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How to remove or isolate vocals is a concept that comes up often in sound engineering. Whether it’s to remove the vocals to create an instrumental version or removing the instrumentals to leave a voice-only track, this is a sound engineering skill that is in high demand.
So how do you remove or isolate vocals from a song? Removing and isolating vocals from songs is difficult because of how they become integrated with instrumentals during the recording process; however, the following methods can be used to remove or isolate vocals from a song:
- Phase cancellation isolation is an aural technique that can cause the noise in an instrumental track to be canceled out by placing a vocal track over an instrumental track and putting them completely out of sync with each other.
- Equalize out some of the frequencies the vocals are sitting on, which will remove a lot of the vocal noise.
- Bass and treble frequencies can be equalized out to leave a tight frequency range, placing the vocals forward on the track.
- Certain software plug-ins can be used to isolate vocals with varying levels of success, but many of these software plug-ins cannot create a quality track where vocals are isolated or eliminated from a song.
- If you want to completely isolate the vocals from a mixed song, you need the instrumental version. This version can often be downloaded off the Internet or may be available from the original producers as a multitrack.
Removing instrumentation from a track can be very difficult, somewhat like trying to remove eggs from a cake after it’s already been baked. There are a few methods you can try though. Read below to learn more about removing and isolating vocals in a song.
Why Isolate or Remove Vocals in a Song?
Vocals are isolated or removed from songs for a variety of sound engineering reasons. One popular reason to want to remove vocals from a song is to be able to add different vocals over it. This function can be useful for everything from a karaoke party to a cover album.
Unfortunately, of the two audio engineering tasks, removing vocals is a lot more difficult than isolating vocals. This is due to the way that vocals and instrumentals are recorded together and incorporated as audio data.
But if a musician is able to remove vocals from a track, barring copyright issues, they are then capable of mixing their own vocals over popular music to create a cover version that sounds (at least background-wise) very close to the original track, minus the vocals.
Isolating vocals in a song is also used to blend multiple music tracks into a remix that incorporates the vocals of one song over the instrumentals of another. Isolating vocals from a song can be somewhat easier than removing vocals, however, both techniques are tricky.
Why is It Difficult to Isolate and Remove Vocals from Songs?
The reason that it is difficult to both isolate and remove vocals from a mixed song is due to the way that sounds are recorded. When vocals and instruments are recorded simultaneously, audio engineering software records this data as a stereo waveform that combines both sounds.
Unless the sound engineer records the vocal or instrumental track separately at the time that they’re recording the mixed track, there is no way for the software to distinguish between what constitutes vocal sound and what constitutes instrumental sound.
Vocals can be either isolated or removed from a song through manual filtering to a degree, but this requires a refined ear and the tedious process of going through each bit of audio data piece by piece and equalizing out the frequencies that the vocal track resides on.
This can also degrade other sounds in those frequencies, which means the end result of removing or isolating vocals can create the following issues on the rest of the track:
- amplitude problems
- noise feedback issues
Vocals Are Not Separate from Instrumentals in A Stereo Waveform
A stereo waveform has a voltage curve for both the right and left channels, but there is no separate audio data for vocals versus instrumentals. Therefore, vocals cannot be extracted from an audio track by just grabbing the vocal information and removing it.
Another reason that it is next to impossible to extract vocals is that they tend to exist on a dynamic range of frequency, which makes very difficult to find all these frequencies in the audio sample and remove them manually.
Vocal extraction cannot work unless the vocals are isolated in the mix, which is usually achieved by incorporating an acapella track.
This means vocals cannot be extracted on a track where the vocals have already been mixed in. Some software plug-ins claim to be able to do this, but none can do it without compromising the quality of the resulting track.
There is No Way to Totally Remove Vocals from A Song
The reason there is no way you can really remove vocals from a song once it is mixed is because you need a multitrack version of the song, which is rarely available except to those who recorded the original tracks.
