Culture

TC-Helicon’s VoiceLive 3: A Box Full of Virtual Backup Singers

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One of the hallmarks of great pop songs, recorded or live, are great harmony vocals. While non-melodic rap and death metal are often largely exempt from this artistry, just about all classic pop music is known for its harmonies, from Motown, country music and folk, to the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Even in hard rock, plenty of numbers by The Who and The Rolling Stones have great backing vocals behind the gruff bluesy belting of Roger Daltrey and Mick Jagger, respectively. Harmony vocals add polish to a recording or performance, and they add a subtle (sometimes not so subtle) ingratiating element to them as well: Hey, multiple people are singing along with the lead singer. Maybe I should join in and sing along as well, while listening at home, in the car, or in the audience!

In the past though, the solo performer who plays out in bars and coffeehouses armed with only his or her guitar, or the songwriter recording demos for his band in a spare room have historically been at a distinct disadvantage to a full ensemble until recent years. In 2007, the Canadian firm of TC-Helicon debuted their VoiceLive unit; currently, it’s on its third iteration. As one of those aforementioned persons recording demos on a digital audio workstation (DAW) in his den, I’ve been frustrated by the limitations of only having my (not so great) voice to work with, and have looked for ways to augment it electronically. So when I saw the demo of the VoiceLive 3 unit at Sweetwater, I knew I had to add it to my sonic arsenal:

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Of course, what goes into the VoiceLive 3 will determine what comes out of it; it won’t turn you into Kate Bush or Steve Winwood overnight. But as the many demos of the VoiceLive 3 and previous VoiceLive units uploaded to YouTube by TC-Helicon attest, with a little practice, the units do a very good job of turning decent singers into one person choirs, and decent singers with lush harmonies behind them sound that much better.

Inside the VoiceLive3 is massive amount of sophisticated electronics to generate its harmonies, which it cues off of a guitar plugged into it, a MIDI-equipped keyboard, or a backing track from an iPod or other miniplug-equipped music player. Or the song’s key can be set manually, and the VoiceLive 3 will do its best to guess the harmonies. On the outside of the unit, the VoiceLive3 has a metal case and multiple footswitch buttons to trigger harmonies on and off, along with other functions such as delay, reverb, and doubling, plus a built-in guitar tuner. And there’s a rotating dial to sift through the units many presets. The rear of the unit contains multiple inputs and outputs including a combined XLR and ¼” mono input for the lead vocal, stereo XLR outputs, MIDI in- and outputs, guitar inputs and outputs, and a miniplug input designed to allow backing tracks to be played from an iPod. So it’s possible to use the VoiceLive 3 even if you don’t play an instrument.

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As I mentioned near the start of my review, I was intrigued by the possibilities of using the VoiceLive 3 as a sketchpad device, to experiment with generating harmony vocals when recording song demos. I’m not sure I’d recommend this process to someone who’s new to recording with a DAW, and it requires a soundcard that can output audio from the computer, and then record it back in, as well as a decent working knowledge of your DAW itself. If you’re not scared off yet, I’ve stumbled onto a process that gets consistently in-tune harmonies when recording demos. I first record the underlying vocal, then correct the pitch in Melodyne (any decent pitch correction software will do the trick), then feed it out of my Fireface UCX breakout box into the Mic/Line input of the VoiceLive 3, and then record that onto a separate track in Cakewalk Sonar X3. Just record a handclap or other short percussive tone a bar before the vocals come in, which can then be synced up with the original vocal track to allow for any latency between the initial track and the version being sent out the soundcard to the VoiceLive 3 and back again. (Delete this sync tone when you’re done adjusting the timing, of course.) To ensure the harmonies are correct, feed a MIDI track of the desired chords from the DAW to the VoiceLive 3.

Most DAWs allow for putting the program into a loop so that a passage will play over and over again, doing so allows you to find a path in the VoiceLive 3 that’s a good starting point and tweak it to taste. Depending upon your pitch correction applet, it’s even possible to tweak the underlying vocal in real time while looping to find a melody line that sounds best when sung by multiple vocals.

If this initially sounds complex, it gets fairly intuitive through repeated use. (And unlike many electronic products, the reference manual for the VoiceLive 3 is quite good. It’s written in layman’s English and in PDF form, it’s searchable as well.) And consider: when the Beatles and Pete Townshend of The Who were recording their demos of songs they would present to their respective bands in the 1960s and ‘70s, the VoiceLive 3 would have seemed like science fiction to them. But just as the synthesizer offers an enormous variety of instruments by flipping through the presets, and guitar processors such the Line6 Pod, the Roland VG-88, VG-99, and the new Roland GP-10 allow guitarists an enormous range of tones via their presets, for someone with a modicum of recording and singing chops, it’s now possible to record solo demos with a whole backing vocal group at their disposal. What would have been science fiction in the 1970s is now a reality. (And I can’t wait to hear how this technology will shake out in the years to come.)

And this review doesn’t even get into what the VoiceLive 3 can do for the solo artist who loops sounds together on the fly within the unit:

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Are there downsides to the VoiceLive 3? The VL3 has a somewhat longish boot-up time (a little under 40 seconds), but considering all of the digital processing and computing going on inside of it, that’s not too surprising. And once you’re past your initial “Whoa, harmonies!” phase when first trying the unit out, it takes practice to get the best sounds of it. It really should be considered a musical instrument in its own right — which it is; except that your voice is playing it, as opposed to your fingers. Also, as the video atop this post featuring Sweetwater’s Mitch Gallagher playing guitar alongside TC-Helicon’s Laura Clapp attests, the VoiceLive 3 has loads of great guitar effects as well, also switchable via the footpedals on the unit. However, those playing a single-coil guitar too near their computers may want to use a noise-cancelling product such as the Electro-Harmonix Hum Debugger or similar stompbox to minimize hum when recording guitar through the VL3.

But those caveats aside, the VoiceLive 3 is a tremendous piece of kit for many types of solo performers for both playing live and songwriting purposes.