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It happens to every choir. Suddenly when you hear the last chord, it's approaching a semitone low... This is failing technique, concentration, group psychology, bad day, whatever, but it is and once there it is a hard to break.

What do you do? For single voices there is melodyne or autotune. Is there anything else you can do other than bringing the group together for another try?

best regards

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ghellquist Mon, 07/03/2006 - 21:03

Hi Lars,
Samplitude has a decent function called Elastic Audio that can sometimes save the day. It works sort of like Autotune, but in this case you would leave the "automatic" part out and draw a simple sloping line for the pitch shift. I might be able to give you a helping hand if you contact me directly at gunnar. hellquist at bredband. net or on phone 0739-641575,


JoeH Tue, 07/04/2006 - 23:07

I have several clients that keep Samp/Sequoia's Elastic Audio in mind whenever we do repairs and fixes. (More than they'd like to let on....) It's gotten automatic with some choral directors, actually.

For unaccompanied pitch-droops (esp at the end of verses, etc.) it's amazing. As long as the pitch change is fairly small (1/4 to 1/2 tone), you can get away with it effortlessly. Much more than that, and it can get a bit obvious, so special care is needed; it won't fix everything.

Even so, we've used it on many many things here, esp when editing two segments together, with at least one that has suffered from pitch-drop. (And the occasional sharp pitch, as well, usually soloists.) It was a little tricky getting used to, and I believe they fixed a few bugs between V8 and V8.2; lately it's been better than ever in use.

pmolsonmus Wed, 07/05/2006 - 06:57

I can't argue with the responses above, but.... as a choral director all I can say is Blech!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Teach the damn choir to sing in tune, learn the key, know their half steps, stop a track if its going bad, practice cadences, focus, focus, focus. Practice on neutral vowels, get the 5ths in tune, minimize the third. I have my choirs think sharp on 5 and 3 and that's usually enough to get them in tune.

Intonation is critical for a blended, balanced sound. If they're dying at the end of a song, There's probably a bunch more that's wrong before you get there if you're listening for it. Its just really noticieable there.

larsfarm Wed, 07/05/2006 - 07:54

pmolsonmus wrote: If they're dying at the end of a song, There's probably a bunch more that's wrong before you get there if you're listening for it. Its just really noticieable there.

I agree. This is failing technique in several levels and variants, concentration, lack of focus, mood, group psychology, whatever, but even the best of choirs experience this phenomenon now and then. Sure, less often and they can detect and handle it better than lesser choirs. Even so, I think my question is a valid question. ...

pmolsonmus wrote: ... Teach the damn choir to sing in tune, ...

I think that that is an unreasonable attitude. I take it that your advise to me in a situation like that is to cancel the recording halfway through the second day, send the choir home with the cheerful message to the music director:-"Teach the damn choir to sing in tune"?

It could also be my error and then I'd be anxious to fix it... I'm learning and I make misstakes.

Also, as you say (and I agree) when there are pitch problems there are often other problems as well. Not necessarily fatal, but since not all choirs are like Kings College Choir sometimes it is hard to know what to expect from an unknown choir beforehand.

best regards

JoeH Wed, 07/05/2006 - 08:12

I can't argue with your points either, Phil. In a perfect world with plenty of time to rehearse and talented, well-coached singers, we wouldn't need this tool at all. (And we don't need it at all with the A-list professional choral groups.)

But with everyone else, (semi-pro audtioned suburban choirs, college chorales, volunteer groups, etc,) it can and does happen where someone in a group has slowly gone flat, and the rest will follow. When doing an edit in a long a capella work, sometimes the only usuable section is in the performance that drifted slowly down and out of tune. The choice is then to fix it this way, (sometimes even over the entire length of the verse so slowly it's unnoticeable), or suck it up and use the bad section with the glaring pitch problem, or give up on it altoghter.

If everyone's out of tune by the same amount, the pitch correction works nicely. But of course, sometimes it's only one note in the chord that's gone off, and bad is still bad.... Most of my clients that use Elastic Audio are also wise enough to know you can't polish a turd and give up on it if they have to. The cardinal rule of thumb with every classical/choral client I've ever worked with is: If you can hear it (the fix or the edit, that is) then it's verboten.

With recording budgets the way they are, we usually record the final dress rehearsal and then the concert itself. This way, we've got two takes, and generally we can fix most things this way organically, with simple edits and no serious sleight of hand. (One choral director makes absolutely sure we've got tricky passages in good shape from the rehearsal, 'Just in case".)

