Self-Harmonizing Voice Effects

Written by jason savage
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Self-Harmonizing Voice Effects
A harmoniser can provide an instant backup section for vocalists. (Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images)

A "harmonizer" is an audio effect unit which transposes, or "pitch-shifts," an incoming vocal signal to a higher or lower pitch, and then combines the results with the original signal to form harmonies, or "chords." A harmoniser can be used to create virtual backup singers or even a full virtual choir, using only the lead vocal track as input. Formerly, harmonisers were expensive hardware units, typically found only in professional studios. Since the late 1990s, software-based harmonisers have gained ground, rivalling and even surpassing their hardware equivalents.

General Uses of Harmonizers

Some harmonisers can operate in real time, meaning that they are able to produce and play back preset harmonies simultaneously with the lead vocalist's performance. These are often used live, making it possible to improvise harmonic combinations on the fly, or used privately as practice aids in the absence of actual backup singers. Other harmonisers use only prerecorded vocal tracks, which they can harmonise with greater precision than is usually possible in a real time context. Harmonisers like these are typically used in post-production, after all the recording for a song is complete.

Software-Based Harmonizers

A software-based harmoniser usually takes the form of a plugin for use in a D.A.W. ("digital audio workstation") environment such as Logic Pro, Pro Tools or Ableton Live, though some can also function as stand-alone applications. Prominent examples include Celemony's Melodyne, Mu Technology's Mu Voice, zplane's vielklang [sic] and Antares's Harmony EFX. Of these four, only Melodyne is not capable of real time harmonization because it was designed specifically for editing prerecorded material. Overall, these four harmonizers are comparable in sound quality to hardware-based harmonizers, while being considerably less expensive.

Hardware-Based Harmonizers

With the rise of software-based harmonisers, hardware-based harmonisers began to decline in use. This is partly because of cost, but also because hardware-based harmonisers are complex devices made specifically for trained recording engineers, meaning they can be difficult for amateurs to learn and use. However, they are still found in studios that do not use one of the major D.A.W. environments mentioned above. Eventide has produced hardware harmonisers since the 1970s, and as of 2011 still produces several models, such as the H8000FW and the H7600 (see Resources).

Which Harmonizer To Use?

If you plan on using a harmoniser, whether it be software- or hardware-based, there are a few further matters to take into account. Some harmonisers are quite user-friendly, and come with easy to understand presets for inexperienced users. Antares's various harmoniser plugins fall into this category, as well as several of the lesser known harmoniser plugins, like Prodyon's Enchoir or MeldaProduction's MMultiBandHarmonizer. However, some harmonisers -- including hardware harmonisers and some software-based harmonisers like Melodyne and vielklang -- are designed with experienced users in mind. Make use of the KVR Audio Plugins database for descriptions and user reviews of all available harmoniser plugins (see Resources).

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