[Dixielandjazz] The Voodoo Behind the Voice-- NYTimes 5-9-12

Norman Vickers nvickers1 at cox.net
Sat May 12 07:32:55 PDT 2012

To:  Musicians and Jazzfans list;  DJML

From: Norman Vickers, Jazz Society of Pensacola


Another gadget to consider.  Especially if your band has a  singer who sings
off-key occasionally.  Self-correcting with all kinds of  other gimmicks.
FYI.  What will they think of next?




May 9, 2012  New York Times

The Voodoo Behind the Voice


The Internet hit pop music hard. Without the Net, we'd still be buying songs
from record stores. Apple would still be just a computer company. And Justin
Bieber would probably be working in a Burger King in Ontario. 

In the online world, you can take your music straight to the public. No more
gatekeepers, record executives or rejection letters. If you're any good,
you'll soon win your fame and fortune - or at least sky-high view counts. 

But these days, a great voice isn't enough; you also need great processing.
There's not a song on the radio today that hasn't been digitally massaged
with effects like reverb (echo), compression (evening out the volume spikes)
and autotune (fixing notes that were sung sharp or flat). 

You can do this sort of work using software like GarageBand or Audacity. But
the VoiceLive Play ($250 online), a new gadget from the vocal-processing
company TC Helicon, offers all of those effects and more - it can even
generate phantom backup singers. 

The twist: It's a rugged metal box with foot-stompable buttons, so that you
can turn those effects on and off even during a live performance. It's like
a guitar stomp box, but for singers. (You can also use it in the studio, of

You can even create a sort of playlist of effects that correspond to the
songs you'll be performing, and hop from one effect to the next by tapping
switches with your toe. 

Now, vocal processors aren't new. But programming most of them seems to
require a degree in acoustical engineering, or possibly space shuttle
inline=nyt-classifier>  cockpit design. The thought behind the VoiceLive
Play is to put spectacular audio features into a box that's about as
difficult to use as elevator buttons. 

You plug the box into the wall. You connect headphones - or speakers, or a
computer. You plug in a microphone (it requires one with a pro-style XLR

Then you can start to explore. You turn a knob to click through the 237
presets. Each emulates the vocal processing of a well-known pop song. Each
is identified by a sneaky, lawyer-thwarting name like "In Air 2Night" (the
creepy metallic echo of Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight"), "Hey Jude-y"
(doubles your voice in the classic Beatles style), and "Cali Hotel" (the
three-part harmony of the Eagles' "Hotel California"). 

That's right: three-part harmony. On this box, the result is amazing. If you
know anything about vocal music, you know that no singers blend quite as
well with your own voice as your own voice. (Or your siblings' voices, which
is why family groups from the von Trapps to the Jonas Brothers sound so
great in harmony.) 

But what kind of dark voodoo magic could possibly be capable of that stunt?
After all, there are at least three notes in a chord. If you sing a middle
C, there's no way for a computer chip to know what harmony notes to play
with it; a middle C could belong to any of several different chords. And if
the computer picks the wrong notes, the resulting clash would make even the
most tone-deaf listener wince. 

There's only one way for a piece of electronics to know what harmony notes
to generate - and that's by listening. And sure enough: the VoiceLive Play
actually listens to the band, samples the current chord and calculates the
correct auto-harmonies for your voice in milliseconds. 

It "hears" the band - or your guitar, or your piano - either from an audio
cable or through built-in microphones right on the box. Those mikes, which
the company calls RoomSense, are also a great way to get the sound of the
room and the band into your earbud mix. (RoomSense is one of several
features that rival boxes, like the similar Boss VE20, lack.) 

Every now and then, usually on quick notes in a moving melody, the box
guesses wrong about a chord, and you get a brief, passing moment of
dissonance. In general, though, the harmonies are lush and amazing. A
YouTube music video at j.mp/JcdbVG features a more expensive VoiceLive
model, but it's a great demo of auto-harmonies. 

The company plans to offer more presets every month. You can download them
to the box via your computer's USB connection - a feature unique to this
machine - to keep up with the latest pop trends. You can tweak any of the
presets and then save them under new names. 

One of the VoiceLive Play's foot buttons is labeled Hit; one tap turns on an
effect. In other words, in performance, you could sing the verse of a song
plain, and then tap Hit to burst into harmony. Holding down the Hit button
continuously cuts off all effects. It's intended for between-song talking -
"How's everybody doing tonight?" - that would sound a little peculiar in
three-part harmony. 

Another strength of this box is looping. That is, you record yourself
singing or beat-boxing a pattern, up to 30 seconds. The box plays that
fragment over and over; you add a riff on top of it. Now the box loops those
two layers as you add a third - and so on. In an enchanting YouTube music
video at j.mp/KKwfZr, a singer adds a second, then a third, then a fourth
vocal part to her own live performance of "Danny Boy" using this real-time

The only VoiceLive letdown is the Voice Cancel feature. The theory is that
you can connect your iPod
tml?inline=nyt-classifier> , phone or computer and start playing some pop
song, and the VoiceLive will magically remove the singer from the mix,
leaving behind only the original band - it's karaoke on steroids. You'd feel
like Taylor Swift's understudy on the night she gets laryngitis. 

Unfortunately, it doesn't work. Like earlier boxes that purport to have this
feature, the VoiceLive Play works by deleting whatever's in the center of
the left-to-right stereo mix - which is where the lead vocal appears in most
pop songs. 

Trouble is, other things may also appear in the middle of the mix, like
drums. Conversely, the lead vocal isn't always in the center. And its reverb
usually isn't in the center, so you might wind up getting rid of the voice
but not its echo - a bizarre effect, to be sure. The box usually reduces the
singer at least somewhat, but the bottom line is, don't get your hopes up. 

It's also worth pointing out that even though this is among the
easiest-to-use vocal boxes, that's not necessarily saying much. Anything you
do beyond playing with the presets will require immersion in the online-only
user manual and a good deal of pleasant experimentation. 

There's a lot more the VoiceLive Play can do, from showing you when you're
off-pitch to traditional studio effects like equalization, chorusing,
distortion and so on. This box can give your voice an incredibly
cutting-edge, professional sound, either live or when you're sitting at your
computer. The audio quality is sensational, and the presets are extremely

Now, nobody outside Justin Bieber's tax bracket would buy the VoiceLive just
as a toy. Still, it must be mentioned that you and any nearby children can
have hours of fun turning yourselves into robots, chipmunks or angels. (I
let a pair of fascinated elementary-school boys try out the Barry White
effect, so that their mother could hear what they'd sound like as
high-schoolers. She freaked out.) 

Let's not kid ourselves: a voice-processing box is a niche product. But
thanks to the greatly simplified controls, the replication of up-to-date pop
songs and the professional quality, the VoiceLive Play has just widened that
niche by a considerable margin. 

E-mail: pogue at nytimes.com


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