When recording studios record a song, they may record an accompaniment track. This track can sometimes be available for purchase or download on several websites, depending on the musician and what the song is.
This track is also referred to as a minus one track because it is a mix of the entire recording minus one track (the vocals).
An accompaniment track is the only version of a song that is clean of vocals. Once vocals have been mixed into an instrument backdrop, it can be very difficult to isolate them again, and it’s typically impossible to isolate or remove them completely.
Phase Cancellation Isolation
One method that is used to isolate vocal tracks in a song is phase cancellation, an aural effect where similar waveforms in a sound cancel each other out by working against each other. This is usually avoided in sound engineering because it can distort the amplitude of the track.
These two mixed audio signals have the same frequency, which means that they will effectively cancel each other out if their waveforms are out of sync. If you play two exact waveforms that are 100% out of sync, this will result in a silent effect on the ear, and neither signal will be heard.
Phase cancellation is not a 100% guarantee of a clean isolation, however, and several factors can affect the final outcome. Here are some of them:
- The quality of the audio files being manipulated or mixed must be high definition in order to isolate the vocals precisely.
- The vocal version of the track must be completely identical to the instrumental version of the track. If it isn’t, it will be difficult to completely out-sync both tracks 100% and there will be resulting noise bleed.
There is always the potential for other sounds to bleed through on the track behind the vocals depending on the quality of the recording. This is why very few methods of removing or isolating vocals can claim 100% efficiency.
If the two waveforms are not 100% out of sync with each other, this will result in a mixed bag of audio effects–some parts of the recording will sound softer, and others will be amplified. So in order for the cancellation to work as intended, it has to be synced completely.
To use a digital audio workstation (DAW) to isolate vocals, you first need a vocal mix and an instrumental mix downloaded into your DAW. At this point, you can download any auxiliary plug-ins into the system that you’re intending to use.
You’ll need phase flip capability to perform the phase cancellation. There are many available plug-ins that will allow this function.
If the two mixes are placed on top of each other, the volume of the track should be amplified. But if the phase of the tracks is flipped, the opposite effect is achieved, which is silence. This should leave the vocals isolated.
How to Clean Up A Phase Cancellation Track
Phase cancellation can be an effective method for isolating vocals, but depending on the noise floor of the track, background noise and ambient noise can be picked up during the recording of the vocals.
Also, a mastered version may vary from the original if any of the virtual instruments or audio effects have a random feature enabled. This will prevent a total out-sync of the two waveforms and 100% cancellation of the background noise.
Unwanted noise can be scrubbed from the track using equalization to cut them and remove frequencies that are causing the background of the track to sound trashy.
Phase cancellation can be a fairly effective method for isolating vocals, but if the vocals are panned, modulated, or contain large amounts of reverberation or other sound effects, it can lead to poorer quality in the sound of the resulting track.
Phase cancellation is an advanced technique for manipulating a mix that is most effective when a vocal track is dry, mono, and centered.
Using Equalization to Remove Vocals
While vocals cannot be eliminated from a track, equalization can be used to remove some of the audio frequencies that the vocal noise resides on. However, it should be noted that this process will also remove any other audio data on those frequencies.
You can take advantage of this method to try and reduce the effect of vocals on a track if the vocals are panned center. This will allow you to remove the left and right frequencies.
Instrumental tracks are typically panned to the left or right of the main vocal, so by quieting down the right and left, this can do a lot to remove the background music and leave the vocals standing alone in the center.
When vocals have been manipulated in the following ways, however, it can make it difficult to use equalization to remove vocals:
- Vocals are panned to the right or the left
- Echoes, reverb, or other sound effects have been included and panned to the right or the left
In either of those cases, using equalization to remove vocals will be unable to remove the vocals entirely, and a “ghost” of the vocals will be heard outside of the center.
Downsides of Using Equalization to Remove Vocals
Because the echo effects on vocals tend to be placed to the left or right of the main vocals, these effects may linger when you remove the vocals in the center range. These kinds of effects can be difficult to filter out without some strong background in sound engineering.