Just recently at a choral concert in May, the guest soloist - a professional alto - entered a bit sharp in the opening solo phrase of movement. She got on pitch shortly thereafter, but the opening was a bit sharp and strained. Since it was still a better take than rehearsal, the choral director made the executive decision to tweak it, and it made all the difference in the world.

I'm not talking about dozens of "Fixes" and changes throughout a work (like pop songs do), I'm of course talking about the occasional judicious bit of nip and tuck to save an otherwise wonderful performance. With tight budgets (esp fundraiser-CDs) it's sometimes a total life-saver for these unfortunate situations.

anonymous Fri, 07/07/2006 - 08:47

The problems you mention are common and must be attended to at the session. I would consider it an unforgiveable failure to arrive back at base with takes that had drifted out of pitch.

Assuring correct takes is part of our craft.

A capella choir singing, particularly of 20th century pieces like Poulenc and others, requires a group to be concious of maintaining pitch across takes.
This training should be a part of the rehearsals.
Lesser experienced groups need an overseer to help them with this. An experienced choir also needs the same thing.

I would consider it a gross failure to apply any pitch correction to material that could have been corrected at the session.

JoeH Fri, 07/07/2006 - 09:42

Obviously, you're talking about sessions, I'm talking about concert recordings. Certainly, in a session/studio recording situation, any music director worth his/her salt knows this and more, and the problem is addressed organically instead of DSP. No argument there.

In concert recordings - which these days is roughly 80 percent of our work - these things can and do happen to all but the very best of any singing group, even professional guest soloists.

Which brings up another point out here in the "real" world (post digital-everything revolution): I know of few choral groups these days - professional or otherwise - that have the time or budget to book CD recording sessions per se. Sad, but true with today's economy. (Choral CD recordings aren't such hot sellers these days anyway, to all but family and local fans...)

For better or worse, almost everyone we record (including A-list talent, like the world-famous Philadelphia Singers - a full time, auditioned professional chorus) has to rely soley on in-concert recordings. It can certainly be a crapshoot at times, but in my world, it's the only way most recordings are being done these days, commercial or archival. There is rarely any funding out there for anything else, at least not in this area, save the occasional anniversary or vanity recording for a special work or event.

Perhaps it's different in your areas, but it's a simple equation with most of our clients, choral or instrumental: They operate a four or five concert series season between fall and spring (somtimes with multiple performances of the same program over a long weekend), operating with ticket-sales revenue, grant monies and outright donations. They make archival and sometimes commercial recordings of these events for several reasons: A copy goes to the agency granting the funds (so they can get more funding to do it again next season), members buy copies (for vanity and training purposes), and occasionally an event is good enough to be sold to the the general public.

The Phila Singers certainly don't need pitch correction or other DSP, but I assure you, every other B and C-list choral group in the area needs some help here and there, and it's MY job to provide it for them if it's warranted. I'm certainly not going to stop a performance when a problem occurs, and I'm certainly not going to tell a high school or college-level choral director his kid's work is unusable. In the REAL world, things have to get done, whether I find them perfect or not. I wish everything we did could be stopped and fixed in front of the mics, but it just ain't so.

Fortunately, I am blessed with talented, visionary clients - many of them choral directors - who thankfully know when (and when NOT) to use this stuff. It's about getting it right with integrity, using what we have to work with, ideally with alternate takes. Pitch correction is a dangerous tool in the wrong hands, and just because you have it doesn't mean you have to use it. (To my knowledge, none of their choir members even know this tool is available; we're all in agreement this is not something made public for a variety of reasons, including the urge to be lazy and "let the engineer fix it later". Nope.) The key with this, like anything else, is using it judiciously.

Without this tool (among many others), we'd not have been able to create more than a few recordings that ended up as commerical releases, several this very season. (Write me privately and I'll name names. ;-) )

anonymous Fri, 07/07/2006 - 11:55

Hello Joe,

I'm pleased to know that a lot of your work is in choral recording. When the performance is great, you're honoring the first and best instrument. That's why the singer stands out front!

It's an area that I'm intimately familiar with as well.

Sure, I understand your problem. Most times one will tape a cycle of concerts and edit among the weekend's peformances to fix any pitch/entrance/not together sections. If the groups routinely release each of their concerts just because they can, then, of course, they are liable to get into trouble.
Pulling the curtain open on anything that happened that was unfortunate is

I've never used pitch correction software, however.

I've just made them pick and choose to release what is acknowledged by the assembled brains to be the best representation of the group.
After about 5 years of taping, any group will have the possibility to pick and choose the best things for releasing on a compilation album.

I still do tape one group giving concerts here in Chicago. They are a good choral group---still with the same problems you and others describe here.

