Quantizing & Pitch Correction — When To Do It?

When should you quantize (making the timing of notes more precise, by computer), or pitch correct (commonly known as auto-tune), or edit? There’s a lot of debate.

Purists, and “get off my lawn” folks say never. Learn to sing”, they say. “Get a drummer.” Other folks play to perfectly timed drum machines, and use artificially produced harmonies on every tune.

It’s true — ‘perfect’, bland, soulless, robot music is terrible. And a lot of pop music (IMO) overdoes the slickness. But there’s an angle I think the purists sometimes overlook, especially for do-it-yourself musicians creating recordings at home.


Personally, I spend somewhere around 60 hours taking a song from idea, to finished (mixed) work. I could easily spend 200 hours/song, getting it perfect. But even at 60, if I do a 10-song release, that’s 600 hours, or 15 work-weeks (if I were doing music 8 hours/day like a regular job). Since I don’t have 8 hours a day for music, it takes me a long, long time to put something that big out. I don’t want to go slower.

Recording Good Tracks Is The First Line Of Defense

Get your performance locked in, and get solid tracks, to start with. However, since I usually work alone, I don’t have the second and third set of ears a producer and engineer would give me. So, sometimes I miss stuff and have to go back and get it.

Also, in the studio, I create a lot of parts as I go. That means, I may be playing or singing stuff I’ve never played or sung before. In other words, it’s not perfected through rehearsal, yet.

So, when do you quantize, edit, or pitch correct? I can’t answer that. But here’s what I do.

Quantizing/Editing For Timing

  • I quantize, or adjust timing on performances when something bugs me, and it’s not easy to do another take. For instance, if I’ve recorded a guitar, amp and all, and it would be difficult to duplicate the amp/mic setup again, I’ll edit. I don’t quantize, just to quantize.
  • If I’m working with a drum or drum/bass groove, and it’s not locked in the way I want it to be — if I can’t feel the groove, I’ll quantize or edit, and see if it improves.
  • If a guitar hit is early, or a bit late, and it’s easier to just slice, grab the hit and drag it a few milliseconds, I’ll do that, rather than take my guitar out of the case.

Correcting Pitch

I like to cut vocals when I’m mentally and physically fresh. It takes a lot of emotion and energy to sing well, and after a couple of hours, I’m beat. Here’s when I’ll correct pitch. . .

  • If I’ve done 15 or 20 takes of a vocal section, and I’ve gotten one take in which the emotion and expression are just right, but it’s a little pitchy, I may correct the pitch, and see how it sounds. This is especially true if I’m near the end of the day singing. I find that, if I come back the next day, my voice may sound different enough that it won’t match the previous vocal sections as well as I’d like.
  • If something in a background vocal bugs me pitch-wise, I’ll correct it. I’m much more open to pitch correction of background vocals. They’re a lot of fun to do, but can take a lot of time, so I want to get them sounding good as soon as possible.

Humanizing, & Partially Quantizing

A lot of MIDI software (in a DAW or stand-alone) has a ‘humanize’ feature. This function will vary the timing and volume of drum and sequencer patterns, usually by a percentage, which you can set. So, you can take a perfectly timed MIDI drum pattern, and add a little ‘slop’ to it. The idea is that people are not machines, so a real drummer is going to have slight variations in his or her timing and volume.

I have used that function, but I usually don’t. Here’s why.

Yes, humans are inconsistent, but they tend to be inconsistent, consistently. What I mean is, rather than have the snare beat  wander around before and after the beat, drummers tend to drag, or push the snare consistently one direction (not the band, One Direction) or the other. Humanizing doesn’t accomplish that.

Plus, a lot of MIDI drum patterns you can get are essentially recordings of drummers translated into MIDI. They have the feel already.

Are You A Pragmatist?

Even on the biggest budget recordings, there’s always a trade-off between quality, and time and money. You could always do one more take to get a part better, or spend more time tweaking the mix. Unless you’re making music solely for your own amusement, you’re going to have to put it out there sooner or later.

For each of us, the line is different. We’re juggling our individual budgets, time constraints, and are up against the limits of our abilities. We all have to decide when to call a song finished, what shortcuts we can afford, and whether or not hiring a full orchestra and a top studio for the bridge of our masterpiece is justified. Or maybe we can do a serviceable job with that orchestra plugin.

My point of view about time-saving tools is this. I’m a pragmatist. I ask, “What is the impact of the recording?” Does the song hit the listener in the feels, like it’s intended to? If the recording has the desired effect, I don’t care that much how they got there.

And I’ll take a pre-programmed song on a drum VST, make some changes, and call it good, if it works. Sometimes I’ll spend hours tweaking a guitar sound. But I’ll often just slap CLA guitars on a track and go with it. I don’t use mastering presets, but if you try one and it sounds great, why wouldn’t you use it?

My caveat is that there needs to be something about the song, or the recording, or the performance, to set it apart. Not everyone has to be innovative in all areas. But you’ve got to have something — a great song, a creative arrangement, an exceptional instrumental performance, an incredible sound. . . Something.

Armchair Music Critics

But I see people saying guitar VSTs are crap, they would never use one. They would never auto-tune. A live drummer is absolutely necessary, and a drum machine is the work of the devil. But, I’d bet 95% of those people couldn’t pass a blind listening test (a test where it’s not revealed whether they’re listening to a recorded amp, or a guitar amp modeler, for example).

Look, if you want to only play music a certain way, more power to you. I, too, only want to play music my way.

But if you are going to get on your high horse and say that anybody who does it differently isn’t really a musician, or should do it your way, you’re wrong. Really.


PS: What are your favorite time-saving tools in recording, mixdown, or mastering?




About the author

Keith Livingston

Keith Livingston started recording his own music in the late '70s, on a 4-track. He worked his way into live sound and studio work as an engineer -- mixing in arenas, working on projects in many major studios as a producer/engineer, and working in conjunction with an independent label.

He taught audio engineering at the Art Institute of Seattle, from 1990-1993, and in '96, contributing to authoring several college-level courses there.

He was General Manager of Радио один (Radio 1) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Now he spends his time recording his own songs wherever he roams, and teaching others to do the same.

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