However, if you are trying to remove vocals on a pop song track just to have a background song to sing off of, or to perform karaoke, then equalization should be adequate for your purposes.
Otherwise, you will have to look into more sophisticated methods of vocal removal, such as the Vocal Remover plugin or artificial intelligence software at Phonic Mind, which is able to fine-tune this filtering process on a very detailed level to maintain the highest possible level of definition and quality in the track.
Using Audio Plug-ins to Isolate or Remove Vocals
Certain software programs, such as Audacity, claim to have the ability to isolate vocals in a song, but these tracks will vary wildly in quality depending on how they were originally recorded. Some isolations can get close to 100% fidelity, while others will be on the lower end of fidelity.
Depending on what you need to use the isolated vocals for, this can be good enough. Even if a bit of the original vocals remains on a track created for a karaoke party, nobody is probably going to notice much.
But for other more ambitious recording projects, this level of quality is not going to cut it for anything resembling a professional quality recording. You’ll need something more precise than a do-it-yourself karaoke track in that case.
While it is typically much easier to completely isolate vocals than it is to remove them, there is a notable exception to that rule. Read about the different kinds of software that can isolate and remove vocals below.
If you do any research into vocal isolation or vocal removal on an audio track, you’ll come across the name Audacity again and again.
Over the past few years, Audacity has become a very popular software platform due to the fact that it’s a free utility plug-in with both Mac and Windows compatibility. This software uses audio canceling to remove vocals using the following process:
- Split the track in two
- Invert one half of the track
- Switch audio to mono
By using this method, you should be able to remove most of the vocals from a track, leaving only the accompaniment. Some of the upsides of Audacity are that it is a pretty powerful piece of software for a tool that is free.
This software also allows users to manipulate waveforms even if other auxiliary plug-ins weren’t successful. Not only is Audacity able to remove vocals on a track, it is also capable of isolating vocals.
Downsides of Audacity
However, the process of doing this can degrade the quality of the resulting track significantly, which may necessitate audio clean-up. Otherwise, the resulting track may have a thin or hollow sound.
Audacity is also not the easiest piece of software to use, and any potential user must have a firm grasp of the concepts behind waveform editorial work in order to use it properly. It can be difficult for some people to learn to use it to its full capability.
Audacity also has no ability to convert the resulting audio track to an .mp3 format without additional plug-in installations and setup. Audacity definitely isn’t for the beginner sound engineer, as cleaning up the resulting track will require refined filtering.
Even though it has a few flaws and may not yield the best quality depending on the track, Audacity is still worth a download just to tweak and mess around with. Since it’s free, you can experiment and see how good of a resulting mix you can come up with.
Avid Pro Tools
Avid Pro Tools is a piece of audio engineering software similar to Audacity in basic function but features many extra capabilities that help you clean up audio quality after you erase vocals, as this can typically have a negative effect on the overall sound.
Avid Pro Tools features the following functions on top of its ability to erase vocals:
- Allows editing of up to 128 audio tracks, 512 instrumental tracks, and 1,024 MIDI tracks
- VCA Masters
- Track Freeze
- Professional metering
- Many more features and functions
Unlike Audacity, because it has such a wide variety of tools, Pro Tools isn’t free. The perpetual license version of the software costs over five hundred dollars.
That meads Avid Pro Tools is a piece of audio engineering software that you might want to invest in only if you’re doing more than removing or isolating vocals or need particularly high quality in your end result. Avid Pro Tools is the software of a professional sound engineer.
VLC Media Player
VLC Media Player (VLC) is a great option for manipulating vocals on a song track since it is both free to use and a cross-platform tool. VLC is available for download on the following platforms:
- Windows 10 Mobile
- Windows Phone
VLC is also available for download through the Apple Store, Google Play, and the Microsoft Store.
Not only does VLC have some ability to remove vocals from a song, but it is also capable of supporting several kinds of audio compression methods and multiple file formats including DVD-Video and video CD.
