Using Harmonizers in your Home Studio
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Using Harmonizers

Define your signature vocal sound and more

by the Tweak

Eventide Eclipse Harmonizer Studio Effects Processor

 

 

The harmonizer is one of the less understood studio processors.  They are less likely to show up in a typical home studio rack.  I think that is an oversight, though it's easy to see why.  Harmonizers are expensive, at least the really good ones, like the famous Eventides, certainly are.  Nowadays, like with other gear, you can get great sound under a grand.  Until recently, you had to go the hardware route. Finally, software harmonizers are available that sound comparable to average hardware harmonizers. 

 

 

What is a Harmonizer?

 

A Harmonizer is a device that samples incoming audio material and automatically creates several time stretched versions at different pitches and combines them all to an audio output. All of this happens on the fly in real time.  You hear this device all the time on the radio.  Whenever you hear ultra tight vocal harmonies that sound "too perfect" you are listening to a harmonizer at work.  There's also a lot of times where it is at work where it's not obvious.  Harmonizers can be used to thicken, detune and add effects to instruments and can, for the creative, make very strange effects out of any audio material.  You can hear some audio before/after demos at the TCHelicon site.

 

 

TC helicon VoiceWorks

 


Why get a Harmonizer?

New for 2010

Roland VP7 Vocal Processor
For keyboardists in need of great background vocals, the new VP-7 vocal processor is ready to sing! Create harmonies instantly, from a single voice to a full-scale choir, with a microphone and a MIDI connection to the keyboard of your choice. It's simple. Just select a sound type from the front panel, and play. The Human Voice section provides rich and expressive choral backing by just playing the keyboard -- no singing required. The Vocal Designer section can automatically generate 2-voice or 3-voice backing harmonies based on the lyrics that you sing into the microphone. And for classic robot-voice effects, the Vocoder button lets you instantly sound like a vintage vocoder.

 

See more harmonizers at zZounds

 

 

 

People tend to think that a harmonizer is just a vocal processor.  The truth is, and remember this, any piece of gear can be used for unintended functions and the harmonizer is one of those devices that can do lots of things.  In addition to vocals, harmonizers can be applied to guitar, keyboards, even drums (you can make massive hits with detuning), and incredibly thick ambient pads (in fact many a fat R&B string pad was made with a harmonizer).  The process here is simple.  Play or Sing in one note; 1-5 notes come out, depending on which model you have and how you have set it up.  Many harmonizers also come with effects, such as delay and reverb, and some even have Mic preamps.  So think for a minute.  Instead of pouring out the cashola for a hardware reverb and delay box (which software plugins can do pretty well now), why not invest in a box plugins can't do, a box that harmonizes, and has as a bonus reverb and delays and a pre.  Makes an awful lot of sense to me. 

 

 

Things to watch out for when getting a Harmonizer

 

There are a few different types of harmonizers that are designed for different things.  Guitarists often have a harmonizer in their rig, often as an effects pedal.  These are really just designed to do simple octaves or perfect fifths over a guitar solo.  These are often lo-fi in quality.  Software can handle that kind of harmonization. 

I used to be able to say, if its in a pedal form factor, forget it, its for guitarists.  But not any more.  Today's stage vocalists want the power to harmonize under foot.  Check out the VoiceLive Vocal Floor Processor for one of those.  Check out the demos at zZounds.  This device is really good for country style harmonies.

Be careful that the item actually does harmonies.  Not all vocal processors do.  Some may just correct pitch or add different effects.  Others may just allow you to change the formant and pitch of one voice but not allow for the creation of harmonies.  The ideal processor for the studio will do all 3.  It will produce harmonies, correct pitch and intonation and let you modify the formant of single lines within the harmony.  Which device does all that?  TC Helicon's Voiceworks and Voiceworks Plus does.  I have it here in the lab. 

 

Figure out how many harmonies the device can generate at once.  If it does not specify, be careful. 

 

Eventide Eclipse Harmonizer Studio Effects Processor
The Eclipse brings you the power, the performance, the heritage of Eventide audio effects in a single rack space unit, now with new features and presets! It was the winner of the Pro Audio Review PAR Award at AES-NY

 

Using a Harmonizer

The good thing about many of today's Harmonizers are, yep, presets.  Even if you know little about music you can just connect your mic and spin the dial till you find something really cool.  Ideally, though, you need to know the key (root note and scale) your music is in, like the key of C#major, A minor, or Beethoven's favorite, E flat minor...but I digress.  Once you set the key, the harmonizer will then figure out what note you are singing, or playing and create harmonies that are consonant with the key.  So If I punch in the key of A minor and sing an "A", it it could produce harmonies at C and E. 

