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Digitech Vocalist II

Vocal Harmony Processor

It's that Nicholas Rowland again, testing his tonsils on Digitech's new 5-part vocal harmony processor. You too can sound like The, er, Five Tops

Forget the half-baked pitch shifting of conventional effects processors, this is a harmoniser with attitude...

It's called the Vocalist II for short - the Five Part Vocal Harmony Processor for long. But either way, you sing into one end and out the other come four extra 'voices', simultaneously transposed to four different pitches according to pre-selected criteria. Result: not so much schizophrenia as quadraphenia. Solo singer becomes solo singer backed by instant folk group, barber shop quartet or the Beach Boys - all at the press of a button.

Working through a combination of 16-bit sampling and 24-bit processing, this dedicated vocoder/pitchshifter/harmoniser will automatically select the harmony intervals pre-determined by you. Unlike other common or garden pitchshifters this ensures that your harmonies always stay in key.

When the original Vocalist was first unveiled a couple of years ago it won immediate acclaim and a Product of the Year award for technical innovation. Vocalist II is not so much The Next Generation, The Return or even The Revenge - more the same bag of electronic tricks packed in a different box: a 1U 19" rack-mounting box rather than the desk-top case of the original.

While this gives you all advantages of a 19" rackmounting unit (like, er... the fact it'll fit in a 19" rack) what we've lost is the 'keyboard' arrangement of controls which took up most of the Vocalist I's top panel and which were used to select scales and chord root notes. That's a shame, since they were crucial to the ease of programming of the unit.

All the other hardware elements remain as before. On the front we've got rotary controls for input, voice level and harmony level, plus programming buttons, headphone socket and LED/LCD displays: round the back there are line and mic inputs (the latter with a built-in preamp), line out for the dry signal, stereo outs for the processed/harmonised signal, an input for the Digitech FS300 footswitch (supplied) and MIDI In, Out and Thru.

If you haven't yet encountered the Vocalist in either I or II form and you want to know the point of it (as well as finding out whether it's any good) do not pass Go, do not collect £200, just plug in a mic and go straight to the first of the demo songs. Now start singing 'Amazing Grace' (the words are in the manual) and at the appropriate points (also shown in the manual), press the appropriate parameter button to step through a series of pre-programmed chordal harmonies. What comes back at you is a gospel choir (well, in as much as four voices can be a full choir) which follow all the song's chord changes with a very fine set of heartrending harmonies. It's an uplifting experience, I can tell you.

Having wiped the tears from your eyes, now progress to demo songs 2, 3, 4 and 5. Here you'll be able to try out 'Home On The Range', 'Happy Birthday', 'Greensleeves' and (the jewel in the crown) the introduction to 'Bohemian Rhapsody', all with the benefit of a similarly talented close harmony backing group.

Yes, the Vocalist really does work, producing convincing harmonies, rather than something that sounds like it's out of Looney Tunes. The pitchtracking is incredibly fast with few glitches, even for big leaps in pitch, and there is no perceptible delay whenever you change from one chord to the next.

There's also no hint of the dreaded chipmunk syndrome (...if chipmunks are involved, they must have the brains of particle physicists). Equally impressive is the fact that you don't have to sing the right notes for the Vocalist to produce the right chordal harmonies. The unit just takes the characteristics of your voice and uses them to produce pitch perfect notes.

However, while the quality and character of the harmonies captures that of the input vocal pretty accurately, there's also something slightly spooky about the sound. It definitely sounds 'processed' - particularly if you just listen to the harmonies in isolation. But get the right balance between the original voice and the harmonies and the total effect is extremely convincing, particularly if in the context of a complete mix.

Having allowed these initial thoughts to wash over you, you are now fit and ready to progress to the preset programs and to try out the rest of the Vocalist's repertoire. While the demo songs are built around the ten types of chordal harmonies - major, major 7th, minor, minor 7th, dominant 7, minor 7b5th, diminished, augmented, suspended and suspended 7th - the presets demonstrate the Vocalist's prowess in other areas: scalic harmonies, harmonies read from incoming MIDI information (vocoder mode) and special effects such as chorus, detune and pitchshifting.

Where scalic harmonies are selected, the Vocalist voices follow your melody up and down with harmonies that keep within a chosen key/scale. (Note: for this to work properly you really do have to be able to hit the right notes and hold them, otherwise the Vocalist will jump all over the place.) The 50 factory programmed presets include configurations which give you typical Gospel, Folk and Gregorian Chant harmonies, as well as more contemporary setups like the Beach Boys, Supremes and Carpenters - all of which make an ideal starting point for your own ideas. To create your own patches, you first define a set of intervals between the incoming voice and the four harmony parts, then choose a key and a scale. The Vocalist offers five traditional scale types: Major, Minor, Wholetone, Diminished and Chromatic. The last is somewhat different from the others since the intervals remain fixed no matter what note you sing.

