While iOS guitarists, keyboard players, drummers and recording enthusiasts are spoilt for choice with the range of music apps available, they don’t have it all their own way; vocalists also get a look in. Music apps such as Harmony Voice, AUFX:Space, AudioReverb, VocalizeU or Erol Singer’s Studio all have something to offer the performing or recording vocalist.
One other heavyweight music app aimed squarely at vocalists is the VocaLive music app by IK Multimedia.
While the app has been in the iTunes App Store since November 2011, the recent update to v.1.6 added both better support for use with audio interfaces (for example, multichannel interfaces connected via the docking port) and Audiobus support. The latter is, of course, a big deal if you have an iOS based recording setup and would like to integrate VocaLive’s processing options into your workflow.
So, with these welcome additions to the feature list, I thought it was time to give VocaLive a spin for the blog….
The app is sold in different versions for iPhone (UK£6.99) and iPad (UK£13.99 or US$ equivalent) and they have slightly different specs (for example, one key difference being that you can chain three effects on the iPhone but four on the iPad). My review was carried out using the iPad version and all the screenshots presented here are from the iPad rather than iPhone. I’m sure most users would prefer a universal version of the app but, in terms of the quality of the processing available, there should be no difference between the two formats.
In essence, VocaLive provides a multi-effects unit aimed at vocalists – not a million miles away from the guitar player’s pedal board idea – but with a collection of effects tailored to the needs of a performing singer. The app includes five ‘vocal’ effects and a further seven ‘studio’ effects. Under the vocal group we have Choir, Double, De-esser, Morph and Pitch Fix, while the studio group includes Reverb, Delay, EQ, Compression, Chorus, Phaser and Envelope Filter.
While there are some minor restrictions on which effects can be combined with which others (presumably to keep the total processing load and/or time within certain sensible limits), in the main, you have plenty of options for chaining these processors together in the four effect slots that dominate the top half of the main window.
The app is supplied with 50 presets and users can create their own presets and preset categories. Aside from preset selection from the Category lists (in the lower half of the main screen), you can access four effects at the tap of a button via the ‘favourites’ system located bottom-left. You can configure a number of banks of favourites if required and this whole system works really well for quick selection of different effect configurations. Flipping between presets is pretty much instantaneous so you could easily use this system during a live performance for switching settings between songs or even between song sections. Presets can also be switched via MIDI if you have suitable MIDI connectivity (IK Multimedia’s Blueboard might be good for this when it is released?).
Perhaps the only downside of the whole preset system is that if you use the Favourite buttons, there is no top-center panel to show you the name of the currently selected preset. I’m sure this would be very useful for live performers as a visual cue to ensure they have picked the right preset rather than having to remember the required bank/favourite number combination. Maybe this is something that could be added in a future update?
The chain gang
Building effects chains is very straightforward; you simply tap the label at the top of any of the four effects slot and pick the effect you require from the drop-down list that appears. The only limitation here is that the ‘vocal’ effects have to be placed in the first two FX slots and, depending upon which effect you place in FX 1, this can constrain what choices you then get for FX 2. The limitations are modest though and you can, for example, easily chain Pitch Fix (FX 1) with Double, Choir, Morph or De-esser (FX 2) and then add whatever combination of studio effects you might like in FX 3 and 4.
The vocal-style effects available here attempt pretty much what their titles suggest. For example, Double allows you to add a second automated voice that doubles your live vocal input. You can adjust whether the double is in unison or an octave above/below. There is also a ‘group’ setting that gives you more than one voice. You can also adjust the volume, pan, delay and wet/dry balance between the ‘live’ and automated vocal parts.
Choir takes this one step further and allows you up to three separate harmony parts, specifying the musical intervals between each part. To get the best from this does require that you specify the key of your song correctly. A little bit of music theory can go a long way here and, thankfully, the online user manual (available via the Menu button, located bottom-right of the main screen), provides some useful information on this front for those users whose ‘music theory 101’ was taken some time ago.