You can set up your presets in many ways.  You can have all voices at unison, which makes for a really thick vocal sound, or you can specify intervals, such as voice one will be up 2 semitones, voice two will be up 7 semitones, voice 3 will be down 5 semitones. Or you can specify the chord of the moment and the harmonizer will create voices based on the chord.  C maj7 any of you cool breeze jazz dudes?   In no time you'll be on the beach sipping from a coconut shell.

 

 

Using MIDI with your harmonizer

DigiTech Vocalist Live 2 Vocal Harmony Processor
Vocalist Live uses breakthrough music technology to directly analyze the output of any electric or pre-amplified acoustic guitar (no special MIDI guitars or hex-outputs needed). Then it generates the correct vocal harmony. For example, if you're singing an A over the chords that are generally found in the key of G, Vocalist will harmonize with a C. But, if you then play an A major, Vocalist will shift to the C#...because like any good harmony singer, it listens to the guitar!
DigiTech Vocalist Live 4 Vocal Harmony Processor
!
Eventide PitchFactor Harmonizer Delay Pedal
Top recording studios worldwide use Eventide effects on hit after hit. PitchFactor includes Eventide's best pitch-changing effects from the past 36 years without compromising quality OR flexibility.

Digitech Vocalist Live Pro Vocal Harmony Processor
 Generate live multi-part vocal harmonies accompanied by your keyboard or guitar.

You can also set up some harmonizers so that MIDI tells it what the current chord is.   Here the harmonies that are created will follow the chords you play on your MIDI keyboard.  This is not as hard as it sounds. It's the same principal that a vocoder uses.  Just make a midi track that contains nothing but simple block chords every bar or two and route that to the harmonizer.  Then step up to the mic and be amazed as your harmonies track the song. 

 

Types of effects

 

The main effect, naturally, is the harmonies.  The typical use is to record your chorus tracks through the harmonizer and lay this track under the main vocal. 

One cool ability of my unit, the TC VoiceWorks, is "gender shifting" as well as pitch shifting.  I can make my voice really low or really high.  Of course it can do Darth Vader and munchkins effects, but that's all old hat.  With the gender features you can add more maleness or femaleness to your voice.  Ever wanted to sound like a chick, you macho dudes?  Sure you have.  Ok forget that then, turn yourself into a 12 foot 600 lb blues singer with a really deep voice.  Basso Profundo!

Another effect easily achieved is thickening, doubling (or tripling and quadrupling), detuning.  This not only sounds good on vocals, but one other instruments too. 

Many harmonizers have effects like delay and reverb.  If you wanted to you could just use the box for these and bypass all the rest, so if you are working live there won't be any reverb hiccup as a preset changes and you can hit a footswitch and go from harmonies to straight vocals. 

Setting up a Harmonizer

 

There are many kinds of harmonizers out there and you have to pay attention to the different ins and out so you get one that will fit in with your existing gear.  For example, if you get one without a Mic preamp or want to use a different preamp you need to make sure the unit has line ins and outs at the with the connectors you need. Keep in mind some may have only one set of XLRs, TRS, TS or RCA connections. Ok, don't check.  I'll see you in adapter hell at Radio Shack.

For use with an analog mixer, you would put the harmonizer on inserts, or in a typical sends/return effects configuration.  Using sends and returns may be superior if your sends can be set to "prefader" where you can remove the original source and just hear the effected signal.  With inserts, there may be a need to devote an extra channel.  Harmonizers may only have a single mono input and the output is usually stereo, so you need an extra channel. 

Having trouble understanding sends and returns? Inserts? You must have missed the Mixer class!  Go back there now.

Connecting directly to an audio interface also works, though there could be some latency if you monitor through the CPU. If this is the way you intend to hook it up look for a harmonizer with a headphone jack.  This will allow you to monitor the harmonizer before the CPU actually records it.  Of course if you only have a 2x2 soundcard you'll be back there cursing and swapping cables, unless the harmonizer offers digital i/o as many do, which works great.

