David Mellor explores ways to spice up vocal and guitar lines, courtesy of two new Digitech harmony processors.
Pitch‑shifting was once deemed to be an unattainable effect; something that everyone wanted, but not really practical to any usable level of quality. Then came a company called Eventide, with their famous Harmonizer, which changed all that for good. True, the original product didn't provide perfect pitch‑shifting, and even now with modern technology you can't expect a pitch‑shifted sound to be every bit as good as the original. There will always be some glitching, warbling, or other artifact to give the game away. Even so, there are many occasions where these side‑effects go unnoticed, don't matter, or can be consciously traded against the advantage pitch‑shifting can offer. Subtle pitch‑shifting is great for thickening up a sound, and small amounts can bring a persistently flat vocalist into correct tune (or at least they will waver up and down around the correct pitch rather than always being below it).
If these problems with pitch‑shifting have been all too evident in the past, particularly on lower cost devices or multi‑effects units that incorporate pitch‑shifting, then perhaps it has been because each unit has tried to address all pitch‑shifting applications. Digitech, however, have broken away from that idea and are offering units tailored to particular types of use. Under review this month, we have the Studio 5000 Five Part Digital Harmony Processor — I think I'll call it the Studio 5000 for short — which is tailored for instrumental sounds, and the Studio Vocalist Vocal Harmony Processor, which obviously is mainly intended for vocals. There's nothing to stop you breaking the rules and using either unit for any purpose, but I think Digitech's intentions are clear. And judging by the results, they are heading along the right lines.
The Digitech Studio 5000 has the appearance of a multi‑effects unit rather than a dedicated pitch‑shifter. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that this is all it is. Multi‑effects units, if they are not quite ten‑a‑penny yet, are certainly not nearly as exciting as they once were. When you listen carefully to what this Digitech unit can do, you will understand that this is a multi‑effects unit with a certain degree of class.
Digitech describe the Studio 5000 neither as a multi‑effects unit nor pitch‑shifter. 'Harmony Processor' is their term, which would imply that the Studio 5000 can take a single note input and turn it into a chorus, with harmonies that fit in with a particular key. This is true, and since it isn't necessary to stick to particular keys, or even harmonise in musical steps, then a whole range of thickening effects, and also weird effects, can be achieved along with the standard Brian May imitations that you would expect.
The Studio 5000 can take a single note input and create four harmony parts from it, giving five‑part harmony. If four harmonies are too rich for your taste, then dual‑voice programs are available. Some of the programs are better adapted to chordal rather than single note inputs — there is obviously a great deal of difference in recognising the pitch of a single note and applying harmonies to it, and working with a combination of notes, each note having a whole spectrum of harmonics.
Physically, the Studio 5000 occupies a 1U rackmount case, which seems to be no more than a multi‑effects unit should occupy these days, no matter how much functionality it contains. On the rear panel you will find stereo ins and outs, and you can easily hook up the unit in mono if you prefer. The LCD display is nice and bright, but there are rather a lot of small buttons to press. These have a very rubbery feel and, sadly, don't offer a positive click in response to an action by the user. With forethought and patience however, great things are possible.
Many users will spend their first few weeks with the unit exploring the presets, and there is nothing like a new selection of sounds to get the creative juices flowing. I found that I was able to multiply the 400 factory presets in my Korg keyboard by the 100 presets in the Studio 5000 to get 40,000 new and exciting sounds. Why should I ever want to buy another keyboard? And before you ask, I haven't tried them all yet!
Presets are split into two main groups, the mono bank and the stereo bank. Starting off with the mono bank, the first 10 presets are obviously designed to show off the range of capabilities of the Studio 5000 with octave doublings and detunings available in varying degrees of subtlety, some with delays. Presets 9 and 10 are, rather surprisingly, distortion programs (aimed at the guitarist), and are really rather good. The remaining effects come in groups: Detune Combinations, Chorus, Flange, Chord Shifting, Intelligent Harmony, Amplifier/ Speaker simulations and Special Effects. With a list of effects and brief descriptions to hand, it is easy to home in on something approaching the sound you are looking for and resist the temptation just to spin the dial at random.
