Hands-On Review:DigiTech Vocalist Live 2 and Vocalist Live 4
The only real-time vocal harmony generators that track your guitar and voice!
By Darius Van Rhuehl
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer
There’s an old saying from the days of pop music’s Tin Pan Alley that I like to combine with a nursery rhyme and an old television commercial: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” “But when he got there, the chorus was bare.” “What’s a mother to do?” Nine out of ten audio surgeons recommend the VL4 for coughs due to cold, harmonically barren songs (the tenth won’t stop playing with his long enough to comment). Oh, yeah, here’s that chorus: “Buy the VL4 baby… Oh yeah, the VL4 you must buy… Oh buy DigiTech’s VL4 baby, read on and I’ll tell you why… Oh baybay—yeow!” (Sorry, having a Rick James moment there…; really sorry.)
Waiting for backups to arrive
The problem with previous vocal harmonizers is that they were confused by temporary key changes and didn’t understand voice leading. To get an effective harmony, you’d have to program each chord change as a separate preset, string them together in song mode, and hope that you remember to step through the sequence properly while you’re performing (so much for giving yourself over to the emotion of the song). Even if it worked, you looked like Mr. Ed stomping out his age on stage (remember, he only talked to Wilbur).
The Vocalist Live’s musIQ™ technology, the brainchild and trademark of 3dB Research Ltd., changes all that. It uses your guitar and voice for harmonic and melodic reference, reads the two over time, and creates appropriate harmonies on the fly—no pre-programming, no stepping through presets, and they sound good, really good! You can, however, create and step through your own harmonies if you choose to. I really don’t want to take up limited space telling you about nuts and bolts though. You can find all that out on the Musician’s Friend website. Suffice to say you have quick and easy control over all parameters and a healthy number of quality effects for voice and guitar. It is important to note, however, that on the VL4, you have balanced XLR outs, a phantom powered XLR input, and separate level controls for lead vocals, harmonies, and guitar. This means that a solo performer can use it as a mini PA system by simply adding a set of powered monitors.
Cover me, I’m goin’ in
I handed the VL4 some pretty difficult tasks up front. The first was to see if it could handle fingerpicking. I happened to notice a “CSN” preset, which I immediately assumed stood for College of Southern Nevada… then it dawned on me; Child Safety Network. D'oh! Not knowing either organization’s theme song, I decided to do “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash (oh,; that CSN.) Did it work? Oh, yeah! There was only one unwanted 7th that happened during the transition of the G chord to D, but I was able to make that go away with a very minor adjustment in the picking pattern (I had to play it right). The voicing certainly said CSN—and that was consistent with all the presets based on signature vocal harmonies. I also tried the famous “Nah Nah” section of Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” with a number of 3- and 4-part presets. It was like having a virtual Steve Perry singing the high harmonies. I had a hard time deciding which I liked best—they all sounded great, but I settled on the Gold Channel preset. Particularly disconcerting was the Female Duet preset—after four bars I had the realization that all guys are totally clueless, accompanied by an uncontrollable urge to watch “When Harry Met Sally.” The VL4 also handles vibratos particularly well—natural sounding and very convincing.
Obviously live performance is the primary intention of the VL4, however, I found it exceedingly useful as a post-production tool. Three years ago I had arranged and recorded a song by a female singer-songwriter who I had since lost touch with—no way to get her back to the studio to double parts or sing backups. I sent her lead vocal track line-in to the VL4 and played along using the normal guitar in. From there, it was balanced stereo line in to my DAW. The results were stunning.
Opposing counsel may cross-examine
Now let’s address all of your questions: Yes, it ignores fret noise. Yes, it will harmonize with two-note power chords, but it doesn’t like distortion. You have to connect your effects after the VL4’s Guitar Thru output. Yes, it’s very forgiving with out-of-tune vocals and guitars, but tune up when you can. Can you sing acapella? For a simple section based on the last chord you played, yes, but for complicated parts it’ll need something to read. A volume pedal connected to the Guitar Thru output lets you mute the guitar while you sing, or you can simply turn the Guitar Level knob down to zero. Another very cool feature of the VL4, for guitarists who are militant about their tone, is the fact that the Guitar Thru is a true hardwire thru that does not affect your signal whatsoever. (This is DigiTech we’re talking about; of course they thought about that.)
The verdict is in
I don’t believe how good this thing is. This box is both exhilarating and disturbing—you’ll be tempted to fire your backup singers (please don’t, remember we can all be replaced by DJs). This machine is a godsend for bands with one good vocalist looking for rich harmonies. Then again, if you have a band with three or more good singers, you should get a two-voice VL2 for lead vocal doubling and two-part harmonies, and a VL4 for each backup singer. Imagine what your cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” would sound like then! Performers who want to make a bigger sound than their numbers allow will find this an indispensable and eminently rewarding purchase. The same holds true for composers doing film, industrials, and commercials who want vocal tracks and need to deliver on time and under budget.
DigiTech’s Vocalist Live has taken a momentous step beyond the expected limitations of harmony processors. There simply isn’t a better unit. Now you can add depth and flavor to your vocal performances and record very convincing background harmonies without numerous takes, backup singers, and a vocal arranger. David, Steven, Graham, Neil… I’m comin’ boys! (Sorry, Mel Brooks/The Producers moment.)
Features & Specs
- Unisons, 2-, 3-, or 4-part vocal harmony with no programming
- Selectable voicing above or below your lead vocal
- Built-in mixer with vocal, harmony, and guitar level controls
- Pitch correction with four adjustable parameters
- Guitar reverb and chorus with four adjustable parameters
- Vocal enhancement effects matrix
- Adjustable preamp, compressor/gate, EQ, lead effects, harmony, reverb, echo delay, and guitar effects
- 50 factory/50 user presets
- Major/minor and key change up/down buttons with LED display
- Harmony, effects, and preset up/down pedals
- On-board guitar tuner
- XLR mic/line input with level adjustment
- Low-noise high-headroom preamp
- 48V phantom power
- 1/4" guitar input, 1/4" guitar pass-through
- Guitar ground-lift switch
- 1/4" line input and 1/8" aux input for CD or MP3 players
- 1/8" headphone jack
- Balanced stereo 1/4" and XLR line out
- Stereo/mono output selector
- Road-rugged, all-metal chassis
- Power supply included