Thick harmony vocals can make any singer-songwriter happy, and one easy way to add the sound of backup vocalists to your set, without recruiting all your friends, is by using a vocal harmonizer. Until recently, however, guitarists had to slog through an arduous setup with their vocal processors, setting keys and scales for each song if they wanted to use a vocal harmonizer in a live performance. But now technology has progressed to the point where harmonizers can calculate which notes to add to your vocal melody by analyzing the guitar chord you’re playing. Both DigiTech and TC-Helicon have been honing their auto-harmony devices and their newest models—DigiTech’s Vocalist Live 3 and TC-Helicon’s VoiceLive Touch—not only provide more power, but are easier to use and better organized.
With both units, you plug your guitar into a 1/4-inch input and your vocal mic into a balanced XLR input. Both units have phantom power, so you can use a microphone that needs phantom power, even if your amp or PA doesn’t provide it. Use the main mono or stereo outputs and your guitar, vocal, and any processing are sent to your amp or mixer. If you want your guitar signal to be unaffected, you can connect the 1/4-inch Guitar Thru output to another channel of your amp or PA. This automatically takes the guitar out of the main output—using it only to generate harmonies.
DigiTech Vocalist Live 3
$429.95 list/$299.95 street, vocalistpro.com
DigiTech has been a respected guitar effects pedal manufacturer for decades. In 2007, it debuted a set of harmony generators (Vocalist Live 2 and Live 4) and the Live 3 updates the Live 2 with pitch correction, humanize and gender functions, and an interface that allows you to quickly create and access multiple sets of harmony patches.
The most surprising thing about the Live 3 may be how easy it is to use. The processor was designed for guitarists who are used to stompboxes and don’t want to have to program complicated gear. Everything is accessible from the front panel via a clearly labeled button, knob, or footswitch. To create two- or three-part harmonies with your voice, simply press one of the two Voicing buttons to choose the kind of harmony you want (there are seven possibilities, ranging from an octave below to an octave above, from low to high). The affiliated Gender button allows you to choose one of four settings that are more “male” or “female.” Add a harmony patch an octave below, and you sound like ’80s pop hitmaker Squeeze. Assign two harmony patches above your voice, and you instantly turn into the Eagles.
Ten harmony presets come preprogrammed in pairs—five presets each with an A and B setting—and each can be reprogrammed with any harmonies you want using the Memory Patch. Other knobs on the front control Reverb, Delay, Compression, Autotune, Warmth, a two-band EQ, Pitch Correction, Humanize (how tightly the vocals follow your lead), and guitar level. Three footswitches across the bottom allow you to select the patch you want, turn the effects and harmony on and off, and activate the guitar tuner.
With my Taylor 314k guitar and Shure Beta 87A vocal mic and the output of the Live 3 running into a Fishman Loudbox Mini amp, I was impressed at how well it generated harmonies—especially on strummed chords and straightforward guitar backdrops. While I occasionally had to adjust my playing—the way I changed chords, or the way I sang to get the best result—a very small adjustment usually fixed the problem. For example, a syncopated vocal line that comes in just before a chord change generates harmonies based on the current chord, and those harmonies quickly snap into place when the chord changes. While this can be a cool effect, to make the harmonies match the vocal with less motion, I could change guitar chords simultaneously with my vocal melody. The Live 3 works best with chords that feature the root and defining third (whether a major, minor, diminished, or extended chord). Yet I was impressed with the results I got when trying to trick it by playing slash or sus chords, and it could occasionally provide harmonies on riff-based or single-note backup parts. One cool function is the “momentary” harmony mode, where the footswitch turns on the harmony only for as long as you hold the switch down with your foot—instead of toggling between “harmonies on” and “harmonies off.” This way you can add harmonies for just a single phrase—a good mode to use for riff- or lick-based tunes.
The Live 3 works great as a guitar processor, too. The guitar effects sound good, but you’ll need to spend a little more time configuring these. The guitar has a separate reverb level, while the overall reverb setting applies to both the guitar and vocals, so you’ll need to tweak both settings to find the best overall sound.
TC-Helicon VoiceLive Touch
$695 list/$499 street, tc-helicon.com
TC-Helicon focuses entirely on vocal processing and has been a respected player in the vocal processing world since its inception in 2000. Like DigiTech’s harmonizers, the VoiceLive units automatically generate vocal harmonies based on your guitar and voice. The VoiceLive Touch integrates the technology from the VoiceLive 2, introduced in 2009, into a completely new package controlled by touch sensitivity instead of footswitches.
Unlike the Live 3, the VoiceLive Touch isn’t designed specifically for guitarists. It’s intended for vocalists who sing with a keyboard or guitar (or even solo vocalists who front a band and don’t play an instrument). The VoiceLive is more than a harmonizer; it’s also a vocal and instrumental looper and a much more extensive effects unit than a typical harmonizer. Even with all this power, I was impressed with how easy it was to use right out of the box. The VoiceLive Touch is a compact unit that hooks onto a microphone stand so you can access it with your hands while standing. Its sleek touch-sensitive buttons allow you to select harmonies by simply touching up to four of eight harmony buttons. Turn reverb and effects on and off with the appropriate button (µMod, Delay, Reverb, FX, Double, and Harmony) and access a preset from one of the numbered buttons along the bottom. The touch-sensitive slider allows you to quickly scroll through settings and view titles and other information with a finger in the same way you navigate around an iPhone or iPad. And there are myriad vocal effects you can access and adjust when you get past the first level.
The harmonies on the VoiceLive Touch sound great and—as with the Live 3—I was impressed by how well it generated harmonies from my guitar and voice. The two units respond similarly to single-note lines or riff-based backup. One difference between them is that the VoiceLive allows four simultaneous harmonies plus a doubler, giving you several more voices than the Live 3. This means that you can approximate heavily overdubbed recordings (like late Beatles), thicker CSNY-type sounds, and even choral backdrops. One thing the VoiceLive doesn’t offer that the Live 3 does is gender control. And it’s not as easy to change settings on the VoiceLive while you’re playing the guitar. However, you can purchase the TC-Helicon Switch 3 ($49), a three-button footswitch that allows you to turn on harmonies and control the VoiceLive’s looping functions with your feet.
Several extra buttons on the face of the VoiceLive Touch control its ability to record and edit loops of your voice or guitar, one of the coolest features of this unit. You have to stay within the looper’s 60-second total time limit (30 seconds if you’re using it in stereo mode or 120 seconds if you disable the undo function). If you want to loop your guitar, too, you’ll need to use the VoiceLive as a guitar preamp. Like everything else on the VoiceLive, the guitar effects sound great and are highly editable.
After spending some time with the VoiceLive Touch, I had the feeling that I’d only scratched the surface of its possibilities. With so many editable functions, a USB connection, and TC-Helicon’s software updates and blog, the VoiceLive has considerably more power than the Live 3 and will allow you to continue exploring its capabilities for quite some time.
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Both of these units do a great job of harmonizing. The one you choose will depend more on your needs than anything else. If you want an easy-to-use harmonizer that’s ready to go and designed for a guitarist, the Live 3 is for you. If you need more than two harmonies, relish the ability to loop your voice and guitar, and/or enjoy having the options of a huge set of effects, check out the VoiceLive Touch.
Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar April 2011