This software is also able to stream audio or video media over digital networks and transcode multimedia files.
Many computers come with VLC Media Player already downloaded as part of their standard operating packages, but as stated before, it is available for free download on several different app stores.
These steps can be followed to use VLC software to remove the vocals in a song:
- Open the VLC media player.
- Press Control+P to open the Preferences
- Go to the lower lefthand corner of the interface and select Show Settings >All.
- Select Audio >Filters.
- On the righthand side of the interface, click on the box that says Simple Karaoke Filter.
- Click Save for a track with the vocals filtered out.
If you want to return vocals to the track, simply follow these steps in reverse, unclick the Simple Karaoke Filter and save.
Adobe Audition is one software that is capable of vocal removal, though you may have to do some fine-tuning to clean up the quality of the resulting track. This is not a free software but comes in a trial version that is.
Use the following method in Adobe Audition to remove the vocals from an audio file:
- Open the software and click an audio file.
- Next, go to Favorites and select Remove Vocals. This should remove the majority of the vocals from the track.
- To refine this result, click Effects > Special > Voice Enhancer. This tool further suppresses the vocals and amplifies the sound of the instrumentals.
- Finally, click Music > Apply.
- Save the file.
This can be very effective at suppressing the sound of the vocals in the resulting track. However, this does not remove the vocals from the track. It merely masks them to make them more difficult to hear.
Vocal Remover Plugin – 2nd Sense Audio
Plugins can be added to most DAW software programs, some of which have very specific capabilities. One such plugin is the Vocal Remover Plugin from 2nd Sense Audio. This plugin is very reasonably priced and will do an ok job of removing either vocals or other parts from a track.
As mentioned already there is no miracle cure for isolating vocals from a mix and so even with this plugin you will need to do plenty of audio ‘cleanup’ after using EQ and other techniques.
Phonic Mind – Artificial Intelligence for Sound
One new software available since 2017 is the vocal scrubbing software available at Phonic Mind. This state-of-the-art digital technology uses artificial intelligence to identify the parts of a track that make up the vocals and filter them out.
While it would be nearly impossible for a human being to filter each individual bit on an audio sample in this way without ruining the fidelity of the track, an artificial intelligence program is able to do this quite easily in comparison.
The Phonic Mind AI listens to music 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, at the incredible rate of 20 minutes of audio sample per second. The longer it processes, the more efficient it becomes at the function of removing vocals from a track.
Phonic Mind is available in a variety of price ranges depending on how many songs an audio engineer needs the vocals scrubbed from. Because this is an extremely high-tech method of removing vocals, it can result in a higher fidelity outcome than other audio software plug-ins.
Where to Find Instrumental Tracks
To use any of the audio engineering plug-ins to isolate vocals, you’ll need access to the instrumental tracks. For many musicians, these tracks are available for use for a price or for free, depending on the track and where you’re trying to get it.
One large website for finding instrumentals Karaoke Version. This database of instrumental tracks features both free versions of sounds as well as downloads of songs for a nominal fee, typically only a few dollars.
Using the instrumental track along with the original vocal mix, you can place the two recordings together and use phase inversion to isolate the vocals.
If you look online and can’t find an instrumental track available, it can sometimes be worth it to contact the original creators and ask about options for accompaniment tracks or multitracks. Some producers or musicians will make these available.
Many Methods for Isolating or Removing Vocals are Available
It can be overwhelming to see how many different methods for isolating and removing vocals there are, considering that the decision you make with what technique to use has the potential to change the sound of your resulting mix quite a lot.
Solutions for removing and isolating songs can vary wildly, ranging in price from free to several hundred dollars, and ranging in difficulty from simply plugging a song into a scrubber to manipulating stereo waveforms and manually filtering frequencies.
This article should have given you a wide overview of why these techniques are difficult from a sound engineering standpoint, and what effective methods are available to overcome these obstacles to create an isolated vocal or instrumental track.