Ever wondered what it would be like to be a member of the opposite sex? Derek Johnson finds out...
Most readers will be familiar with pitch‑shifting as offered by multi‑effects units, and the unnatural character which a voice can take on when shifted by more than a couple of semitones. The reason for this is that everything is shifted, including the particular overtones — called formants — that give a voice its character. The result, on upward shifts, is often called 'chipmunking'. Alteration of formants, to preserve vocal character, is gradually becoming addressable at an affordable level: so‑called 'gender‑bending', where a male voice can be changed into a female voice, and vice versa, is available with Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer v1.7 software and Digitech's Studio Vocalist. Now it's also possible with Boss' new VT1, which offers an instant vocal sex‑change, plus a range of off‑the‑wall voice treatments.
The garishly‑coloured VT1 has been designed to do one job, and its controls are simple: between them, the Pitch and Formant sliders alter the pitch and character of the voice; Mix balances the input and output signal; and Reverb adds a touch of stereo reverb to the output. There's also a strange 'Robot' button: the manual (one side of folded A3 paper) describes this as fixing "the vocal pitch to produce a special effect like that of a robot speaking". In practice, the effect is like the cylons from Battlestar Galactica. There are no semitone stops on the Pitch fader — it's continuously variable — and the reverb is non‑editable. There's also no headphone socket.
The remaining controls include memory‑management buttons — not that there's much memory to manage. At any one time, you can access two banks of four memories each, one preset bank and one user bank (use the Write button to save custom memories). Both banks contain factory settings on power‑up. There are five different sets of factory memories (40 in total); changing sets involves switching on while holding down one of five buttons and pressing Write, but this operation deletes any custom settings you may have made in the previous set. There's an additional bank of eight memories just for user settings, but once again, if you change banks, these are lost.
A Bypass button passes the input signal untreated, while a Bypass footswitch socket at the rear does the same, but leaves the reverb in place. Other connections comprise a quarter‑inch input socket, which can accommodate line or mic sources, a mic 'through' connection, and stereo phono outputs. This last feature may be intended for the DJ and karaoke crowd. Power comes from a supplied 9V PSU.
The factory settings provide treatments split pretty equally between musically valid and 'novelty'. There are weird voice and computer effects for DJs, silly cartoon voices, and a couple of detuned and pitched interval settings. But most users will start wiggling the Pitch and Formant faders in a mad dash to discover what they'd sound like if they had been born the opposite sex or were still a small child. This is most effective. A few centons later, you'll be calling for Commander Adama to surrender, courtesy of the Robot button. Another fun thing to try is setting the Mix slider to its middle position, which allows the illusion of a 'duet' between the original input and a shifted version to be created.
I tried a few vocals off multitrack tape, and initially they didn't work well — the VT1 tended to 'chatter'. But patching a compressor between the tape deck and the VT1's input solved 90% of this problem: give it a good, even signal, and tracking will be consistent. I also tried some non‑vocal material through the VT1, but it really can't cope with anything polyphonic. Monophonic synth lines can be shifted, but the shifting is so accurate that there isn't much point. Wiggling the Formant slider can produce some nifty real‑time filter effects, though.
The VT1 is uncannily good at what it was intended to do, working very well on vocals and speech, to produce both fairly natural‑sounding and off‑the‑wall vocal treatments. If I was using a VT1 in the studio, I wouldn't necessarily leave a treated lead vocal exposed through a whole track, but it does add variety to backing vocals, and is great for the occasional special effect. Corrective work is also a distinct possibility, since you can shift a vocal by further than you might normally, and then use the Formant slider to restore its correct character; the VT1 also produces no audible delays.
Though it looks rather toylike, the VT1 is based around serious technology, and could have lots of potential uses, in the studio as well as in live performance or for DJs.
- A doddle to use.
- Formant correction, for convincing pitch‑shifting outside the normal range.
- Good gender‑bending effects possible.
- No headphone out.
- No MIDI.
- No way to save memories externally.
While the VT1 is a little pricey for basically a one‑trick box, the trick is accomplished so well that many will be tempted. If you're a DJ, a cartoon maker or a studio user in need of convincing, formant‑correctable pitch shifting, the VT1 is one of the few choices in this price range.