Vocalists wanting to get deeper into production – producers wanting to improve vocals – there’s always more to learn. So we consulted the multi-faceted music technologist and artist Claire Marie Lim. From Berklee teacher to her artistic project dolltr!ck, there are few people with more knowledge in more contexts. Let’s dive in.
Tackling vocals in Ableton Live means bringing together lots of elements – software, human instrument, and mic all included. What’s exciting about talking to Claire is that she’s constantly pushing what the tools can do – not only with herself and experienced vocalists, but with even beginning students, too. The Singapore-born artist teaches at Berklee College of Music, where she attended and was part of the launch of the Electronic Digital Instrument (EDI) program, and at The City University of New York (my own alma mater).
It’s at Berklee that I got to see her working with students. It was just stunning to see not only her own enthusiasm but their energy and the results they were getting. Fortunately, Claire has been generous enough to share what she knows with CDM, too. And that means we’ve been able to make a reference you can bookmark, even if you’re a relatively inexperienced vocalist (or first-time Live user, or both).
At Berklee, the idiom is often pop, but there’s plenty to apply to your genre of choice – or in developing new genres.
Oh yeah, and she can rock straight through George Michael (and a lot more), so there’s that.
Approaching vocal production
CDM: You work with a lot of different kinds of artists at a range of different levels. And there’s so much to cover, potentially. How do you get them started?
I try to keep in mind if they’re a vocalist who is newer to electronics, or if they’re an electronic musician who’s newer to vocals, because the approach is kind of different.
For a vocalist first who’s getting introduced to tech, the biggest tip I give is, just experiment and be bold. A lot of people look at Ableton Live and assume, “oh, I need to click and put in a bar of stuff.” But a lot of vocalists already have the instrument ready to go. It’s finding out what works – a basic sort of chain to start processing.
I don’t really consider myself a vocalist anyway. I was always a pianist and a flute player first before I did vocal stuff. So I always think about it from the lens of how can I make myself sound good, but at the same time, not end up using the tech as a crutch. If it ends up becoming something that I’m totally reliant on in order to achieve a sound, that might not necessarily be the best.
Right, vocal technique itself is a whole topic. There must be some temptation to “fix it in post.”
I have a vocal processing lab that I teach at Berklee. One of my students was not a vocalist but wanted to try doing live vocal processing. He kept asking me, like, “Claire, the AutoTune is not working.” I’m like, you gotta sing in key first. You’re not going to fix all your problems just slapping pitch correction on yourself and expecting it to sound good. I still need to have a good performance.
There’s this quote I remember from deadmau5 – it’s like s*** in, s*** out. Sorry – can I say that? With a lot of the tools, you can, like, polish the s*** quite a bit, or you can put glitter on it.
But it’s still a very arduous process. The input should be a certain standard before you can think about manipulating it. You’ve got to have good stuff going in before you can make better stuff out of it when you do the processing.
Chopped vocals, generative patterns
You might have caught dolltr!ck on Ableton’s concise and inspiring One Thing series already. If not, here’s a clever way to quickly chop up and trigger evolving, generative tunes using Clips:
CDM: Oh yeah, what’s vocal chopping?
Claire: It’s basically taking a recording of any kind of vocals — usually I like chopping myself up. And then I’ll take specific syllables or it could even be a specific vocalization part — like, “oh-oh-oh”, I’ll take that. And you can kind of re-pitch things or you can chop things up so that it ends up a little bit more stuttery. It’s as if you’re taking an existing vocal, and deconstructing and then reconstructing it.
One example that I once gave to one of my students is that it’s kind of like deconstructed cheesecake. Like, you have the cheesecake and then you’re, you know, purposely taking it apart so that you can re-put it back together. Now [this technique] has become mainstream. It’s color in the artist’s palette now. You can do guitar chops, you can sample bass stuff like Dilla, you can do a ton of different things. SIt’s a bit more of just a tool rather than a novelty.
Teaching voice production
We talked a bit to LaFrae about the work she does, and she talked about creating a genre-free space. Is it different working when there’s a genre reference versus when there isn’t?
At Berklee, a lot of the students have specific artists that they look up to. So then the target is a little clearer. But sometimes I have artists I work with professionally who are a bit more experimental, or who want to use the voice as a synthesizer or more a sound source. Then we can experiment and get a little crazy. It doesn’t matter if they sound good at the input.
Right, you teach at CUNY and talked about working with Beats By Girlz, the program founded by Erin Barra. How do you start with absolute beginners?
We often teach students who had no background music at all – and no background in the computer side of things. But one thing I would love doing with them is in Live’s vocoder, put it on pitch tracking, and the kids would go, like, “whooooooo,” and they turn their voice into a synth. You can also change the carrier/modulator settings, and then suddenly they sound like a sawtooth. It ends up being fun for them.
How do you structure going through work over the course of a semester, as at Berklee?
One class I teach is a live vocal processing lab – like real-time stuff, where the students are expected to perform [throughout]. Another is electronic production techniques for vocalists, where it’s more production-related, but for the final project, the students do have to perform.
