With the resurgent popularity of electronic music and synthesizers over the past decade, the search for new ways of producing high quality music has evolved into numerous branches of self-expression. Thanks to advances in technology while still using well-known techniques, musicians and other creatives alike are no longer limited by their own vocal ability to sing high, low, or on pitch, allowing for a greater, more personal form of self-expression. Perhaps one of the best recent examples of this is the EDM artist and producer Marshmello. His mastery of techniques like pitch shifting, formant shifting, and auto-tune has allowed him a unique sound that makes him a highly sought after producer, working with numerous artists over the past few years such as Selena Gomez and Nancy Ajram. So what exactly is pitch shifting and formant shifting, and how can we learn from Marshmello to produce our own music with the voice and tools we were given?
First, let’s discuss pitch shifting and how it can be used. While there are numerous digital pitch shifters available today, in its original form the physical record would be slowed down or sped up to create unique effects. Intuitively, a slowed down record would create a sound that was pitched down, and a sped up record would create a higher pitched sound. This came with its own issues, as this would alter the actual speed and stretch the time or tempo of the music.
One of the earliest examples of this technique comes from DJ Screw from Houston, Texas, who created his own style of pitch shifting and vocal chopping, aptly named “chop and screw.” Pitch shifting was also used in the iconic voices for Alvin and the Chipmunks. In today’s DAWs, we can shift the pitch without changing the tempo, allowing us to stay on beat without stretching the timing of the sample (although many DJs and producers still employ time stretching as a creative technique). We can hear Marshmello’s use of this modern style of pitch shifting all the way back in the first song, “Know Me,” on his first album Joytime, released in 2016. The lyrics are comparatively simple to some of his later work, with the entire three and a half minutes comprised of the words “everybody know me, everybody know Marshmello,” but it is Marshmello’s use of his own downshifted vocals combined with a good ear that makes the lyrics feel fresh and interesting.
Most, if not all of Marshmello’s solo work involves using pitch shifted vocals combined with other plug-ins involving auto-tune, vocal synths, etc. which leads us to the next option for our vocal production arsenal—formant shifting.
Formant shifting, unlike pitch shifting, does not actually change the pitch of the sound. Instead, it accentuates or diminishes certain frequencies in the sound. If you’ve used an EQ, you’ve already used formant shifting. When mixing vocals, combining pitch shifting with appropriate formant shifting allows an up or down shifted vocal to sound more natural, if that is the goal. A good example of this is Marshmello’s hit single, “Alone.” If we try to sing along, we can tell that the signal is being more than just pitch shifted. We can’t quite get the same sound naturally. Marshmello’s expert use of formant shifting his own vocals that are already being pitch shifted makes the vocals sound clean and more natural, but only with his own unique voice and timbre. We can also use this technique to recreate vowel sounds in synthesizers by altering the formants of a saw wave, using our own voice and it’s overtones as an example. Sing any pitch into a microphone and look for peaks using an EQ with a graph of the sound spectrum. Each person will have their own unique overtones and timbre, but to keep things simple lets say there are peaks at 500Hz and 2000Hz when you are singing an “Eh” vowel. Open the synthesizer and use a spectral EQ to accentuate 500Hz and 2000Hz by about 12dB. The synth should sound similar to the “Eh” vowel you were just singing. You can recreate any vowel sound of your voice this way. What about consonants, like “s” or “p?” Although useful, these are generally regarded as noise and cannot be recreated using formant shifting.
As for the plug-ins themselves, Marshmello likely uses a combination of good reverb, channel EQ, compression, and Little Alter Boy by Sound Toys for most of his vocals. While it is possible to do things manually, with Little Alter Boy you can quickly and easily change the pitch, formant, and the mix. Be careful when pitching up or increasing higher formants as they can make the vocals sound too chipmunk-like. To avoid this, mix in some of the original vocals or consider a pitched down response after the higher pitched/formant line for contrast. EchoSoundWorks also has a pack of Marshmello’s iconic sounds and samples named Smores. When working with other artists, Marshmello appears to be including some well known vocal plug ins like Harmony Engine by Antares to get those unique, choir-like effects and iZotope’s VocalSynth 2 with vocal processing modules such as the Biovox, Compuvox, and Polyvox to name a few.
What is Marshmello telling us through all of this? One does not need to be a virtuosic singer in order to produce good vocals. With a solid understanding of pitch shifting combined with formant shifting and an ear for what sounds good, anyone can use their own vocals to produce great music.
Albano, J. (2019, May 20). Fun with formants - how do they work?. Ask.Audio. https://ask.audio/articles/fun-with-formants-how-do-they-work
Formant-shifting: How it works with pitch-shifting. Home Studio Magic. (2023, April 10). https://homestudiomagic.com/formant-shifting-how-it-works-with-pitch-shifting/
Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, September 1). DJ Screw. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DJ_Screw