Notes on Harmonizers

I just posted some of this content on another forum and realized that it might be useful to readers here. On the other forum there was a discussion on the subject of people wanting a fuller-sounding live performance. So I thought I would add my experience with harmonizers, most of which occurred in my home studio.

The devices I’m discussing here are designed to add one, two, three, or – in some cases – four harmony parts to a single vocal line. The earliest ones, like the IPS33b, let you program in the key of the song and the kind of scale (major, minor, modal, etc.), then it would guess where to put the harmony notes based on the note you were singing. So sometimes they guessed wrong, but sometimes their missed guesses sounded great, so I didn’t mind. Then they started accepting MIDI input, so you could tell it what chords to harmonize to by running a MIDI line from your keyboard. In my home studio, I’d run a line from my computer/sequencer, so I only had to play the chords in once, and I could do as many takes “empty-handed” as I wanted. On stage, you’d feed the keyboard’s MIDI Out into the harmonizer’s MIDI In, then route one of the singer’s lines into the mic input.

A few years ago, Digitech added the ability to diagnose guitar chords, which appealed to singer/guitarists doing bar and restaurant gigs. You barely had to program anything – once you got it set up, as long as your guitar playing didn’t get too fancy, and you didn’t mind stomping a pedal before and after each chorus, you could sound like a 4-person group all by yourself.

In part, I jumped into the conversation when I did because I just took the plunge and upgraded my harmonizer to a Vocalist Live Pro, due to a Musician’s Friend “Black Friday” sale.

I have owned two earlier versions, the IPS 33b, which was a lot of fun, and the quirks of which I missed after I sold it to get a MIDI version (maybe the MV-5?). That served me until the studio was mothballed. It’s still in a box or rack somewhere. But it had limitations that the new one should overcome.

In addition to the guitar-chord interpreting feature, Digitech has added lots of other features, including better compression of the source vocal (to get more reliable triggering), gender-switching voices (sort of), more believable pitch correction, etc. I don’t EXPECT to use it live, since I usually use this sort of thing in my “studio” and am allergic to foot switches. But I will be trying it out on my next set of demos.

Here’s the tip part:

Live:
Units like this work best live if at least one person in the group is playing fairly basic chords (so as not to confuse it) and singing a fairly straight part, even if it’s a harmony part (think Susan Dey in the Partridge Family). If you have a 3- or 4-member band, most audience members won’t even notice there’s anything hinky about the choruses sounding so great. 🙂 Unlike some of the foot-pedal versions, the Vocalist Live Pro allows the source vocal to pass through unaffected if you wish to process it separately. Same for guitar.

Studio:
In my old studio, I used to record the “chorus” tracks twice, singing melody once and singing harmony once, which forced it to generate different parts; then I would reverse the panning of the second take, so the phrasing didn’t sound different between the left and right channels. To hear an example using the MV5, download https://paulracemusic.com/downloads/10_bringbackflame.mp3 and listen to the last chorus.

I’m hoping that the opportunity to add “more feminine-sounding” voices will reduce the “Sons of the Pioneers” aspect and give me the ability to mix the source vocal separately so the “doubling” of the lead won’t be so obvious, but it should give you some idea.

On the MV5, I typically would only stack two of the generated harmony parts above the vocal line, because if I caused it to generate any parts higher than that, it started to sound “chipmunky.” They say the newer ones handle stuff like that better. We’ll see. I’m told that one of the settings is labeled CSNY. We’ll have to see how the Neil Young part sounds.

Reharmonizing?
Once I used the harmonizer when I was recording some children singing unison (using MIDI input to set the chordal structure). I wanted an fuller sound than the single take provided, but they weren’t comfortable with headphones, so when I took the second take, the harmonized sound of their first take bled into the microphone. On the second pass, the harmonizer re-harmonized the “ensemble” sound from the first take, as well as the voices from the second take, and it sounded like a very large children’s choir. No, I don’t have that recording available, and I don’t know if I could duplicate that again, but it’s worth thinking about if I ever want, say, a Mormon Tabernacle Choir sound.

By the way, I have the deluxe Melodyne software on my DAW, so theoretically I shouldn’t need one of these. But the software is, frankly a pain to use compared to just dialing up voices and laying one or two more vocal tracks to get a whole chorus of voices.

It will be weeks before I get this really set up and tried out. But I’m looking forward to having some fun with it!

More later – Paul

Paul

About Paul

Paul Race has been writing and playing all kinds of music since the 1960s, though he tends to favor acoustic and traditional songs. He has created resources like CreekDontRise.com, ClassicTrainSongs.com, and SchoolOfTheRock.com to help other musicians get a good start on their own journeys.

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