The newest member of Digitech's Vocalist family of intelligent pitch‑shifters boasts some slimmed‑down features from previous models and a'hands‑on' user interface.Paul Farrer warms up with some scales, adjusts his bow tie and takes this powerful module right through to the standing ovation and bouquets.
When Digitech released the first in their Vocalist series of 'intelligent harmonisers', the VHM5 (see SOS October 1991), it caused something of a minor revolution. The ability to pitch‑shift live or recorded vocals and thereby create accurate harmonies (or correct dodgy singing) seemed almost too good to be true, and with MIDI control thrown in, the Vocalist's success in the hi‑tech market was assured. After several more well‑received incarnations, including the fully‑featured rackmount Studio Vocalist and the cheaper, easy‑to‑use MIDI Vocalist (see SOS August '95 and July '96 respectively), Digitech have now redesigned this multi‑talented module once again, coming up with the Vocalist Workstation reviewed here. With a price tag of around the £750 mark, the unit is cheaper than the Studio Vocalist, but more expensive than the MIDI Vocalist, and is therefore unlikely to be classed as an entry‑level piece of gear. However, the inclusion of the built‑in reverbs and onboard faders could win it quite a few friends.
Physically, the Vocalist Workstation is very reminiscent of the original Digitech VHM5 design. Five sensibly‑proportioned faders nestle on the drum machine‑sized top panel, and these control input, output and reverb levels, as well as the original signal (or 'Lead', as it is referred to) and harmony levels. There is a finger‑friendly data wheel on the top right, and a simple one‑octave 'keyboard' for inputting chord changes and other pitch information. Up near the 4x20‑character liquid crystal display, there are eight soft keys (arranged in two rows of four), four input monitor LEDs that range from ‑30 to 0dB, a MIDI Active LED, an overload warning LED, and two others that indicate when the pitch detection circuitry has recognised the incoming note. The LCD is clear enough and backlit, but you can't help feeling that both this and the LEDs are just a little too small — in a dark and crowded live venue, you could acquire a pronounced squint trying to see what is going on. What's more, there would have been enough physical space on the front panel to accommodate a slightly larger display.
The multiple XLR and line output options of the Studio Vocalist have been ditched in favour of a simpler set of stereo line outs. There is a footswitch and headphone socket, as well as the usual MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets. Audio signals can be sent to the unit via the mono line in, or you can plug a mic straight into the single, balanced XLR input. Be warned, though — unlike the Studio Vocalist, the Vocalist Workstation does not provide phantom power, and is powered at the unusual voltage of 9.75V DC from a short‑cabled 'wall wart' that will almost certainly be impossible to replace if it goes wrong! In favour of portability, the unit weighs only 0.7kg. This smaller, more lightweight construction does have its advantages, and has obviously contributed to keeping the price down, but you do get the feeling that the whole unit might be just a bit too compact at just 267x167mm, especially when you consider that under normal operating conditions you are likely to have at least five cables going into the back panel. Certainly while I was carrying out this review, things got a little crowded, cable‑wise.
At the heart of the Vocalist Workstation (as with all recent Vocalist products) is a harmony processing chip from IVL Technologies in Canada (see IVL interview in SOS August '96), and Digitech certainly use this technology to its fullest potential. The Workstation has 18‑bit A/D converters, and has a frequency response of 15Hz‑20kHz, resulting in impressive sound quality.
Just as with any other processor, setting up the input and output levels is crucial to the performance of the module. Luckily, with the Workstation's onboard faders, this is a simple enough procedure, and once I'd set up these levels, I found the unit to be extremely quiet and well behaved.
The Workstation contains 50 factory presets and a further 50 blank locations into which you can store your tweaked and edited patches. Selecting a preset is child's play: simply turn the data wheel one click, and a new preset is loaded almost instantly. The presets are split into seven main stylistic categories: Demonstration (a mixed bag to show you what the Workstation can do), Vocal Thickening, Vocoder, Scalic Harmony, Chordal Harmony, Reverb Only and Special Effects. Of course, the presets that actually construct harmonies from the input signal have to be told which chord you want to build and what 'style' that chord is (is it, for instance, major or minor, and is it a 7th or diminished?). This can be achieved a number of ways. Firstly, when you load up a harmony‑constructing preset, the screen displays a list of up to eight different harmonic variations that can be selected using the eight soft keys beneath the Workstation's LCD. The variations differ between presets, and if a particular harmonic style you want isn't listed as the preset boots up, it's a simple enough procedure to assign new harmony types to a particular soft key function (see the 'Sweet Harmony' box for a list of available harmonic types).
