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How do I remove vocals from a song?

JeffBarnett

*** Update 04/16/12 ***
Roland's R-Mix software is the best tool for this. I've tried it, and the results were much better than anything else I've tried, including all of the other products mentioned below. It's a spectral editor of sorts, and it lets you isolate sounds according to their position in the stereo field and the frequency content. It's still not the elusive, magical "vocal remover" magic bullet tool, but it does do a better job than anything else out there.

This is the most frequently asked question by far. Other variations are:
Can I remove the guitar from a mix?
How do I isolate one voice in a recorded conversation?
What follows is my attempt to provide the most complete and definitive answer to these questions so that we can all refer to it in the future.
The most direct answer to all of these questions is no. You can't really remove a sound from a recording after it's been mixed. There are a few techniques for manipulating these files that may allow you to reduce a sound, but not without unintended side effects. More on that later...
If the sound you want to remove isn't musical, but noise (buzz, hum, clicking, etc.), there may be some hope for you with audio restoration techniques. For the purpose of this FAQ, though, I'm assuming you've got a vocal line or some other sort of musical sound you want to remove.
Every time somebody asks if it is possible to remove vocals from a mix, an Audioforumite (sometimes me) chimes in with the cake analogy. Think of the mixed audio file as a cake. Just as it is not possible to extract the eggs or sugar from a cake after it has been baked, neither is it possible to extract a vocal, guitar, or any other musical part from music after it has been mixed.
The most helpful suggestion I can give you is this... If you are trying to remove the vocal line from any commercially-available CD to create a karaoke or backing track, you'll save yourself a lot of time if you just go buy the karaoke version of that song. Most of them are available to purchase on a per-song basis for less than a dollar from the iTunes Music Store, Yahoo Music, and other pay-per-download sites. Searching for and purchasing the song will take you five minutes, and the quality will be much, much better than anything you could do yourself with even the best tools available.
Although it is not possible to remove any part of a recorded mix, there are a number of techniques, gadgets, and software applications that attempt to do exactly that, with varying degrees of success. They all use some variation of a technique called center channel cancellation. Here's how it works...
The idea behind center channel cancellation is pretty simple. If you have a piece of stereo audio, you can invert the polarity of either the left or right channel, and combine them. This takes any material common to the left and right channels and cancels it out. Since it is common to place the lead vocal in the center of a stereo mix, this technique can effectively remove the vocals.
But there are some big problems with center channel cancellation. First, although it is common to put lead vocals in the center of a stereo mix, it is also very common to put effects (reverb, delay, etc) on the lead vocal that cover the entire stereo field. So although you might remove the (dry) lead vocal, what you'll leave behind is the reverb tails and the strange remnants of a vocal that's no longer there.
The second big problem is that the lead vocal isn't the only thing placed in the center of a mix. Center channel cancellation removes EVERYTHING in the center. Kick drum, snare, lead guitar, bass. Whatever's there gets cancelled. And even those instruments that aren't placed squarely in the center can suffer from center channel cancellation. Usually what you end up with is a hollow shell that used to sound like music.
This is the simplest form of center channel cancellation. You can do this yourself (if you really want to, that is) using just the phase invert button on your mixer (or in software) or a cable with the polarity reversed. There are also a number of products on the market which use this basic technique:
The Mackie DFX series of mixers...

The Tascam Vocal Trainer CD player:

Center channel cancellation can be improved somewhat by selecting which frequencies you are effecting and combining the phase inversion with EQ filtering. If you know, for instance, that you are working with a female vocal with no meaningful content below 200 Hz, you can allow everything 200 Hz and below (kick drum, for instance) to pass on through and only cancel frequencies 200 Hz and up. There are a couple of other products which use this modified technique:
The Alesis Vocal Zapper:

Perhaps the best known (and most expensive) device of this type is the Thompson Vocal Eliminator:

