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:
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.
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.
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
Hi Paul, thanks for writing this! I’m on the edge regarding my first harmonizer. Is the Voice Live Pro ok for a one-man show live gig or is it overkill? I sing and play acoustic and I just need a decent harmonizer to accompany me. Or should I just get the Voice Tone H1? The only review I could find about it is https://guitarunited.com/tc-helicon-voicetone-h1-honest-review/ so I really can’t decide and I’m looking at Voice Live Pro instead since it has many reviews that favored it. What do you think? Thanks!
Thanks for getting in touch. I bought my Voice Live Pro mostly for demos in my home studio, it might be overkill for you if you just need something for singing “out.”
The H1 looks like a good deal if you:
– Generally sing in tune
– Will be sending the output through a system that will add reverb or other effects you need.
If you could stand some pitch correction, or you would like a little reverb, then it’s worth knowing that bigger units that have been made in the last several years have that built in, including the step-up unit (TC Helicon VoiceTone Harmony-G XT). One advantage of the G XT unit is if you go a lot of places where you have NO control at all over your sound (like open mics, farmer’s markets, street fairs), you’ll appreciate the ability to better “take your sound with you.” If that makes any sense.
Either way, you may have to give up fancy finger-picking on the parts where you’re trying to get the harmonizer to follow you through chord changes. If you basically strum on the parts where you want harmony, you’ll be fine with any of the devices that take guitar input.
I HAVEN’T tried either of the helicons. Since I started with Digitech, and know how to use it, I’ve pretty much stuck with Digitech devices. There is sort of an Apple-vs-PC argument between folks who prefer Digitech technology and those who prefer Helicon technology. Both have their issues and their advantages, but once you spend real time learning how to tweak them to work the best with your voice, guitar playing and musical styles, you have a sort of emotional investment in the technology.
I don’t know where you live, but in some parts of the country, it’s not hard to pick up slightly older technology used – technology that has more features than the H-1. Especially in pre-tax-return season, when folks start clearing out things they no longer need or never got around to learning to use properly.
Whatever you wind up with, please let me know, I’d be glad to find out about your experiences. Also, do you have a web page or the like I can check out?
Wow that’s a lot of helpful stuff, thanks Paul! I had a feeling about the Apple vs. PC thing that you just mentioned, so aside from asking people around I also went to as much local stores and demoing harmonizers myself. So far so good, and eventually after weeks of decision making I finally got myself the H1 because 1) I don’t need a pitch corrector, and 2) I send output to a system. I almost got the Harmony but I just really need a harmonizer, the rest are handled by the sound system. So thanks for everything you said, I’m sure people stumbling on this page in the future will find it super helpful like I did. So far I’m loving the H1, usually when I practice I just spend an hour or two… Now the minimum is three hours! Lastly, I don’t have a web page or anything yet. Maybe I’ll put up a Facebook page soon but for now I’m just happy to be singing at local bars at night after work. Thanks Paul!
Jackie, be sure and let me know what your experience is when you use the thing live.
Hey Paul, I used it live twice already. I gotta say, I’m loving it so far. Before using it live I had to spend a lot of time deciding which harmony to choose, I just can’t stop playing with this thing. Should I use both male? Both female? One male or one female? Don’t get me started on the pitches (but I’m not complaining, it’s so much fun). I eventually went with two male voices – low and above with my favorite acoustic Martin D28. Lots of people asked me afterwards if I pre recorded those so I was amused. For the second time I used both female above and below, I liked this setting much better but that’s just me. I just need to really commit to one harmony for an entire song because with this harmonizer, you have to bend over to change the harmony and I’m not a fan of that. I should also mention that I added reverb through the bar’s mixer so I have that going for me which is nice. Overall, happy with this purchase and I recommend it to anybody like me who just needs a harmonizer, period. Like you said, if you need more then you can’t go wrong with the VoiceTone or Harmony-G XT, cheers!
Jackie, sounds like you’ve got something you will enjoy working with. Don’t feel bad about experimenting – everybody’s voice is different and has subtle characteristics that become more noticeable if you use the wrong setting. My early version didn’t have the male/female voice option, and I’m a baritone, so I had to be careful not to sound like “Sons of the Pioneers” on every song. Still trying to get my new Digitech Vocalist set up the way I want it in my new home office/studio. We’ll see. Best of luck,