 

Software Harmonizers

 

Antares, the maker of Auto-Tune Evo has a software solution that is a full fledged harmonizer.  It's called the Antares Harmony Engine Evo.  i have it here in the lab and am finding it more convienient to use, compares to my TC Electronic Voiceworks.  Like the Voice works, I can set the harmonizer to track common scales and chords, or hard set each channel to a specific interval.  Because the harmony Engine is a plugin, you can add it on any audio or software synth mixer channel and tweak up the results you want.  For approximately the same price as the Voiceworks, you can get the full Antares Auto-Tune Vocal Studio Pitch Correcting Software Bundle which includes both Auto-Tune Evo and the Harmony Engine. 

 

Antares Harmony Engine Evo Vocal Modeling Harmony Generator Software (Mac and Windows)
Introducing Harmony Engine Evo - Vocal Modeling Harmony Generator the quickest, easiest tool for creating realistic harmonies. From the company that revolutionized professional vocal production with Auto-Tune pitch correction technology, comes Harmony Engine Evo, the second generation of Antares' real-time harmony generating plug-in that puts professional-quality vocal harmony arrangements within reach of any songwriter, producer, musician or engineer..

 

Tweak's Mixer-based Harmonizer setup:

 

For recording Vocals

  •  Mic Preamp (Mono Out)-->
  • TC VoiceWorks (Mono in)-->
  • Voiceworks Stereo out-->
  • Mixer Line in (stereo pair)-->
  • Out the alt 3-4 bus to the audio interface and your sequencer

The advantage here, if you monitor from the board, is that you are latency-free, as you listen to the effected sound before it hits the CPU.

For adding effects to audio tracks

Once the tracks are recorded I switch the Voice works to digital input and the configuration becomes

  • Sequencer-->
  • Audio interface digital out-->
  • TC voice works s/pdif in-->
  • Voiceworks Stereo out-->
  • Mixer Line in (stereo pair)

This gives me the flexibility to harmonize any audio track or audio instrument from inside the sequencer. I simply set the output of the track to s/pdif.

 

 

See my notes on my setup in the sidebar.  

Using Pitch Correction

 

Not all Harmonizers have pitch correction.  Because I am not a vocalist myself, it's a must have feature for me.  The harmonizer can't work effectively if it cannot tell what pitch you are attempting to sing, so if your voice is like mine and starts at Gb and rises to A# when I try to sing an "A"you could be heading for trouble in your harmonies.  So consider that.

One advantage of having pitch correction is that once you hear your voice hit the right pitches as you monitor its easier to let go and really express yourself.  As you learn what the correct note actually sounds like your vocal abilities may actually improve.  I think i am seeing some improvement just after a few days.

 

 

Overall

 

TC Helicon VoiceWorks Harmony FX Voice Processor
VoiceWorks has multi-voice harmonies, transparent pitch correction and fat automatic double-tracking, all so realistic you can solo them with confidence. VoiceWorks includes superb TC Electronic effects and the new HarmonyHold (tm), which lets you freeze your backing harmonies while you sing over them. For live performance, Song Mode allows you to save internal 'sequences' of up to 50 songs with 30 user presets per song.  Tweak: this unit sounds fantastic and it has a ton of features.  Built in mic pre, pitch correction, digital i/o, MIDI, 100 presets, great reverb and delay
 

See more harmonizers at zZounds

 

Because a lot of home studio's don't have one, your studio takes on an edge because you do.  There will be fewer things the big boys downtown can do that you can' do.

Consider the fun factor.  Harmonizers are a really fun piece of gear.  When you hear what comes out compared to what you put in you will bang yourself on the head for not getting one sooner.  It's an absolute great time.  Great entertainment for anyone you bring into your studio and a sure-fire giggle-fest with potential significant others.   And it can scare the heck out of you nosy neighbors playing with the gender controls.   Your kids will love it too.

 

 

 

Regards always,
Tweak
 

 

Want to discuss Harmonizers?  Go to the Studio-Central Effects processors Forum


 

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Cool Quote:

"As a general rule the voices (of a choral group) are arranged according to the law of normal register. Crossing parts is rare and should only be done with the intention of emphasizing the melody" 

Rimsky-Korsakov  The Principles of Orchestration

 

 

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