Digitech Vocalist II
Your Plastic Pal Who's Fun To Sing With
You can produce vocal pyrotechnics little short of magic with this rackmount version of the acclaimed VHM5 Vocalist. Our reviewer sings its praises.
Shirley Gray examines the practicalities of gigging and recording with the new Digitech Vocalist II, which can turn a solo singer into a complete Barber's Shop quartet.
The Digitech Vocalist seems like the answer to every vocalist's dream — perfect vocal harmonies from a single vocal, both in the studio and live. I encountered the original Vocalist VHM5 some time ago and was very impressed with it. A 1U rackmount version has since been launched, in the form of the Digitech Vocalist II reviewed here.
The Vocalist works by analysing the pitch of the note you sing, then using a pitch shifter to create the individual harmonies according to the chord or interval you've programmed into it. It's rather like an intelligent harmoniser and vocoder combined — the shifted sounds seem to be vocoded with the original vocal to avoid the 'Micky Mouse' effect you get with a conventional pitch shifter.
Most of the features of the Vocalist II are the same as its predecessor, the main difference being that Digitech have done away with the pads representing the key and the chord type — you now have to select these by using the Parameter buttons, programming them in advance, or more practically, by feeding the unit information from a MIDI keyboard. This may be considered a slight backward step in terms of flexibility of programming, but for most users, the rackmount format will be very welcome.
To get the most out of this unit you really need some understanding of musical theory, especially scales and harmony (chord structures). However, the complete novice could, by ploughing through the excellent tutorials in the manual, reach enough understanding to operate the Vocalist successfully, so don't write it off if your musical knowledge isn't up to much. I know an ex-drummer who sussed it pretty well with the help of a chord chart written out by the guitarist, and that was without the manual!
Basically there are two defined types of harmony: scalic and chordal. Scalic means that you choose a key (A, A#, B, etc) then one of four possible scales (major, minor, wholetone and diminished), and specify an interval. For those of you who aren't sure what an interval is: in the key of C major, C to E is a third, C to F is a fourth, C to G is a fifth and so on, up to C to C', which is an octave. Then we have C to D', which is a ninth, and — well, you get the picture, I hope. Anyway, when you sing your melody, the Vocalist creates harmonies which fit with the named scale. So if, for example, you were singing up the scale in the key of C major and specified an interval of a third above, you would be singing C, D, E, F, G etc and the Vocalist would sing along a third higher — i.e. E, F, G, A, B.
The musically aware amongst you will notice that the interval the Vocalist produces actually changes from a major third (four semitones) to a minor third (three semitones) as you go up. So it's very clever and works out where to change from major third to minor third by looking at the scale you've told it you're using. It can do the same with up to four specified intervals at once! If that sounds impressive, you should try to hear it in action, because it's brilliant.
The Chordal harmony is a little different in that you specify a chord type (major, major 7, minor, minor 7, dominant 7, minor 7b5, diminished, augmented, suspended and suspended 7th), and the Root note of the chord. The Vocalist then produces up to four harmonies. These consist of notes of the chord, and you can specify the notes required, or alternatively choose one from the factory voicings. A voicing is best described by giving you an example; in C major a typical voicing would be two above/two below; another would be three above/one below. So in the first example, the harmonies produced would be two above the root note (which is C) and two below, giving you E and G above, and E and G below.
Another way of generating the information required to enable the Vocalist to create suitable harmonies is to connect a MIDI keyboard. As you play the chords along with the song, the Vocalist analyses what you are playing and picks the right harmonies to fit. This is ideal for sequencer users. Yet another way is to use Vocoder mode, where the Vocalist samples the note you are singing and pitch transposes it to notes you play on a keyboard.
The Vocalist can also be used as a vocal effects processor. You can add Portamento (a slur from one note to the next) or Vibrato (even delayed vibrato), and with the Detune facility you can also create a fattening chorus effect by detuning the harmonies. Another useful effect is Pitch Randomize, which gives the harmonies a random (subtle) out-of-tuneness. These effects combined really make the end result sound more human.
My co-songwriter and I recently used the Vocalist to create a huge backwash of voices on the outro of a song, by feeding each of only three vocals in turn through a program called Vocal Unisons and recording it to tape. For each vocal there was the original plus four pitch randomized versions of it, so it sounded like the singer (which happened to be me) fifteen times instead of just three. Some unkind people would say that even three of me is at least three too many! Something else this amazing device can do is correct the pitch of the input note to a pitch selected by playing the appropriate key on a keyboard.
