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Creating Vocal Harmony Using Pitch Shifting Software

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Adding a vocal track to harmonize with the lead vocal is a simple way to add depth to any recording. Traditionally however, this wasn't always a straight forward option for the average songwriter. Either because they (or the lead vocalist) weren't skilled enough to sing in harmony, or because the harmony wasn't thought of until after the recording was done - increasing costs to call back the vocalist and re-record the harmony track.

Improvements in digital audio technology now give us the opportunity to take a quick and simple shortcut to adding a harmony track at any time! 

This tutorial will guide you through the basics of how to compose a simple vocal harmony track, and then use 'pitch shifting' technology to implement the harmony. The screenshots in this tutorial will use Logic Pro X, but the concepts are the same for any similar pitch shifting software such as Melodyne.

Vocal Harmony Composition - The Basics

Singing in harmony comes quite naturally to some people. They're able to sing along to the melody, adjusting their pitch 'by ear' to create an ad-lib vocal harmony sound. However, if you're not confident at creating harmonies, the following quick tips will help. 

Tip 1. Two Notes Higher

This is one of the simplest and most effective ways to create a harmony to an existing melody. Simply take the melody note, for example C, and count up two notes of the scale. If the song is in the key of C Major, count up two notes from C, which is E. The harmony note would then be E.

Lets take a simple passage where the melody is as below.


The lead vocal starts on a C note, the harmony note is therefore E (two notes up from C in the scale of C Major). The next note in the lead vocal is a D, the harmony would therefore be an F. And so on. 

Following this pattern, the rest of the harmony track would be as follows: 


As you can hear, this harmony uses just this one technique and works perfectly well.

Tip 2. Any Note From The Chord

Occasionally, the above tip doesn't always sound right, there are two ways to get around this. One is to simply look at the chord being played, then look at which note the melody is playing, and then pick a note which is not the main melody note, but is one of the notes of the chord.  

For example, let's take slightly altered lead vocal melody line as  below. Adding a harmony to it, just using Technique 1 from above, we would end up with an 'odd' sounding harmony note in the last bar.


The B at the end doesn't really work well as a harmony note. It clashes with the overall C chord being played.  As such, we could use another note from the C major chord as the harmony.  Our choices are C, E or G (the three notes from the basic C Major triad). Since the melody is already playing a G, we could try C or E for the harmony. Both would be perfectly acceptable.

The second, and arguably simpler way to get out of a problem where the 'two notes up' technique results in a clashing now for the harmony part, is to simply move up one more note of the scale from the clashing note. This will often be a very quick route to finding a good harmony sound. 

In the previous example, rather than working out the chord being played and then working out which harmony note choose, we could have just quickly tried moving from the clashing B, up one note to C.  As you can hear, the C sounds perfectly acceptable as a harmony note.


Tip 3. Pitch Even Higher/Lower Than the Melody

Using the above two tips will create an acceptable harmony to most melodies. However, it could become rather dull. As such, play around a little. Try going more than two notes higher, or even try going lower than the melody note. 

Stick to the basic principal of using notes of the chord, or just aim for any note in the scale, and if it doesn't quite sound right, adjust up or down one note and it will most likely sound good!

So that's the basics of how to compose a harmony track. Let's look at how we would perform this using basic pitch shifting software, by using a simple example project.

Example Project - Using Pitch Shifting Software

The simple tips above have been used in the follow project to create a basic harmony track over an existing melody. 

The vocalist only sang the lead vocal and did not record a harmony track. As such, I've used audio manipulation software (in this case Logic Pro X) to duplicate the vocal track, and then adjust the pitch of the notes being sung to create the harmony. As you'll see, the effect works quite well!

The basic track without any harmony.


Here's how to add the harmony.

Using your chosen software, take the main lead vocal track and duplicate it.

Next you will need to get your software to identify the notes being sung.  Each piece of software will do this differently, but in Logic Pro X, the technique is achieved by enabling the 'Flex Pitch' feature. Refer to your software manual for more information on this.

Once enabled, the software will then show you the notes in the audio track, often alongside a piano roll. Here's an example of our existing duplicated lead vocal, with Logic Pro X's 'Flex Pitch' enabled.

As you can see, the first note being sung is an F, followed by an E. After that there's some breathing being picked up, which Flex Pitch has pitched as B incorrectly (breathing doesn't really have a pitch), but the next main note being sung (in bar 74) is a D.  Notice the vocal 'slides' up to this note. If we wanted to, we could adjust this and hit the D directly by pitch-correcting the preceding C and C#. But for now we'll leave them.

The melody the software has detected is therefore,  F, E, D, C.

All we need to do now, is pitch shift these notes (as we're already on the Vocal Harmony track previously duplicated) onto different notes of the scale using the tips at the start of this tutorial.

For the first two notes, we could simply count up two notes of the scale to create a good harmony. 

F would become A.

And therefore the E would become G for the harmony.

Let's slide these in to place (and correct any off pitch notes too, to make the harmony track sound a little more precise).

Listen how this sounds so far...


With the next two notes, I've changed things slightly, and chosen to harmonize the D with a B-flat.  This is because the chord being played at this point in the track was a B-flat Major. If I used the 'two notes up' rule, this would have given me a harmony note of F.  This would have sounded fine, but to create some interest, I instead decided to go higher up the scale (tip 3). So, I used another note from the B-flat major chord, a B-flat.  

Here's how this sounded:



The rest of the sequence follows the same principles using tips 1 - 3, just re-pitching the harmony vocal by dragging the notes around to the desired position on the piano-roll.

The final product sounds quite convincing, with a great lead vocal being harmonized by a software-created harmony / backing vocal. I've also adjusted the timing on the harmony vocal track too, just to add a little more realism. 


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