Switch to Vocoder mode, and the harmonies will now be determined by incoming notes from a MIDI controller such as a keyboard or sequencer. A further variation of the Vocoder mode provides a pitch correct function, where your voice is sampled, and shifted to whatever melody line is being played into the Vocalist. If this sounds like it could be the perfect antidote to duff singers, then you're in for a disappointment. While it can be used to correct the odd set of notes here and there, if you try to pitch-correct an entire vocal line it sounds extremely unconvincing. This is not really the fault of the technology, it's more that a good vocal performance involves much more than just reproducing a series of notes with perfect pitch - indeed, it's the imperfections which give the vocal its character.

That's why the Vocalist's programmable patch parameters allow you to introduce imperfections to humanise your 'backing singers'. Such parameters (available for each voice in a patch) include detune, random 'out of tuneness' and different portamento speeds so that each harmony voice moves from note to note at different speeds. Vibrato can also be added, with depth, speed and delay separately programmable for each pair of voices.

Having created/modified a program this can be saved in any one of 100 memory locations (50 of which are filled with the factory patches mentioned earlier). Once you run out of memory there are the usual MIDI dumping options.

Patches can be recalled via MIDI too - as can different keys or chords - and you've a choice as to whether this is done using program or note numbers.

Several of the voice parameters, such as vibrato, harmony volume, pitch randomize and portamento speed, can be controlled in real time via controllers such as the mod or pitchbend wheels. Rather generously, the Vocalist allows you to assign a separate continuous controller number to each of the parameters in question. Another 'performance aspect' of the Vocalist is its ability to make intelligent guesses about the chord and key you ought to be working in by analysing chords as you play.

The Vocalist is an exciting piece of equipment to have in your set-up if you regularly use vocals as part of your music. Whereas many current hi-tech instruments are virtually indistinguishable from one another in sound, the Vocalist has no equal, either in the concept or the execution. It is particularly suitable for the bedroom singer-songwriter who wants to use vocal harmonies, but is limited when it comes to friends with decent voices or the ability to produce harmonies by multitracking his/her own voice.

Of course, it's precisely this type of person who may think twice before forking out for what is a highly specialised machine. However, given that the vocal is the most distinctive part of most recordings, it could make a far more sensible investment than a whole rack of soundalike expanders and synth modules.

Digitech are also to be congratulated on making what is a very complex machine as approachable as possible. Even if you're harmonically challenged and impatient to get up and running, you'll still be able to get a long way working in chordal harmony mode. But if you've got an understanding of harmonies and scales and plenty of programming time on your hands then the sky's the limit.

Price: Digitech Vocalist II £899 RRP

More From: John Hornby Skewes (Contact Details)

Vocal automation

The Vocalist's Song List menu allows you to memorise a list of program and chord changes for an entire song. You can then step through them manually using the front panel buttons (as on the demo routines) or the footswitch, or you can sync the Vocalist to a drum machine or sequencer and call them up automatically. The Vocalist can hold up to 50 songs - each of which can be up to 480 bars long and include 100 chord/key changes. All programming is in step time using 8th note steps, though songs with odd and mixed time signatures can also be accommodated. Be warned, programming harmonies for a long and complex song can be slow going - which is where the dedicated root note buttons of Vocalist I were so useful. Normally, the Vocalist will begin to run in sync with the drum machine or sequencer as soon as you press the start button of the controlling machine.

But another option allows you to let the drum machine run for a while then bring in the Vocalist whenever you're good and ready. Vocalist songs can also be called up using MIDI song select commands, which could be handy if you run your entire stage show from a sequencer.

Mic technique

You quickly learn that one of the secrets of successful Vocalisting is good microphone placement (as well as a half decent mic, of course.) An LED meter provides a visual indication of the strength of the incoming signal, but you also need to keep your eye on the Signal Lock LED. If it comes on and stays on whenever you're singing, then you've got it right: if it's unsteady or intermittent then you haven't.

One of the tricks is to get your mouth as close to the mic as possible, since this not only ensures a strong signal, it also helps prevent any external noise getting into the system as well. If it does, and it's in any way 'musical' (ie, not just noise) then you find that it too gets harmonised - which is definitely not a desirable thing. The Vocalist can, however, be set to automatically turn off the harmonies whenever the input level drops below a certain level.

Other functions which help in setting up the mic are an anti-feedback control and a de-esser. If these need to be used, they have to be kept on the lowest settings possible since they can cause considerable degradation of the signal/harmonies.

Also featuring gear in this article

Previous Article in this issue

Phonic PMW-1600A

Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - May 1993

Gear in this article:

Studio FX > Digitech > Vocalist II

Gear Tags:

Digital FX
Pitch Shifter

Previous article in this issue:

> Phonic PMW-1600A

Next article in this issue:

> Sampling Confidential - Late...

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