Garden variety concert recording work is very satisfying as long as you can experiment with your set-ups and various pick up configurations. If one cannot do that, then it's a drudgery. We can all smell well before hand if there will be a ton of editing or post work on a concert!

In order to flourish in the classical recording business, I long ago decided that I would have to move away from recording people and groups that
say, " It would be nice to have this recorded."

Instead, the only way we'ver been able to make it and expand bigger and better is to target those who say, "We require that this get recorded."

This meant concentrating on:
record companies. . .

in that order.

After 20 years recording the one remaining concert group, I decided yesterday to dump them out.

larsfarm Fri, 07/07/2006 - 14:11

Plush wrote: I've never used pitch correction software, however.

I've just made them pick and choose to release what is acknowledged by the assembled brains to be the best representation of the group.

I haven't either. Partly out of principle, but also where I would have let principles go, because I don't have adequate tools.

In this particular case, the one that prompted my question, it was a small group of singers that spent a friday evening and saturday afternoon recording 20 songs. Five accompanied by piano, 15 a capella. We decided early to drop one that didn't feel ok there. We later dropped one of the piano-accompanied songs because it was boring and out of place. Remains 18 with 14 a capella. Two of those have pitch problems (gradually falling down a bit). All the others are fine.

Of the two, we can drop one and perhaps re-record the other if we can get them together again. They will give a concert at the end of the month and perhaps then. It's a pity, because it is a nice song. Still, on the whole it's not a big deal. If we can't re-record it will go too.

That's this particular case. I have a lot to learn. I thought that I could use this case to educate me about something I so far has been unable to do - "Pitch fixing". Perhaps some other time...

Until then I'll focus on pitch detection. Do all of you have absolute pitch? If not, what tools do you use to aid you in detecting pitch problems where the chords and harmonies are clean, but the "A" is something other than 440Hz?

best regards

DavidSpearritt Fri, 07/07/2006 - 14:21

Plushy, you obviously have the luxury, rightfully earned, of recording decent choral groups all the time.

We have to pitch bend concert and session choral recordings, because even in sessions, after many takes, and the singers are exhausted, they still cannot keep their pitch up. Its only a small adjustment, but its required to save the recording. I know its not right and should be corrected in the session, but this is about the only example I can think of where we leave a session with stuff to fix in the DAW.

I would love to be recording and producing a session with Kings College Cambridge singers, but its not the real world. I think the definition of an amateur choral group is that they cannot sing in tune. When they can, reliably, all the time, they can go pro. Come to think of it, if you add "playing in time", this applies to all musicians. :)

JoeH Sat, 07/08/2006 - 09:29

I guess a lot of this comes down to where we draw our lines.

Plush, it sounds like you have the luxury of turning away certain types work, and picking and choosing what you will and will not tolerate. I am impressed and maybe even a little envious. (At least I think so! ;-) )

We all have "do-not-cross" lines, though, I would be lying if I said otherwise. There are quite a few things I won't do either, including recording/working in some genres and with some client-types. (I'm sure you can imagine.) Those calls don't even get returned, nor do I pursue the work in the first place. I really like my client base, and try to anticipate their needs, from the recording end to the production end. The ones that REALLY p*ss me off (or make me feel unclean and dirty for dealing with them) don't seem to stick around, thankfully. Who knows? Maybe after all these years, I'm finally "qualifiying" my clients!

The pitch correction thing is within my comfort zone (in most cases) because I would rather fix the problem, keep the client happy and get their work on the next project, and the one after that, building long term relationships with clients and organizations. (This is a biz, of course; I'm in it for the long haul.) But, I do understand those that don't choose to go that route and respect it. If one can afford it, it's a great spot to be in: Purity at any cost. I really do see both sides of this.

Lars, it sounds like for the want of a little pitch correction, you may be able to save that one work. I'd be happy to take a crack at it for you, just for the fun of it and a professional courtesy, to let you hear what it can do. Drop me a note if you'd like consider sending me a segment to try....

As always, written from a "middle-child"s viewpoint. YMMV. 8-)

JoeH Sat, 07/08/2006 - 09:57

Lars, regarding perfect pitch.... Nope, not here in my case. I do have very good strong "relative" pitch, which is probably what most others have as well. IMHO, it's the better of the two. (The best I can do is warble an A-440 or an open E string - from years of hearing orchestras tune up, or tuning my own Mini-moogs, pianos, and guitars. Those tones are like burned-in beacons in my brain, but they don't get in the way when I'm hearing something a little sharp or flat in toto.)