For the live vocal processing class, one week is vocal chopping, and by the next week, they have to create a one- or two-minute performance. Another week, we’ll do Ableton’s Beat Repeat. Another week, we’ll do looping. That one’s really fun, because we explore the different ways of looping in Live – different tracks in Session View, different Clips, or you could be using the Looper device. Or – they all hate me for this – we’ll do it with a Delay device, and then I make them loop manually, manually calculate the time and feedback.
That one’s a fun one. I usually try to show them a couple of examples either from dolltr!ck stuff, or other people who do vocal processing like Rachel K Collier, or Kimbra, or Neon Vines. We’ll look at videos of those people. And then it’s up to the students to figure out what they want to do with the technique – which is fun! We end up putting on a show at the end of the semester. We end up getting some really nice diverse types of techniques and music.
Live performance strategies
What sort of range in interactivity do you get as far as people wanting to make live performances totally open-ended and improvised versus more structured?
Across the board, it’s 50/50. I get some artists who say, this is my song, here’s the verse, here’s the chorus, here’s the outro, it’s always going to be like this. But then I have some artists, both solo in bands who say, oh, we want to try and be a little bit more experimental.
If a specific artist wants to be a little bit more experimental with structure or even with just having different kinds of live effects – I call it the baby steps of vocalists getting into electronics. Maybe the structure of the set is pretty set in stone. But the effect processing that the vocalist does, that’s where we start getting them experimenting. And then like down the road later on, we can do vocal looping and stuff like that.
For some of my electronic performance students, but they’re really interested in technique. So one class I teach, for example, it’s just a looping lab. That’s all that we do.
How do you work with looping only? Sometimes it’s just them and the voice – can be sort of like being naked, just doing that, I know!
I try to get them to be creative – So for example, if somebody uses Vocoder and just like a shhhhhh with their voice on the white noise setting, they get risers, or cool sounds out of that. So it’s a little experiment for them to do. It is very naked, just like being there with a mic, and that’s it.
I tried to get them to use the use of different tools. So we do use Looper. I have a routing technique that I usually show them for using just Session View Clip slots. So they get the experience of doing both. And then we do the old-school manual delay calculation thing that I mentioned. At Berklee, there’s a Line 6 delay pedal that I try to show them. I’ve worked with the BOSS RC-505, which some of my students also have and they really enjoy. It was really popular in one of my classes earlier this year, because Ariana Grande did a live show with the 505.
And Ableton’s own Looper, too, right? It seems like that often gets overlooked for some reason.
For sure. I think it’s so overlooked and I think part of it is just that it’s a little bit misunderstood, or maybe people just have thrown under the bus there are other ways to loop in Live like in Session View. But I love using it.
And the ability for the loop to set tempo!
That’s actually one of my favorite parts about it. Like being able to set tempo and being able to kind of like, you know, just go for it. So yeah, one of my favorite things.
How do you play when you do want to get more interactive?
I love being able to vamp on a certain group of clips or combine them differently. I need to play with not just one backing instrumental track; I can’t do that. I have to have the different clips. So it’s almost like having like a multitrack or having stems that I’m individually treating over the course of a performance, rather than just like having one single block of audio. But some artists like that.
Managing mics, gear – and feedback
One perpetual issue – how do you work with vocalists on managing feedback onstage?
I think one thing that did help right from the get-go is in the first week of class, I tried to do like a brief on just good mic technique, and how to make sure you’re not, like, cupping the mic. I was like, I know it looks cool, but this is gonna kill everything or mess things up. And also just proper placement of where to stand, where to be in relationship to speakers, other things like that. I think that’s a really important part for live performers to learn. Even if they’re not vocalists, so that they’re not the one who’s causing like an entire system to blow up on stage.
It’s also talking a little bit about mic choice, not bringing a condenser onstage. If you want to walk around the stage, having like a good dynamic mic that you can have in front of your mouth, things like that. It does get a little difficult when I’m working with artists, especially those who have a team – because then they’ll be like, oh, front of house will take care of it. They’ll be able to solve it if I stand right in front of the speaker. And it’s like, uh, I don’t think so.
Do you have a go-to dynamic mic for live use, actually?
Sometimes I recommend the Shure SM58. But I’ve also started recommending the one that I use quite a lot, which is the Sennheiser e 935. (I use both the 50 and the 935.) It sounds a little bit nicer on my voice; I actually have a very bright voice, a hyper-hyper- sibilant voice where my tongue is really close to the back of my teeth. Every time I say something like T or S in person, especially, it’s really piercing.
Working with students and artists, getting results
Singing puts us all in such a vulnerable place. How do you deal with feedback and criticism when working with artists; how do you help them become satisfied with what they’re doing?
I think it does help for vocalists, just critically listening to stuff. Okay, this is how I sound right now. How do I get myself to sound closer to my goal? Or, how do I keep improving on things? One thing that I do run into sometimes with artists, they’ll follow my instructions to a tee. And then it’ll end up being like, oh, but it still doesn’t sound good. And it’s like, yeah, that doesn’t necessarily sound like on the nose, because we still need to make tweaks.