Because there are many chord changes within a typical song (and therefore the harmonies change accordingly), unless you are going to play the chords in 'live' from a keyboard (or sequencer), it becomes necessary to program the chord changes into the memory of the Vocalist. You can program up to 50 songs in, each one having not more than 100 chord changes.
There are three ways of letting the Vocalist know when to change chord: you can either use the supplied footswitch, a sequencer or a drum machine. The Vocalist has in its memory 100 programs which are all user programmable. The factory programs consist of 50 different harmony configurations, including Gospel, Full Harmony, Barber Shop, Carpenters, Beach Boys and Mancini 5-part. There are also some more self-explanatory programs such as Chord 2abv 1 bel (giving you two harmonies above and one below the root note, which is the note you sing). The five-part Diatonic presets are very convincing; if you just sing up the major scale you can hear all the harmonies moving so they fit around the sung note, just like some really hot jazz outfit that's been singing together for years!
All the input and output sockets are on the rear panel, with the exception of the headphones socket on the front. From left to right, they comprise two mic/line inputs, one being an XLR connector (female) with a built-in pre-amp, and the other a quarter-inch jack socket; one Line output which is the straight signal only; two quarter-inch jack outputs (left and right) which produce a mix of the straight signal and harmonies; a socket for the footswitch; three 5-pin dins (MIDI In, Out and Thru), and an IEC connector for the mains supply. Moving to the front, there's a mains switch, and an LCD which displays the Program name, Key, Chord type and screens for the various menus. A numeric LED shows you the current program number, and a Bypass LED lights when the harmonies are muted by using a Bypass button. There's a mini mixer with three rotary pots, one to adjust Input level, and the other two to set the balance of the original signal (Vocal Level) with the harmonies or effect (Harmony Level).
Setting of the input level is aided by four LEDs arranged in the form of a bar meter, and a fifth LED labelled Signal Lock, which should be lit most of the time. Any one of the 100 programs may be selected with the Program Up/Down buttons or alternatively with the footswitch. Other buttons include Song list, which accesses the 50 songs; Store, which saves edited programs and song lists into the memory; and four Parameter buttons.
The Parameter buttons are used to access particular menus, enabling you to edit the programs and settings of the Vocalist. Several features are accessible within the Utility menu; you can adjust the master tuning of the device, the contrast of the LCD, and you can de-ess the signal, making it easier for the unit to produce harmonies on sibilant sounds.
Certain parameters may be assigned to be controlled by external MIDI controllers: harmony detune; Vibrato delay speed and depth; Harmony volume (left and right); Pitch Randomize and Portamento speed. An anti-feedback feature may be employed if you have feedback problems during use which you can't alleviate by altering levels or moving speakers and microphones. There's also an inbuilt noise gate working on the harmonies, which comes in when the input drops below a certain threshold, the level of which you can set.
Another option on the Utility menu is footswitch function. There's a choice of three Song Control modes: Footswitch Step; MIDI Full Auto; and MIDI Foot Sync, and there's a choice of six different configurations of the functions of the three switches on the footswitch. You can also alter the Bypass action of the footswitch, which can be set to be Latching, Momentary Off or Momentary On.
You may reset any or all of the 100 programs to the factory presets. The 50 factory preset Programs (they each occur twice) can be edited within the Program Edit menu. Individual harmonies within a Program can be changed to different notes, muted, detuned or altered in volume. The Harmony type may be selected: Chromatic gives you parallel harmonies (i.e, the intervals are always the same); Scalic ensures that the harmonies will fit a given scale; Chordal Harmonies will adjust to fit a specified chord; and in Vocoder mode the pitches of the harmonies are determined by playing the required notes on a MIDI keyboard.
Via the Utility menu, it's possible to enter the MIDI Parameter sub-menu. This gives you control over several MIDI parameters, such as selecting a particular MIDI channel for the reception of MIDI messages, transmitting and receiving Program Change and Key Change, MIDI keyboard split, MIDI song select from your drum machine or sequencer, and the dumping of programs and songs to another Vocalist II or VHM5. For Chordal presets, Program Change messages may be used to select Chord and Key, so if you were using a sequencer live or in the studio, you could insert the appropriate Program Change number at the required point and the chord changes would happen automatically. These are defined in a chart in the manual; Program Changes 1 to 12 are C maj to B maj, 13 to 24 are C maj7 to B maj7 and so on up to 120. For Scalic presets, the Program Changes will select Key and Scale types according to another chart, 1 to 12 being C major through to B major, the rest being minor, wholetone and diminished, 48 in total.