The idea is to make multiple harmonies sound as though they are coming from different people instead of clones of the soloist, and it works.
The stereo presets are fewer in number but no less tempting. The first 10 are called 'Mix Imager Programs', which really translates as 'Thickeners'. I liked these for their subtlety, because they really do give a useful thickening effect, but it isn't always obvious how it is achieved. With an ordinary pitch‑shifter it is easy to set one output slightly sharp in pitch, the other slightly flat, to give a thick sound, but it is always perfectly obvious that the sound is effected and what was done to it. Here, you can tell that there is some chorus, delay, pitch‑shifting, reverb or whatever involved, but the finished sound nearly always comes out sounding as though it was meant to be that way.
The other stereo presets are grouped into Stereo Keyboard Programs, Drum Programs, Stereo Vocal Programs and Special Effects. Two presets are especially worthy of mention: 'Drum Bright Kit', which is an excellent reverb (something I didn't expect on a unit of this type) and 'Stereo Sampler'. The sampler preset offers an editable three second stereo (six second mono) memory, which you can use to take bits from any multitrack recording (say) and spin them in at other places in the song. You can always achieve this with your favourite sampler, of course, but it's nice to be able to do it in the context of pure sound, rather than music and MIDI, and it's quite easy to achieve once you have the hang of it.
No matter how good the presets are, you'll eventually tire of them and want to create your own. Won't you? The Studio 5000 may seem to have a lot of buttons, and this is where you'll find them very useful. The best way to approach editing is to pick a preset that is close to the sound you require, and then press the button corresponding to the component of the effect that you want to change. The effects library includes Harmony, Shift, Delay, Chorus, Flange, Dynamic Filter, EQ, Compression, Gate, Sample and More. What does 'More' include? For many of the programs, 'More' means reverb. And as I said earlier, the reverb is pretty good. Any unit of this type has a limited amount of processing power, so not all the effects are available at the same time. But when you have found a preset that incorporates all the components you require, just select it and then press the Edit button. A small number of relevant parameters will be made available for adjustment. There is of course a compromise to be struck here. Too many editable parameters and it would be too complex to be usable, too few and you won't get the sound you want. I think Digitech has got the balance about right.
It would easily be possible to fill a book with the possibilities of the Studio 5000, and indeed the manual writers have! Let me say that for keyboard players, guitarists and sound engineers, the Studio 5000 offers a wealth of creative possibilities at a high level of audio quality. You will need a lot of time and patience to explore them all, but I feel sure that your input will be rewarded. Even if you don't want to do any editing, the Studio 5000 has a good enough range of presets to offer a whole new perspective on any instrument you care to connect to it.
This device is a completely different kettle of ball games, to coin a phrase. Whereas the Studio 5000 is one of a number of multi‑effects units on the market, albeit a rather good one, the Studio Vocalist is (as far as I know) unique. The Studio 5000 is intended for use with instruments but the Studio Vocalist is, of course, dedicated to vocals. As you know, good singers are a very rare and valuable commodity. Good backing singers, perhaps even more so, since how many good singers want to remain in the background? Perhaps you sing yourself, and record vocal harmonies yourself too. If so, then the Studio Vocalist is the machine for you, since whatever raw ability you have it will multiply tenfold. Whether you want harmonies that follow the melody line exactly (and in tune with respect to the key it is in) or whether you want an ensemble of male and female voices to accompany you; you can do it all by yourself with the aid of the Studio Vocalist. Really!
To explain all of this I need to go through some important features of the unit, step by step. The Studio Vocalist understands five basic types of harmony:
- Chordal harmonies stick to a particular root note and a particular chord type. For instance, you could select an A major 7th chord, and the Studio Vocalist would provide appropriate notes from that chord to accompany whatever melody you were singing. It will of course sound best if you are singing in the correct key and reasonably consistently in tune.
- Scalic harmonies follow a key and a scale. 'Scale' refers to whether you are using major or minor modes. The Studio Vocalist will harmonise your melody with what it considers to be appropriate chords. Of course, there is always more than one possible set of chords to suit any particular tune, so don't expect miracles all the time.