So I think like being able to just listen to ourselves, which can sometimes be very painful and like I’m the first person, I hate listening to myself, but you’re able to give yourself that feedback. I think that’s super helpful. Just to be able to critically identify what’s going on in your voice.
What about building up that confidence?
I try to emphasize that, It’s oftentimes when we’re comfortable on stage that we give the best performances, because we enjoy it, the audience enjoys it, it sounds good. And that involves practice.
There is a type of expectation that we need results fast. And we’re going to do this thing, and then we’re going to get immediate results, right now. And I’m like, it doesn’t really work that way. You do have to practice. This is an instrument; it’s not just you pressing buttons, it’s you working with your entire system. If you want to be able to do a Push solo, you’ve gotta play Push.
So if you’re well rehearsed, and if you’ve practiced, and if you’re more confident, and what you’re going to do and execute when you get on stage, that’s setting yourself up for success. And usually, that takes a little bit of the anxiety away. It’s more work beforehand. Absolutely. But it takes away a lot of the stress onstage from having to troubleshoot in real-time.
That happened a bunch of times to me — but one instance comes to my mind. I think I was performing live, but I messed up, I think a tuner setting. And like, all the keys were screwed up. So I just turned off the device. But I knew what to do. I knew to just turn off the device. Just trust my own voice. I practiced already.
It was just trusting that things will go okay. And it did. It was important that I knew how to turn that off.
We talked a lot about pitch and scale in a western popular idiom. Do you work at all with people outside those traditions and paradigms?
I’ve worked with some artists from the Korean pop music scene.
But one that was pretty interesting, just because it’s fairly recent in my mind, and it was also very challenging — I worked with an artist who was originally from Egypt, and there were these microtonal stuff in her music. There’s this different element – like quarter tones. And she wanted to do some similar live looping things as well. Um, so we use I remember we used Looper for that. And then she walked away happy.
Right, this being native to pitch in Arabic music. What kinds of adjustments did you have to make; was it working more directly with audio?
The main adjustment was just this whole idea of treatment of pitch, right? And being able to like shift things. Really making sure that if something was, you know, in a specific maqam, if there’s some tuning involved, it’s not going super crazy. Or maybe we just turned tuning off.
Yeah, the vocoder would then quantize to the wrong tuning.
Yeah, the vocoder, definitely when we were using stuff that had to do with like, MIDI input. So, for example, even Spectral Resonator, or I think it was Corpus, as well, using those kinds of things that will always correspond to a specific note would be such a pain in the butt.
Favorite Ableton Live Devices and Max for Live tools
We asked Claire to name some of her favorite internal Ableton Live devices. She recommends the native devices both for teaching and for live performance:
In my experience teaching, I found that if students know how to use a native device, and they understand the principles behind it, they can use any device like they can open up.
For most of my live sets, I think the only third-party device that I use is Waves Tune Real-Time. Other than that, it’s like all native Live devices — to really bring the CPU usage down.
Delay: “I love using Delay for vocals.”
Vocoder: “I guess my favorite just because I’m so biased is Vocoder. I love using Vocoder so much. If people do like a really deep dive into it, it turns out to be so flexible. I love using Vocoder even on just drums, so that you can get chords out of rhythmic material. That’s one of my favorite things to do. Even just the noise generator and Vocoder is really cool, just to add a little bit more texture to things. The pitch tracking stuff is great, too.”
Slice to MIDI: “As far as like chopping goes, since we were just talking about that — I usually love just using slice to new MIDI track — so you grab the piece of audio and then you can get like 128 like Drum Rack cells, which is awesome.”
Granulator / Granulator II: “I’m a big fan of Granulator or like any kind of like granulation stuff. I think that’s a really great way to get started.”
Shifter: “Shifter has been so great – new in Live 11. That was really wonderful. That one a lot of my students enjoy for being able to shift stuff down an octave or up an octave or to make things a little bit more textured, and so on.”
Spectral Resonator: Big fan also – my second after Vocoder – Spectral Resonator can also take MIDI input from somewhere else and use that as a source.
Mormos Pitch Drop: “It’s a a specific pitch drop device that goes weeeeooorwww — does the vinyl slow down. My students love it for some reason.” [Ed. Think she means this one – the original released via Ableton was discontinued but a 2.0 replacement is available on maxforlive.com.]
Third-party tools: When it does come time for some third-party tools to expand on what’s in Ableton Live and Ableton Live Suite, she does have some favorites:
Waves Tune Real-Time (for pitch correction)
Waves Vocal Bender (for additional formant and octave effects)
iZotope Vocal Synth 2 (though not live yet, she says)
For pitch tracking (apart from Vocoder set to pitch-tracking mode):
Vochlea Dubbler: “It’s able to track discrete pitches if you set it to a scale/”
Imitone: “Really cute – I would use this with kids and they love looking at the interface.”
Internal Device chain – all native: “EQ is just EQ Eight, compressor is Compressor. The de-essing is also done through either Compressor or EQ Eight or maybe a combination of both of those things. It’s pretty much all native devices – even the Reverb.”
Ableton’s internal Devices live: “Those would all be great for live situations, except for Shifter; it does have quite a bit of latency to perform its analysis.”
More on Claire:
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