Morph is quite fun as it allows you to experiment with shifting the formants and pitch of the voice; in essence, you can subtly (or not subtly!) shift the gender of the voice. While it is perhaps more in the ‘special effect’ category, used with care you could attempt to transform a grumpy old man (deepish voice) into something more teenager sounding if that better suited your song.
De-essing is a pretty standard vocal processing tool, reducing sibilance caused by ‘s’ sounds in words and, if you have a vocalist that spits a bit (!), VocaLive’s De-Esser will certainly help. The Mode and Type controls give you some control over the way the effect operates and, while it might not be as comprehensive a control set as found on a dedicated studio de-esser, it gives more than enough flexibility in this multi-effects context.
Perhaps the headline vocal effect is Pitch Fix. This essentially gives you three modes of operation – soft, medium and hard – that respectively apply subtle, strong and extreme pitch correction to your live vocal. As with the Choir effect, it helps to be able to identify the key correctly to get the best results. The Scale control also allows you to select a scale type (major, minor, etc.) as well as choose a chromatic option.
The studio-style effects do pretty much what you would imagine and, while you might not expect the reverb of delay to compete with dedicated hardware units, you only have to audition some of the presets that use these effects to realise the overall results are pretty good. Given all the other compromises in quality that constrain just how good the sound reproduction might be at your average gig, I don’t think VocaLive will be the weak link in the signal chain. These studio effects to a very effective job.
And the rest…
Effects aside, the app has a few other tools on offer. The Tools button itself provides access to a mini vocal trainer that plays through a scale on a piano so you can do a few vocal warmup exercises. There is also a metronome and an audio demo option. The latter is quite useful as it includes a number of pre-recorded vocal phrases that you can playback on a loop while you experiment with the effects settings; a neat idea.
The Recorder button opens up the app’s (surprise!) recording options. By default, this just gives you a single track but, with an in-app-purchase, you can turn it into an 8-track system and the IAP also includes some mastering-style effects. It’s straightforward to use and, if you just needed something to sketch a few vocal ideas with, I’m sure it would get the job done. Those more serious about their iOS multitrack recording would probably stick with their favourite DAW app such as Cubasis or Auria.
The Song button allows you to add either your own songs (backing tracks?) or those from your music library into VocaLive’s ‘song’ tool. You can then sing along through VocaLive while the track is playing. If you are a solo vocalist who works to backing tracks at your gigs, this would be quite a neat ‘all-in-one’ solution. If you just want to sing along to your favourite commercial tracks, the tool includes a voice cancelling function, although like all such processes, don’t expect miracles. You can also adjust the playback speed of the track if required without changing the pitch.
The MIDI button provides you with instructions on hooking up a MIDI controller to VocaLive. I didn’t get to try this but, providing your various hardware allows you to connect both the required audio input and the MIDI interface, then this would be particularly useful for patch selection while playing live.
The Menu button, as well as allowing access to the Store for any IAPs, also allows you to adjust some of the app’s basic settings in terms of input selection, a noise filter and the processing latency. You can also view the online manual for the app via the Help option on this menu.
So much for the features and functions, what does VocaLive sound like? I’ve used a number of dedicated hardware devices (the Digitech Vocalist units, for example) and desktop software (Antares Autotune and Harmony Engine, Celemony’s Melodyne, etc.) that provides similar processing to VocaLive’s ‘vocal’ effects. While I don’t think the app quite matches the performance of these top-of-the-range units, I have to admit that, overall, I was hugely impressed with what the app could achieve.
The audio quality of the studio-style effects is very respectable. The reverb, delay and compressor all do a good job. In a live context, if you had your iPad fastened to your mic stand (yes, using IK Multimedia’s own iKilp!), then you could easily imagine controlling your own vocal sounds during a gig. While more up-market performers would probably leave all that to their sound engineer (and their shed-load of expensive effects units), for a solo performer or band playing smaller gigs, this would be a very useable system for the vocalist. It does, of course, require that your singing mic is hooked up to your iPad and the iPad’s audio out can be passed to your PA. This qualification aside, VocaLive is a very nice solution.
