Mega-pedal serves up soaring vocal harmonies, impressive guitar effects

Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

I’ve been playing music for coming up on 30 years now, and I’ve tried a ton of music gear. These days, I run a fairly bare-bones setup, with a smaller amp for those close venues, a couple of dual-effect pedals (Visual Sounds’ Route 66 and H2O), and a Boss VE-20 vocal harmony box to thicken up the background vocals in my disco band.

I’ve always had a thing for multi-effect boxes, though, running through my share of a few complicated ones that never quite gave me what I needed in terms of both effects sounds and onstage ease-of-use.

When I heard about TC-Helicon’s new VoiceLive 3 mega-stomp box, with a huge range of guitar effects and amplifier modeling, an amazing vocal-harmony processing system and a stage-quality looping feature, well, I had to try it out.

Hellacious harmonies

With guitar amp modeling as well as a wide range of on-board guitar effects like distortion, delay, chorus and reverb, I don’t even need to take my amp or pedals with me any more.

Singing in a band is more than just stepping up to the mic and screaming, especially when you’re playing music that demands some musicality. Being able to control my own vocal effects from the stage itself, rather than relying on a sound person, is huge, as is getting to tap on and off fancy effects like harmonies and delay.

Let’s be clear: The vocal effects are head and shoulders above anything you’ve ever used before. There’s a micro-mod effect, like flange or rotor; delay for those power ballads; fantastic, endlessly customizable reverb; and a doubling feature that lets you add up to four copies of your voice to thicken up even the thinnest vocal performance. These have been available in the VoiceLive pedals before, and they’re essential to any vocal performance. There’s even an auto-tune feature that lets you sweeten up your own performance or crank it on hard to get serious T-Pain-style vocals.

It’s the harmonies that VoiceLive 3 produces that make this a must-have for any serious, gigging or recording musician.

Most inexpensive harmony boxes, like the ones our band uses currently, harmonize with your vocal performance based on the notes you sing. If you’re lucky, you can set the key of the song with knobs on the pedal. What makes the VoiceLive 3 box so amazing is that it listens to the guitar you plug in and then chooses the harmonies based on the chordal structure you’re playing. Some presets have one, two, three and even more extra voices processed from your own voice and layered underneath for perfect backing vocals, every time.

You can do fixed harmonies, where the voices don’t change with the chords; pedal harmonies, where the pitches only change once per chord; scale harmonies that employ voices based on the scale of the chords you’re playing; or natural harmonies, which choose the most pleasing note out of the chords you play. You can even mix these four different types of harmonies in one preset. The possibilities are staggering. Here’s a video on the vocal effects from the TC-Helicon folks that let you hear the harmonies and how the pedal is manipulated.

I spent a good couple of hours when I got the VoiceLive3 just cycling through all the presets and hearing all the different amazing ways the engineers and musicians at TC-Helicon have put vocal harmonies together. There are literally hundreds of different preset vocal harmony and effects, each one completely able to be tweaked and customized to your preference.

Good for guitars, too

While the vocal processing is second to none, the guitar effects added to VoiceLive 3 are pretty damn good as well. When you step on the Vocals/Guitar/Looper button, the rest of the buttons turn from a nice blue (for vocal effects) to an intense red, which means you’re in Guitar effects mode. This turns your voice pedal into a six-button guitar effects stomp box, letting you crank up the distortion, get a shimmery chorus effect, add a jangly delay or turn on a wah-wah effect that can wah automatically or let you use an attachable expression pedal. There’s a tuner as well, for those gigs where you’ve just changed your strings and need to keep adjusting them.

Check out the guitar system in the video below.

With guitar amp modeling as well as a wide range of on-board guitar effects like distortion, delay, chorus and reverb, I don’t even need to take my amp or pedals with me any more. I plug right into the sound board, with one output sending vocals and one output sending guitar sounds for sound-man nirvana. Soundcheck was a breeze, and I never have to hear my keyboard player complain about my guitar amp being too loud (it sits right next to him onstage).

The looping feature is amazing, but really not my forte. I’m still trying to figure out how to use it in my own performances, but it will loop both vocal and guitar parts, letting you become a one-person band. If you want to see more about how it works, check out the TC-Helicon demo video below with an amazing solo performance.

Initially, I had a problem with the sheer complexity of it all. Each time you cycle up or down through the preset sounds, you get both a vocal set of effects and a guitar set of effects. This is great if you want to completely change your sound for every song — it’s incredibly flexible. I, however, wanted to start slow and recreate what I already use onstage — a couple of different harmony settings and just one set of guitar effects boxes. Luckily, you can do just that, with a setting that sets the guitar effects to just one grouping that doesn’t change when you cycle through vocal harmony presets.

You can even mix these four different types of harmonies in one preset. The possibilities are staggering.

I took the VoiceLive 3 to both band practice and an actual gig, and I’ve got to tell you, this thing made a huge positive difference. Not only can I beef up the background vocals when I’m singing lead, letting my backup singers focus on percussion or horn parts, but I can tap into some delightful effects, like a robotic voice for “Funkytown” or some sweet delay when I’m singing “Let’s Dance.” The crowd ate it up, and we got more compliments on the singing this gig than ever before. It’s the difference between sounding like a standard bar band and coming off as a professional band you might hire for your wedding.

Beyond the disco band setting, I can’t wait to work the VoiceLive 3 into an acoustic set for the local open mic, or even as a paid one-man band. The natural-sounding harmonies and ease of carrying just one device into a gig are incredibly appealing, and worth every penny. While the retail price seems high at $1,099.99, you can find the VoiceLive for $799 at places like Amazon or Sweetwater, making it an even better deal. If you’re a working musician who demands high-quality gear, the VoiceLive 3 is the do-all pedal for you.

Vocal Live 3.1VoiceLive 3 by TC-Helicon ($1,099 retail, $799 at Amazon, Sweetwater)
The good: Incredible-sounding vocal effects and harmonies are the keystone of this device, and adding an epic set of guitar effects and looping capabilities really makes the VoiceLive 3 shine.
The bad: The sheer complexity can feel overwhelming at first; it seems pricey until you consider what you’re getting.
The verdict: There are no other pedals out there that do what the VoiceLive 3 can – from amazingly natural-sounding vocals to a wide range of on-board guitar effects and an incredibly high-end looping system, you’re getting way more than you’re paying for.
Buy from Amazon or Sweetwater

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About the author

Rob LeFebvreAnchorage, Alaska-based freelance writer and editor Rob LeFebvre is Cult of Mac's Culture Editor. He has contributed to various tech, gaming and iOS sites, including 148Apps, VentureBeat, and Paste Magazine. Feel free to find Rob on Twitter @roblef

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