Many with perfect pitch will tell you it's a double-edged sword, a blessing and a curse. It can drive you bonkers sometimes, and in severe cases, some people simply can't turn it off, so hearing something a bit higher or lower than it should be can at times be painful and upsetting. (the only time that bothers me is when I hear a well-known recording being played off-speed. In the analog days, that used to happen more than it does now...)

I have asked that question of choral directors who've sat down to edit, and the general opinion is that perfect pitch isn't all it's cracked up to be, at least in the hands of inexperienced singers. They often want to sing it only THEIR way, for example, and it can actually be counter-productive in a group setting. (Everyone's out of step but ME!!!)

Back on the subject of general tuning and pitch drop, I have a keyboard here (sampling/electronic, tuned to A-440) that we sometimes use to at least play along to check pitch. It's right behind us in the mix area, and we simply reach around and play along for a bit to check.

I got surprised once doing this: one choral director/client likes to do some things a half step down, deliberatley, depending on the piece, because (in his experience) folks tend to go to certain intervals and lock in there. (F# instead of G natural, for example, in one particular chamber-choir piece.) He found that no matter how he worked the piece in G, it always drifted down to F# after certain phrases and intervals. So, he tried it in F#, and the pitch-droop went away. Amazingly, they STAYED in F# with no problems, never sinking to F natural. I found this hard to believe until I heard the recordings myself and checked the pitch throughout. He only does this rarely, but has a few other keys that work this way as well, depending on the piece.

Good "relative" pitch is easy to work with, if you understand the way harmony and tunings work in general. (Equal temperament vs. mean-tone, etc.) Understanding that a string quartet's B-flat major triad may not sound the same side by side with a piano player or guitarist's version of the same chord. (We all know that a G-sharp isn't necessarily an A-flat, depending on the context, yes?)

A barbershop quartet (everyone's favorite, eh? heheh) can make all kinds of adjustments on the fly, creating an amazing assortment of textures with tunings that just dont' happen with other groups, esp after years of singing together. They can make an E-Flat chord "perfect" tuning one moment, and a g-minor triad something else altogether. The common G and B-Flat of both chords may sound QUITE different between the two. Similarly, a violin soloist can play very differently in a concerto recital than within a 90 piece orchestra. The intonations are subtle, but there.

IMO, Perfect pitch is pretty useless in that light.

I hate to say "It's all relative" when it comes to tuning and pitch, but there, I've said it anyway. (ouch!)

You just have to know what's bad when you hear it, I guess?

anonymous Sat, 07/08/2006 - 12:16

The ability to pick out 440 or any other pitch can be developed with time. It is just a matter of completely immersing yourself in sightreading, following along with Scores , etc. After years of being a Classical Singer and getting yelled at by Sadistic Voice teachers and vocal coaches, choir directors, and Intendants, I am able to tell pretty soon if the pitch starts to deviate from the intended tuning. I wasnt born with perfect pitch, but over the years I have developed a very keen ear , especially with vocal music. Being a nerd and all, I have also devoured a lot of those "perfect pitch" and sightsinging courses, all of which have helped a great deal. My favorite pastime is to take a Choral Work Score , put the CD in , and follow along with the entire piece multiple times. I do this every time before a gig to get familiar with whatever I am recording. This is also my MO for learning my vocal parts or Arias. Dont have the patience to pluck things out on Piano.

Yeah, I do that for fun. I am an incredibly sad person. :shock:

pmolsonmus Wed, 08/02/2006 - 05:47

Hey all,

In my 30+ years as a singer and 15 years as a choral conductor, I can say that (although difficult) singing in tune is possible if the director can hear and then knows how to rehearse a group so IT knows how to hear.

I've heard excellent groups from grade school to professional that can sing in tune and make it a priority and I've also (as I'm sure you have) have heard lousy groups that can't hold a pitch if their life depended on it.

What I've found (and I learned most of these lessons when I was in high school) is that human beings are lazy regarding pitch if they're allowed to be. Singers and directors alike. Descending half-steps will begin to become larger and descending lines will go south if left alone. Pitch will follow downward soon after those appear. It is an absolutely rare choir that will sing sharp with the exception of sopranos who will have a tendency to push sharp to hear themselves in a group setting or if there's a cultural bias toward sharpness like black, South African ensembles. When individual sopranos wish to hear themselves it can force other sopranos around them to do the same and the section (notorious for not listening to the rest of the ensemble) can often remain sharp against an in-tune ensemble.

A technique used by hundreds of choral directors to fight the laziness is to transpose UP a half-step- especially on a cappella pieces. When the interval doesn't "feel" right AND the choir knows how to tune it works about 95% of the time if pitch problems develop. When a singer can't go down the same path each time mentally, you have a real fighting chance of keeping the ensemble tuned or if the director has done his/her homework with the group and has created the rehearsal practice of always worrying about intonation so that the group adopts the philosophy.