Of course, the more intriguing effects are in the vocal group. Like all such ‘auto’ double track, harmony and pitch correction tools, if you want to avoid the artificial nature of the sound being exposed, you need to use them subtly. Blend the harmonies in at a lower level than your live vocal and use the ‘soft’ option for the pitch correction. Do that, and they work surprisingly well and, within the context of everything else that might be going on at your average gig, audio artefacts will be difficult to spot.
Push things a little harder and those audio artefacts become a bit more obvious and, while that might be best avoided if you want a ‘real’ sound, if you want something that moves more towards ‘special effects’, then VocaLive can do that also. Wobbly pitch correction or harmony chipmunks; it’s there if you want it.
While I think the Doubler and Choir effects offer plenty of scope in terms of controls, if I was being really greedy, it might be nice to have a bit more control over the Pitch Fix effect. I know this is probably quite intensive in terms of the processing required but being able to adjust both the speed and depth of the correction on a continuous scale would be great. Maybe that is also something for a future update?
Red light on
The app is obviously aimed at live performance but, with the addition of Audiobus support, it is going to have greater appeal to those more interested in iOS-based recording. In my testing, the Audiobus implementation seemed very solid. VocaLive can appear in any of the three Audiobus slots and I experimented mainly using it as an Input app and an Effect app, feeding it’s output into Cubasis.
Recording VocaLive’s processed output into Cubasis was no different from working with any other app; straightforward and without any problems. If you knew exactly what processing you wanted to apply to your vocal as you recorded it, and were happy to commit to that ‘sound’ (harmony, reverb, delay, etc.), then that’s fine. However, in most cases, I’d prefer to record my vocals dry without any effects applied and then, when it came time to mix, make a decision about what effects to apply at that stage, when I could hear the vocal in the context of all the other instruments.
The ‘DIY send effect’ trick I’ve described with a couple of other apps recently (for example, AUFX:Space and AudioReverb) worked here also. I was, therefore, able to have Cubasis in both the Audiobus Input slot and Output slot while VocaLive sat in the Effect slot. If I then solo’ed my vocal track in Cubasis, I could play it back through VocalLive’s processing options, experimenting with the settings until I found what I wanted. I could then record that processed signal to a second Cubasis track. When mixing, I could then play both vocal tracks and adjust the balance between them to control my wet/dry levels. It’s clunky, but it does work.
Incidentally, there is no reason why the same process might not be used to create a double tracked vocal part or harmony vocal parts and record these to separate tracks also. You could then control the relative levels of these different vocal parts within your DAW for the final mix.
VocaLive is an impressive app. The studio effects options are perfectly acceptable for rehearsal or routine gig work and the ability to flip between presets on the fly would be great for vocalists playing small gigs solo or in a band. Add in the various ‘vocal’ effects – pitch correction, doubling and harmony generation – and it is a powerful tool for the gigging vocalist who wants to add some textures to their vocals but doesn’t have access to a suitable selection of backing singers. Used with care, these processing options work very well. Yes, you also need to build a setup that allows you to get audio in and out of your iPad at a gig, but that’s also perfectly feasible.
The Audiobus support will also open VocaLive up to iOS recording junkies. Of course, if you have perfect pitch and can sing harmonies on demand, then maybe the app is not for you. For the rest of us – or for those that like the idea of abusing what VocaLive offers for some special effects – this offers a genuinely useful and creative set of vocal processing tools. VocaLive might not be the cheapest music app you could add to your iDevice, but it packs a lot of creative processing options into a slick package and its a lot cheaper than even a single 1 hour session with a backing singer. For performing or recording vocalists with an iOS passion, VocaLive is well worth exploring.