Hands-On Review:DigiTech Vocalist Live 4
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” —Arthur C. Clarke
By Darius Van Rhuehl
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer
If you’ve read preliminary reviews of the DigiTech Vocalist Live 4, you’re probably aware that the word “magic” has been bandied about quite a bit. That’s courtesy of the VL4’s musIQ technology, which reads your guitar chords and vocal melody to generate realistic vocal harmonies on the fly. If you’re asking how it works, let me answer with a quote from another sci-fi heavyweight Robert Heinlein: Never worry about theory as long as the machinery does what it’s supposed to do. This certainly applies to the VL4, and is, in fact, its major strength.
The first time I reviewed the VL4, I mostly just ran through the presets, which all alone were enough to sell me on the unit. For this, my second foray, I delved deeper into the unit’s capabilities and must say, at risk of sounding as though DigiTech has me in their pocket, I am even more impressed than before.
“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” –Albert Einstein
To fine-tune or customize your sound, the VL4 provides nine effects categories laid out in DigiTech’s usual easy-to-suss FX matrix. Up/down buttons take you through the list of effects and five knobs let you select parameters and values. A particularly handy edit feature, which can be a little disconcerting at first, is that once you select an effect to edit, it flashes the present settings in sequence, which you can write down for reference. Or, if you need to start over, you can go back to the factory preset and see how to return to the original settings.
So that you’re not immobilized by infinite possibilities, DigiTech has thoughtfully limited the features to the most musically useful with simplified parameter controls, while giving you enough range where it counts. For example, in the Preamp section, you’ll find three settings—Off, Tube, Harsh—and a gain control. Obviously, Tube gives you the second order harmonic warmth of a tube pre and gain is what it is more or less. In the Preamp section you’ll also find a de-esser to remove sibilance, which is slang for vocal naughty bits. It also provides a band-limiting filter with resonance and center-frequency controls that can be used to create some cool radio and telephone vocal effects.
Along with the standard effects including Compressor/Gate, EQ, Reverb, Delay, and Pitch Correction, there’s Lead Effects, which lets you alter your vocal timbre via the Persona parameter. For example, you can select male, female, large person, small person, various types of very natural-sounding vibratos—and even vocal modulation effects including the all-important option to say, “Luke, I am your father”—and sound quite convincing. Harmony is where you select the voicing and number of background harmonies. Persona effects are for the lead vocal only, whereas the Voice Style parameter can be applied to harmony voices. Voice Style lets you adjust pitch and time delays, scoops, vibrato, and gender. There’s even a preset called “Drunk” for loose harmonies.
Finally, we come to Guitar Mix, which gives you reverb and modulation effects including chorus, flange, and tremolo. The effects are for the guitar signal that’s mixed with the vocal output. I was particularly impressed with the stereo chorus and would almost consider buying the unit for that alone. For even more flexibility, any of the parameters in the Effects matrix can be controlled during performance with an effects pedal.
“One man’s magic is another man’s engineering.” –Robert A. Heinlein
If you use an acoustic-electric, you may have to deal with mic bleed from your guitar, which means you’ll hear some odd-sounding artifacts. Do not despair; this is normal with any mic-dependent processing device.
The key is fine-tuning the balance between guitar input and mic input levels. Also, the noise gate is there to help prevent mic bleed. In performance, you’ll be running guitar signal through the unit, which will serve to mask the artifacts. Mic selection is also of particular importance. The trick is to select a very directional mic. Avoid mics of high sensitivity as well. A hypercardioid may well be the best choice, but it’s not the only choice. I got excellent results using the VL4 as a mini PA with an acoustic-electric and what is perhaps the world’s most ubiquitous vocal mic.
“. . . the audio engineer shares the professional goal of a magician.” –Dr. Richard Heyser
I had a singer-guitarist come to my studio for some recording and critical listening tests. On one of the songs we recorded, we used a two-part harmony preset (Eaglets 2), which was added on the fly via the harmony on/off footswitch. I was particularly interested in the sound quality of the lead vocal running through the VL4. With a little compression, EQ, and reverb, I heard money! The lead vocals had that expensive sound. Also, the two-part harmony sounded completely realistic—very much in keeping with our goal of creating an audio illusion that captures the imagination.
“I hate quotations, tell me what you know.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Rather than restating my previous conclusions about the unit, here’s something that speaks louder than any praise I might give. I gave the VL4 to a coworker to use at a Friday night gig. We spent about three hours the day before going through the presets so he could get a feel for the unit. How did it work for him? When he returned it to me on Monday, his next step was to place an order for one. One of the other singers in his band who also does a solo gig is buying one too. I think that pretty much tells the whole story regarding how impressive and easy to use this unit is. And yes, my job is ultimately to sell gear—but the VL4 makes it easy. All I need to do is get you to try it—the VL4 does the rest.
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 4 adjustable parameters
- Guitar reverb and chorus with 4 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
- Onboard 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