There’s a new way to capture your musical ideas and turn them into songs quickly. When inspiration strikes, some people record melodies and lyrics into a their phone’s voice memo app. But as technology improves, music producers are beginning to adopt voice-to-MIDI plugins as a fun and innovative way to streamline their creative workflow in the DAW.
Before we dive into what these apps are and how they work, let’s take a look at the original effects that inspired this technology. Some fifty years ago, artists like Kraftwerk and Electric Light Orchestra started popularizing analog vocoders, transforming their vocal performance in real-time. The robotic sound design had a futuristic feel, though it sounds retro today.
In the past couple of decades, rappers have started using Antares Auto-tune and Melodyne’s Celemony to achieve a similar effect. Auto-tune was initially designed to fix vocals when they fell out of tune, and audio engineers do still use it for that purpose all the time.
But major artists T-Pain, Lil Wayne, Future and Travis Scott have leveraged the synthetic feel of auto-tune to carve out their own style. It’s become a popular music production technique, in rap as well with indie artists like Bon Iver and Dirty Projectors.
The voice-to-midi techniques we’ll be covering today are a natural evolution of vocoders and autotune. They turn the singer into a kind of midi controller, matching mouth sounds and melodies to the notes of a virtual instrument. This means you can beatbox and turn it into a MIDI drum beat, or hum a melody and hear it played back with a synth of your choice.
Vochlea’s Dubler 2: The best voice-to-MIDI plugin
Whether you’re importing a vocal melody or recording a track in realtime, there’s little debate that Vochlea has the best voice-to-MIDI plugin on the market. For those who don’t feel like watching the full 30 minute tutorial, we’ve put together a summary of what to expect.
Dubler 2’s interface includes several tabs, effectively saving you space in the DAW. At the top of the app, you’ll see a project title that allows you to save presets for each song. So you don’t have to recreate the environment as you bounce between projects.
Play - The play screen is your primary interface when you start recording. Melodic vocals will show up on the pitch wheel and MIDI keyboard. On the left, you can monitor the volume of your vocals to ensure they’re not clipping. Next to that meter, you’ll find a set of one-shot pads where you can drag samples to be triggered by your voice. When you click a pad, it toggles over to the Train tab automatically.
To the right side of the screen, Dubler presents four knobs representing your envelope and filter automations. These help you to visualize your vocal articulations, mapped to a third-party plugin via the Assign tab. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Train - This is where you’ll train the application to recognize important vocal triggers. If you’re looking to transfer your beatboxing to a MIDI Instrument, this is where the magic happens. Select a MIDI note as your output and you’ll be able to trigger the corresponding sample in your instrument rack. For example, if you make a “pf” sound with your lips you can map it to a kick drum, while a “ts” sound might me assigned to a hi-hat. You get the idea.
Key - Define the key signature of your vocal melody to auto-tune your vocals and display the right notes on your Play screen. As you change the key signature, the pitch-wheel will update and remove the notes that don’t belong.
For simple melodies with less than seven notes, you can take it a step further and de-select notes from the pitch-wheel so auto-tune doesn’t accidentally hit them. Once you hit record on the DAW, your vocal melody will be recorded as MIDI notes in real-time.
Chords - Tab over to the chord settings to setup polyphonic triggers. So if you sing a single note, the app will add additional MIDI notes on top to fatten it up. Best of all, it stays within the key signature of your choice. Choose from presets like Triads, Pop Simple, and Pop Advanced. At the bottom of the screen, you can decide whether chords are played in close harmony (within an octave) or spread out over multiple octaves in an open voicing.
Assign - If you prefer to use Dubler’s built-in synth, this screen is where you’ll find a variety of MIDI instrument presets for both single-note and chord voicings. Below that section, the Pitch Bend feature lets you define how far you can slide vocally in either direction. Most pitch wheels on a MIDI controller only support a whole note in either direction. Dubler extends that range dramatically, so you can configure whatever your vocal melody calls for.
Technical Specs: The Dubler 2 VST is compatible with most digital audio workstations on Windows or MacOS. The standalone app has been confirmed to work with Logic Pro, Cubase, Garageband, Ableton Live, and FL Studio. So just about any producer can use it.
Vochlea’s Dubler Studio Kit 2 includes a signature USB microphone that’s optimized for pitch recognition and noise-reduction. If you prefer to use your own mic, you’ll calibrate when you first boot up the software and then you can jump right in. The app is compatible with all Mac Audio Interfaces. If you're on Windows, your audio interface will need dedicated ASIO drivers.
Ableton’s Audio to MIDI Converter
If you’re an Ableton user, save yourself a few hundred dollars and explore their native offerings in the sampler. The convert drums to new MIDI track and convert melody to new MIDI track feature will let you right click on an audio file and generate a separate MIDI track from the sample’s transients. You can use any file type, but wav and lossless formats are best to avoid unwanted artifacts.
One impressive part of converting audio to MIDI in Ableton is that you don’t have to train the software. The algorithm will automatically detect low impact sounds as a kick, snappy “t” sounds as a snare, and hissy “s” sounds as a hi hat. The MIDI file will be generated on a generic drum rack that you can update after the fact in your piano roll.
Ableton’s melody converter works in a similar way. Choose an existing monophonic melody and transpose it to a MIDI track. Then you can assign the synth or musical instrument that you want to use. If you establish your project BPM ahead of time, it’s easy to quantize the MIDI output.
Popular Audio to MIDI Conversion Tools
For those who don’t use Ableton and can’t afford Vochlea’s Dubler Studio Kit, there are some other options on the market.
Wealthy Sound has a popular page that shares tutorials for native audio-to-midi features in Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic Pro X, and FL Studio. Save yourself the hassle and use what’s right in front of you!
Waves OVox is a competitor to Vochlea’s Dubler 2. It includes many of the same features, including chord harmonizing and arpeggios effects. With hundreds of presets to choose from, named after the famous artists that it’s imitating, you can jump right and in get the sound you’re looking from. Includes 9 customizable LFOs/Sequencer, ADSR and ORS modulators, plus effects like AutoPan, Chorus, Comp, Delay, Distortion, and Reverb.
Jam Origin offers a tracking processor specifically for guitar players, so you can play riffs and turn them into accurate MIDI transcriptions. Like Vochlea, Jam Origin includes complex chord recognition and key mapping, built-in synths, and a variety of output controls.
Imitone deserves recognition for its fun, colorful interface. It would be a great tool for younger audiences that want a simpler tool with the same core functionality.
Spotify’s Basic Pitch is a free browser application that will convert audio recordings to MIDI using open-source, machine learning algorithms. Unlike the other applications listed here, Basic Pitch can transcribe full chord arrangements. It works best when the audio features a single musical instrument and doesn’t have excessive delay or reverb in the mix.
A2M is a free iOS and MacOS application. It’s one of the more reputable Audio-to-MIDI tools for mobile devices, with an advanced feature set to help control latency during real-time performance.
Guitar Tabs X released a Voice-to-MIDI app on the Google Play store that apparently introduces a lot of extra noise and artifacts. Reviews indicate that it can be fun to play with but not a good fit for professional musicians.
Dodo MIDI 2 is a free, lightweight plugin with only a couple of parameters. It could be a good starting point if you’re intimidated by feature-rich tools like Dubler 2.
MIDIMorophosis was an early player in the Audio-to-MIDI space, but the app has not been updated in almost a decade, rendering it somewhat obsolete.