BTW - common mistake - the term "a cappella" originally didn't really mean unaccompanied but rather "in the church style". Lots of music now performed without accompaniment was actually accompanied by instruments merely doubling the vocal parts instead of a seperate instrumental accompaniment written or improvised. Maybe they knew what we know! Not that early instruments were likely all that in-tune either.

Here ends today's lesson

anonymous Tue, 08/22/2006 - 11:41

One of the finest cathedral choirs I have recorded went 1/2 step flat on the Thompson "Alleluia" in a session, but the conductor decided to keep it that way after hearing a pitch-corrected version.

The reasons? It was towards the end of the last session, so vocal fatigue was setting in (demonstrated by the fact that none of the other material was afflicted) and the musical energy that was built up and released on that performance was so significant that he did not think they could equal it again. The corrected version had different paciing because of the re-sampling method used. It became the last cut, so unless one is very pitch-aware, it is not very noticeable.

In general, I prefer manually raising pitch a fraction of a semitone every few measures rather than other techniques available in Sequoia. 1/2 is pretty drastic considering that the corrected tempo also goes up unless one is prepared to accept an increase in grain by maintaining tempo. Having tried various means, resampling remains the least sonically compromised (IMO). As one mastering engineer has said about pitch-correction methods, "you don't get something for nothing."

I have found that pitch issues can occur in any choir regardless of performance level-- all it takes is carelessness or an empty stomach!


pmolsonmus Wed, 08/23/2006 - 09:12

Unless their set was all incredibly difficult, I find it amazing that they would put Thompson's Alleluia at the END of a recording session??? :shock:
Every choir has trouble with that piece no matter when its performed. The notes themselves are pretty easy, but melodic line, range, text repetition, vowels, and dynamics are all working against keeping it in tune.
I agree with the conductor though. If the performance works, don't mess with it if you lose a bit on pitch. Very few will notice. The piece can be absolutely exhilirating and exhausting to sing. The price for pitch correction (at least with current technology)in my book is too high. I'm guessing (based on your comments) that it was an excellent choir that was well trained and they went slowly down in pitch together. It happens all the time with most ensembles.
I would also venture a guess that he may have put it at the end of the session because the choir loved singing it and would gear up for it knowing it was still coming after other pieces. A gem of a choral piece from the good ol' USA.

JoeH Wed, 08/23/2006 - 09:45

Sequoia/Samplitude V8's pitch correction software - Elastic Audio - can do pitch change independent of time, and vice versa. It doens't work perfectly on everything, but in some circumstances, it's totally seamless. We've saved a few crucial moments with it on solo voices, and occasionally an entire ensemble. For changes of 1/4 or 1/2 step, the formants and other components still sound believable, which is always the giveaway.

The key is in the processing depth, and the settings. Pitch change (WITH tempo) is a dead giveaway, and great care has to be taken whenever you use it; have to make sure the tempo does NOT change along with the pitch adjustment (unless you're looking for that as well).

Not all of my clients are even aware that it exists (thankfully!) but the few who do use it wisely, and they'll hear bad artifacts as quickly as I will. If we can hear it happening, we don't use it. Sometimes it works so well we have to toggle between in and out to make sure the thing is on.

One example would be a flat or sharp voice WITHIN an ensemble. (Nope!) Trying to pull a flat soprano UP while dragging the rest of the ensemble along sounds awful. So does hearing the reverb tail of previous notes get warped around in the background. Gotta be careful, otherwise. Sometimes we'll process a single note or two in a dry track, and drop it back in to the mix with the reverb to smooth it all out.

Solo voices recorded independently on a multitrack work the best, but of course few if any classical recordings are done this way. I've polished up a couple of recent multitrack live pop/folk recordings and tweaked a sour note here and there - it's great for that sort of thing.

Possibly the best use so far for choral recordings is the subtle, gradual re-adjustment of pitch over an entire verse or chorus to restore a drifting a capella group. If you're talking about a slow change over 30 to 60 seconds, it's virtually undetectable. Most other situations aren't going to respond well to treatment, and that's probably just as well.

anonymous Wed, 08/23/2006 - 20:43

Let me be clear-- usually the most that is needed to fix a problem is a fraction of a semi-tone. The need often presents itself when making an edit. Anyone can hear a pitch change, but often (especially with lots of rubato) the tempo change is not an issue.

Let's push for a more authentic performance style of subtle continuo, such as portativ, lute, or guitar-- and then hope the player seldom misses.



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