Within the Scalic presets you may also select chord and key with MIDI note information; again there's a table to show you which MIDI note selects which Scale and Key. Similarly, for Chordal programs MIDI notes can be used to select Chord and Key. The Vocalist will also decipher chords being played on a MIDI keyboard and choose harmonies which fit that chord.lt recognises ten types of chord: maj, maj7, min, min7, dom7, aug7, minor7b5, dim, sus and sus7.
If you're not using the Vocoder setting or one of the other ways of telling the Vocalist what chord you want, you have to program the chords into a Song List, then step through them with the footswitch or by synchronising it (using the MIDI clock signals) to a MIDI sequencer or drum-machine. This is much like programming a sequencer in step time and is pretty laborious. First, you divide the song into sections — say Intro A, Verse B, Chorus C, Link D, Middle eight E, end F. You may select a maximum of six sections, each section having up to 30 bars of 4:4 time. Then you construct the Section List — a typical one might be ABCDBCECCF. Then comes the laborious bit: you have to work right through each beat of each section putting the chord changes in. Bars of odd lengths have to be at the end of a section, so if you're one of those people who liberally sprinkle their choruses with 2:4 bars you might find there aren't enough sections.
Synchronising the chord changes to the performance may be done in three ways. You can either hit the footswitch at the point you want it to change, and step through the song that way, or you can get your drum machine running an appropriate pattern, then sync up the vocalist when you want to by hitting the footswitch. Alternatively with MIDI full-auto mode selected the Vocalist will start the song at the same time as you start your drum-machine or sequencer and magically come up with the right chord at the right time — provided you've programmed them in correctly, of course!
I hesitate to call this machine user-friendly; it necessarily has to be complicated because of the complex nature of what it's doing. However, I do think Digitech have made a superb job of making it as user-friendly as possible. Using the footswitch to change chords was easier than thought it would be, but I kept instinctively hitting the button on the first note I sang, which changed it to the wrong chord!
There are a few minor negative points — sometimes when you sing certain notes into the device there's a tendency for the harmonies to jump around a bit. For this reason I much preferred using the Vocoder mode of control, where the notes you play are the notes you get. The straight programming-in method synchronised to a sequencer was the most reliable way of telling the Vocalist what chord to sing, although it was a tedious job entering all those chords. Other methods where you use Program Change or MIDI note information to select the chord were also too long-winded for me. The mode wherein the Vocalist looks at what you're playing and decides for itself what chord fits best is the fastest, but it is occasionally unreliable, in that you can get some strange interpretations — for instance, I played a song (from the sequencer) starting on E min; the Vocalist's display insisted repeatedly that it was G maj7! I checked the notes on the sequencer and there were no flurbs, so God knows where that came from! But it was fun playing the keyboard and watching the display change chords depending on what I was playing.
As to the Vocalist II's sound quality, I found it reasonably quiet in operation, though the harmonies don't sound completely smooth or very real when on their own or mixed high in a track — there's a kind of repeating throb, similar in quality to a looped sample. The best way to use it is to back up the lead vocal, use the humanising effects, such as the Pitch Randomize, and apply effects such as reverb and maybe a little chorus — then the result can sound very impressive indeed. Chord changes are instant; there is the odd tiny glitch, but this is imperceptible in a mix. Provided the harmony parts are mixed behind the lead vocal rather than at an equal level, the results can be disturbingly realistic.
I must admit to being rather over-awed by the results you can achieve with the Vocalist II — I've always loved harmony vocals and this provides an easy means of creating something that sounds musically impressive. The Vocalist is particularly easy to use initially — you just plug in and off you go — but you need to try out all the various control options to find the one you feel most comfortable with. Some methods of control are more reliable than others: I found the Vocoder preset the most reliable for live use; for studio use, programming the chords into the machine, and running it in sync with the sequencer off a tape sync code is best. With 50 different preset harmony possibilities you can get started straight away without spending lots of time programming, and since the unit can behave as an effects processor, you have the option of using it to fatten up your vocal sound, adding vibrato or portamento, or for creating a special effect like shifting your voice up or down an octave.
Digitech created an innovative product when they designed the Vocalist VHM5 and it was, not surprisingly, voted Product Of The Year. Now that it's available in rackmount form, it will probably be even more popular. The Digitech Vocalist is a unique product — it's simply magic.
Digitech Vocalist II and 3-way footswitch £899 including VAT.
John Hornby Skewes, (Contact Details).
Review by Shirley Gray
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