- Chromatic harmony is where Studio Vocalist is used as a 'dumb' pitch‑shifter, where harmony notes are always fixed intervals from the input note. Chromatic harmony is most useful at octave or fifth doublings. With other intervals it can sound as though the harmony is wrong.
- Vocoder mode is quite different from the other modes. Like Chromatic mode it doesn't use any of the machine's 'intelligent' harmony finding functions, but now you can play notes on a MIDI keyboard and Studio Vocalist's harmonies will follow what you play. Potentially there is a lot of flexibility here, at the expense of only a little time and trouble.
- Pitch Correct isn't a harmony mode. Until a MIDI note or front panel key is played, then the input is directed straight to the output. When a note is played, then the pitch is corrected to that note.
Let's explore each of these modes in more detail. With the Chordal Harmony mode, you need to tell the Studio Vocalist what chord you want to hear, and you will need to do this for each change of harmony in the song. The 'voicing' of the harmony will be very important, so you are offered the choice of two up and two down with respect to the input note, three up/one down, four up, and other combinations. When you have the right voicing, then you will have to press the front panel notes or the keys on your MIDI keyboard to define the chord's root note, and one of the eight soft keys to say whether you want a major, minor, dominant 7th, diminished 7th, major 7th, minor 7th with flattened 5th, or suspended. This could result in some pretty feverish button‑pushing, so there is also a Song Mode where you can predefine the steps and simply push one button repeatedly, or use a footswitch to step through the chord changes of the song. 'Amazing Grace' is provided as a demo song, and it really does work amazingly well. If you ever wanted to be an 'a capella' choir all by yourself, then this is the unit for you.
An interesting provision is the ability to change the male vocal timbre into female (and vice versa) either while changing the pitch or keeping it the same. It really does sound quite convincing. I don't think anyone would be totally fooled on a lead vocal, but on backing vocals some very usable results can be achieved. The two timbres can be combined into a mixed ensemble, if you wish, and you can easily find yourself doing an impression of a gospel choir in the privacy of your studio.
The Studio 5000 can take a single note input and create four harmony parts from it...
Even though I don't find Scalic Harmony mode all that useful personally, probably because I prefer to choose my harmonies rather than have them added automatically, the Studio Vocalist certainly does a good job. Good enough to pass its Music GCSE exam, probably!
In Chromatic mode, where the pitch‑shift interval is constant, then it comes down to a question of quality. What does the output sound like? About as good as the best on vocals, I would say, bearing in mind that there's no such thing as perfect pitch‑shifting. For optimum results I would feed the signal through a compressor before pitch‑shifting, since the unit definitely works best on a signal it can get its teeth into, without going over the top into horrible sounding distortion.
Going back to the intelligent modes for a moment, signal level is doubly important here since the unit will try and create notes from whatever input it receives. It will harmonise breaths and coughs given half a chance. To control this to a reasonable extent, there is a gating function provided so that low level signals won't produce any sound. An 'ess' sensitivity control also regulates how responsive the unit will be to those noise components of the singing voice which can't be considered notes in any real sense. A 'Bass Rejection Threshold' function does a similar job of sorting out sounds which ought to be harmonised from those that ought not.
It's a wonder that vocoding isn't more popular, considering how powerful an effect it can be. Perhaps this is because vocoding is normally used to make an instrument appear to 'sing' and you can quickly tire of the novelty value. In this type of application, vocoding is used to take the relative strengths of the harmonics present in speech and superimpose them on another signal that is rich in harmonics. The Digitech Studio Vocalist in Vocoder mode isn't a real vocoder. What it does is to take an input signal and create harmonies according to MIDI note inputs that it is given. For instance, if you play a simple chord of C major and sing any note into Studio Vocalist, then you will hear yourself singing the notes C, E, and G. Oddly enough you can sing, groan or grunt, and you will still hear a chord of C major, but the more you stick to a precise note, the better the sound quality will be.