Some software applications (such as Adobe Audition) also employ this modified cancellation technique.
The success of any of these devices will depend greatly on the music you are working with. Generally speaking, the older the mix, the better this will work. In the early days of stereo recording, producers generally placed the vocals in the center and panned everything else pretty widely. Higher quality files work best. Original CD's and .WAV's work better than MP3's. And since all of this relies on stereo imaging, mono files won't work at all.
I'll repeat the warning that I started with, though... Most people who have attempted this have not gotten satisfactory results, regardless of which tools they use. You'll be much happier with a karaoke track if you can find one. Apart from that, the only real way to do a "no-vocal remix" is to get the original multitrack session and repeat the mixdown sans-vocal.
August 30, 2007 @12:01pm
drumur

February 22, 2008 @12:00am
JeffBarnett

That's essentially the method I lined out above (center cancellation), but that particular plugin has some restrictions. Looks like it only works with WinAmp, not any pro audio apps, and it only works with 16-bit files.
Most people on this site are using some sort of pro platform like Sonar, Cubase, Pro Tools, etc... And most of us work at 24 bits.
February 24, 2008 @03:01pm
Bops2000

Go to the club and cap the singer.
February 24, 2008 @04:24pm
borninusa

You might want to try Vogone or Vogone Easy, depending on how great you want it to sound. Go to: http://www.mtu.com/. They just came out with a simple but not perfect vocal remover called Vogone Easy. If you are wanting something professional, I recommend Vogone. As they say...there's no such thing as total vocal removal for all types of songs. Some can and some can't be removed...it depends on the mix engineer. Any who, you can try their demo version before you buy it to be sure it's what you want. It was the best $50 I spent, and have tried several.
Good luck.
February 28, 2008 @10:26pm
nautama

In my very personal experience I can tell that Adobe Audition 3.0 does its homework on the subject of audio restoration, quite easily if you are amateur, or if you know what you are doing it has a lot of parameters you can modify.
March 9, 2008 @02:55pm
inkd

Have any of you guys ever used Alesis Vocal Zapper? Is it worth the money? I know that its effectiveness depends mainly on the song, but does anyone have any words of wisdom? I'm a super amateur, so forgive me if any of these questions have been asked thousands of times. I've heard of the sample inversion technique, and I was wondering if I would be able to first remove the vocals (be they completely gone or partially gone) and then invert the remaining audio in an attempt to cancel out most of the instrumental from the song? In no way does it have to be an absolutely perfect acapella, but I just need the instruments to be quiet enough to be mixed with another song. Thanks, guys!
June 19, 2009 @08:41am
daniel86

Great post its really helped me choose.
July 3, 2009 @11:54am
Phil York

Mute the lead vocal channel!
October 28, 2009 @05:52am
robertruetz

I would just like to point out that Phil has come up with the ONLY tried and true way to remove vocals from a mix.
Thank you, Phil.
Rob
October 28, 2009 @12:51pm
nautama

And none of us thought of it first... shame. hehe
October 28, 2009 @02:58pm
kope


How do I remove vocals from a mix?

Should be repleaced with "How do I remove vocals from a song"
P.S. Phil is good but Boops2000 is more efficient :-)
November 1, 2009 @08:53pm
nautama

Or mixdown. In my case most of the time I don't understand a word bops says, he writes quite intricately to my understanding, but we like him whatsoever :D
November 1, 2009 @09:40pm
irislogic

I was hoping to find an answer here that will lead me to a website that will do the vocal removing job for me. Anyone know of any that can do it cleanly?
February 26, 2010 @07:04am
nautama

Well, I don't know specifically about any website that offers that kind of service, but I wouldn't be too surprised if there's a buch of them that offer sound restoration services.
Anyway what I do know is that despide how good or bad they are there's a limit of what you can achieve depending on many factors that are intrinsical to the song or audio in question to be applied the vocal remove effect on.
I think of something like if the vocal is panned center or to a side, if there's a busy mix with a lot of instruments in the vocal frequency range, if the vocal was applied some filters in the mix that diminished it's spectral content, etc.
If all you have is the audio sample in two or one channels (mono or stereo) then be assured there will be some loss of content and very probably a noticeable one. If you have the vocal track that was put into the mix alone by itself, then you might have the solution for a clean vocal remove, otherwise, as far as I know, there won't be any perfect results, and again, they will depend vastly on the song or audio you want to clean up.
If you can mail me a sample of what you want to clean I'll try my best to help you, my address: mauiztic@hotmail.com
Cheers.
February 26, 2010 @07:36am