn the Match Pitch parameter off when aligning harmonies- otherwise Vocalign will actually change you harmony to the melody pitch of the leads, and you don’t want that!

Glitches and misfires can happen, especially with harmonies that aren’t singing the exact same thing as the lead. You might process a bgv and a few words get squished the wrong way and it just comes out completely wrong. Likely this happens when your timing was a little more off when you sang it. Two solutions: first if a different bgv aligned just fine, try setting that one as the new guide, and align your trouble maker audio to that one. Usually that fixes it for me, but if not, solution number 2 go through the trouble maker audio and edit/nudge it a little bit to get closer to correct, and then try processing it again. Rarely does it just not work out, and you’ll have to rely on just editing this one by hand. You may also want to try selecting a shorter section of audio and give the plug-in less to process, and just split up the selection into two segments. 

Here’s a fun trick with vocal arrangement and perfect alignment… You may want your background vocals to just highlight some, but not all of the words, of the lead line. This gives your arrangement dynamics and keeps it more interesting. But obviously you can’t Vocalign bgvs that aren’t singing the same amount of words as the lead. What I do here is actually option drag, or make a copy of the lead vocal, to a new track. Then go through and delete the words that are not used in the background vocals (sometimes you might want to add a fade in on slurred words), and this can be used as your new guide track. Go ahead and vocalign the bgvs to this new guide track, double check it did everything correctly, and then delete your fake guide track.

Got any questions about vocal aligning? Leave it in the comments below!

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