When you input notes from a MIDI keyboard you need to be careful to lift all of your fingers and play the next combination of notes cleanly, because the unit can easily get confused about which notes it is meant to be producing.
The first thing you will notice about using the Studio Vocalist is how precise the generated harmonies actually are. This will probably come as quite a novelty after years of trying to get real singers to be as precise as this, and early Queen‑style vocal harmonies come out of the speakers almost unbidden. Eventually, you may wish for something a little more lifelike, so Digitech have thoughtfully provided a number of 'humanising' features: Gender (which I have already mentioned), Detune, Vibrato, Scoop and Timing.
Gender here isn't just a matter of being male or female; you can choose which you want to be and then set a value from ‑50 to +50. A masculinity or femininity value if you like. The idea is to make multiple harmonies sound as though they are coming from different people instead of clones of the soloist, and it works. The Detune function adds what Digitech call 'a subtle out‑of‑tuneness' to the harmony voices. Human voices are rarely perfectly in tune and Studio Vocalist doesn't have to be either. Vibrato is another human feature, one that often becomes more pronounced the older the singer is! Vibrato parameters include Depth, Rate, Type (sine, square wave, sawtooth up, sawtooth down), Delay and Randomness. Scoop is a technique (or do I mean mannerism?) where a singer hits a note slightly below pitch and then slides up to correct the pitch. Scoop can be introduced randomly on the Studio Vocalist, or via MIDI velocity data. Finally, Timing is a variable delay before the onset of a harmony note, which also can be randomised.
With all this functionality, you might think that creating and storing programs would be pretty difficult, since each time you use the unit you will probably require a different harmony. Fortunately, Digitech have provided a 'Style' feature where you can edit harmonies and each of the humanising functions in detail, and then store them independently as Styles. Styles can be mixed and matched as necessary to create new harmony effects.
I won't say that it is the work of a moment to create a harmony that exactly suits what you are trying to achieve, but if you compare it with the alternative of writing everything down and working with a group of singers, then I think you will see the Studio Vocalist in its correct proportion.
- Two and four voice harmony.
- Two voice harmony with distortion.
- Four voice harmony with regeneration.
- Chord shifter.
- String pad.
- Multi‑tap delay.
- Stereo delay.
- Stereo chorus.
- Stereo flange.
- Dynamic filter.
- Graphic equalisers.
- Stereo reverb.
- Speaker and cabinet emulator.
- Modulation Envelope generator.
- Input left & right (left input doubles as effects return, right doubles as mono input).
- Effects send.
- Output left & right.
- MIDI In, Out, Thru.
- Continuous control pedal.
- Foot controller.
- Pitch Correct.
- Major 7th.
- Minor 7th.
- Dominant 7th.
- Minor 7th flattened 5th.
- Diminished 7th.
- Augmented 7th Suspended.
- Suspended 7th.
- Whole Tone.
- Harmonic minor.
- Melodic minor.
- Mic input (switchable 48V phantom power).
- Line input.
- Effects send & return.
- Dry signal output.
- Right/Voice 1 output.
- Left/Voice 2 output.
- Voice 3 output.
- Voice 4 output.
- MIDI In, Out, Thru.
- Yamaha SPX effects
Rackmounting multi‑effects units for everyone.
- Korg ih Interactive Vocal Harmony
Compact pitch‑shifter controlled by Korg i‑Series or other MIDI keyboards.
- Korg ToneWorks AX30G Guitar Hyperformance Processor
Floor‑standing guitar effects processor.
- Eventide Ultra‑Harmonizer DSP4000
- Eventide Ultra‑Harmonizer H3500
- Eventide Ultra‑Harmonizer H3000B
The last word in pitch‑shifting for pros with money to spend.
- Alesis Quadraverb 2
Pitch‑shifting in a snazzy reverb unit.
- Alesis Midiverb 4
Better quality pitch‑shifting in a snazzy reverb unit.
- Boss SE‑70 Super Effects Processor
Half rack pitch‑shifter/multi‑effects aimed at gigging musicians.
- A wide range of good quality effects.
- Rubbery feel to the keys, no positive click.
An upmarket multi‑effects unit with harmony processing too.