A loaded preset defaults to a major chord style, and using the built‑in keyboard, you simply hit a note of the scale to select the actual chord itself. So, for example, if you hit a D on the keyboard, harmonies will be constructed that are appropriate to the key of D major. Another way to input the root note information is from a sequencer, or live from a MIDI keyboard. The MIDI spec allows you to send a track of MIDI information (such as a sequenced synth pad) to the Workstation, which can read the chord type and assign appropriate harmonies from that. The third way of changing chords (particularly useful for live applications) is via a footswitch. This is achieved by chaining together a pre‑programmed set of chord structures and program changes (in the form of a so‑called 'Song') and then stepping through these by either triggering from the Workstation's front panel or using a Digitech footswitch (the manual doesn't mention whether you can use other manufacturers' footswitches or not). You can have up to 50 Songs in memory at any one time, and each one can be composed of up to 16 named sections (such as verse, chorus, and so on). Each section can, in turn, have a maximum of 32 steps (chord or program changes).
The Workstation's presets are designed to give you a good selection of instantly usable vocal effects, with more emphasis on getting going straight away than on distracting you with endless editing options. In this respect, the module succeeds tremendously well. Compared to Digitech's Studio Vocalist, I found the Vocalist Workstation more readily accessible, and, despite the heat and time constraints of a vocal session I was involved with during the review, the unit performed admirably. My only concern was that the buttons making up the small 'keyboard' on the front panel emit an alarmingly loud click when depressed. The upshot is that any singer who intends to sing at the same time as playing the Workstation's keyboard would have to be very careful with microphone types and positions in order to avoid unwanted percussion accompaniment!
If you do feel the need to delve deeper into the edit pages, there is a refreshing simplicity to their general layout, too. For instance, when you jump to the mix page, four bargraphs appear on screen indicating the output levels of each note (or voice) of a harmonic block. These correspond to (and are in line with) the eight soft keys under the LCD, and you select and alter each individual level using a combination of these and the data wheel. The whole system is very intuitive and after only a short time, the fine‑tuning and creation of new and unusual harmonic effects becomes second nature.
All the presets come with some other very appetising initial edit parameters, although the fundamental functions vary quite a lot between presets, and so the available edit parameters alter depending on the preset selected. Those on offer include pan, level, and vibrato settings for each individual harmonic, gender (to give your harmonies a male or female sound), reverb type (studio, chamber, club, hall, and arena) and various humanisation features. One of the most interesting of these features is a form of randomiser, which arbitrarily detunes certain notes within a harmony block to make it seem more 'real'. There is also a neat 'scoop' or portamento parameter, which works particularly well on the more effected vocal sounds, such as those produced by the Vocoder.
As you get deeper into the more obscure areas of editing, the manual sometimes struggles to explain itself as clearly as it might (see the 'Chordal or Scalic?' box on the difference between the two types of harmony), and you often get the feeling of being surrounded by complex muso‑babble, which is a shame, because the actual everyday operation of the Vocalist Workstation is really not that difficult at all. The inclusion of the faders on the front of the unit gives all of the presets an immediate feel, and I can see most users getting a huge amount out of the unit without ever having to venture further than the basic (but very powerful) initial edit levels. You don't have to hunt through endless pages to find the mix ratio between original signal and effected harmonies, nor do you have to look hard to find the overall reverb control — instead, it's all there for you on three faders. Bliss.
As I've mentioned, Digitech have obviously ploughed a lot of research into selecting presets that provide instant gratification, and the Voice Thickening presets are one good example of this. This is an often sought‑after studio effect that can enhance a lead vocal by giving it a double‑tracked feel. The selection within the factory preset bank nearly all sound as natural as can be expected and offer both male and female unison or mixed styles. The Pitch Correction preset (found amongst the Vocoder presets) is another useful feature that could be used to repair a recorded section of a vocal that's out of tune. When this preset is selected, the input vocal remains 'dry' or un‑effected until a note is pressed on the keyboard or sent via MIDI, at which point the exact pitch of the sent note is forced onto the incoming signal. You can also adjust these pitch settings via the pitch wheel on a MIDI keyboard.
When you consider some of the Workstation's less obvious features, such as its ability to set thresholds to ignore certain frequencies of sibilance, or the extreme low‑frequency filter which helps to enhance the tracking process, or the anti‑feedback control specifically for live work, you begin to wonder if the poor folks who developed the Vocalist Workstation ever got any nights off at all!
In only six years, the Vocalist concept has come on tremendously, and in a short review such as this, it would be tough to list all the clever things that the Workstation can do, but one word that could describe it overall is 'intelligent'. This is meant not just in the sense of intelligent harmonising, which the Workstation handles extremely well, but also to describe the intelligence that has gone into taking an established product, improving the sound quality, performance, and range of features, then trimming down a few non‑essential operations to bring the product into a lower price range. The Vocoder presets are simply outstanding, and although the pitch correction can sound a bit artificial, the presets provided here are a welcome inclusion, as is the small (but fairly usable) selection of reverbs. The debate as to whether or not a listening audience will be able to tell that your processed harmonies aren't real very much depends on how the Workstation is used. It's not at all difficult to make it sound lousy, but it doesn't take a genius to make it shine either. It also really makes you think about the wealth of different vocal sounds and styles there are, and using it can teach you a good deal about harmony and harmonic structure.
The Vocalist Workstation is clearly designed with MIDI in mind, so it is perhaps not surprising that its specification in this area is very good: MIDI pitch bend, modulation and aftertouch can all be employed to embellish the 'performance' of the presets. The chord sequences (or Songs) mentioned elsewhere in this review may be easily saved and reloaded via MIDI to an editor/librarian or another Vocalist, as can the preset banks and other SysEx data such as utility (or setup) parameters.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the Digitech family of Vocalists, here is a quick run‑down of its simplest form of operation. A vocal (from either a live mic or a recording) is fed into the unit's processor. If we assume we are working with a three‑part harmony preset, the Workstation will then split the signal, via pitch‑shifting, into two other notes. If you are working in the key of G major, for instance, and sing a G, the Vocalist Workstation will pitch‑shift the original signal down to a D, and shift a copy of the original signal up to a B. Obviously, as the chords of the song change, the new chords must be entered into the Vocalist, either from the small built‑in keyboard, via MIDI, or by using the 'Song' chaining function. The style of the chord is also important: in the chordal harmony presets, you can choose from Major, Major 7th, Minor, Minor 7th, Dominant 7th, Minor 7th flat 5th, Diminished 7th, Augmented 7th, Suspended and Suspended 7th chord types. In the scalic harmony presets, the edit pages also allow you to choose the particular type of scale that will work best with the type of song you are working on, for example, Major, Minor, Whole tone, Diminished, Blues, Dorian, Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor.
- PRESET 6, 'BARRY TONE'
Create instant Barry White effects with this frighteningly realistic tenor pitch‑shift.
- PRESET 3, 'MANHATTAN'
A smooth three‑part harmony setting, perfect for both male and female vocals.
- PRESET 16 'VOCODER'
Back in fashion and this time with MIDI, a true classic sound that no studio should be without.
- PRESET 8 'SILKY THICKENER'
A tasteful automatic double‑tracking effect.
- PRESET 37 'MALE QUARTET'
Barber shop brilliance.
- PRESET 2 'EAGLES'
Recreate that 'Hotel California' vibe.
One area where the manual gets a little tongue‑tied is when trying to explain the difference between these two harmonic types. Essentially, a Vocalist Workstation preset working in a Chordal mode creates a constant harmony block which stays on whichever chord you have selected, but which automatically moves within that chord to sound correct over your lead voice. A Scalic harmony preset, however, creates less static and more moveable harmonies, which will stay closer to the original melody as it jumps around. Scalic harmony presets have a generally more fluid feel to them, and tend to work better for pop vocal harmonies, whereas Chordal presets are often better for more jazzy or thicker‑sounding chords.
- Excellent sound quality and features.
- User‑friendly operation.
- Good vocal tracking, pitch correction and harmonic realism.
- Comprehensive MIDI spec.
- No phantom power.
- LCD and back panel a bit crowded.
- The built‑in 'keyboard' produces a loud click.
The Vocalist Workstation is a fantastically useful studio/live tool with some excellent presets and a well‑designed operating system. Its relatively high price, however, may put it just out of the reach of many home studio owners.