Electronics for Vocalists

Using effects to enhance performance

JD Walter
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JD Walter
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The voice is a beautiful instrument on its own, with no need for electronic effects to supplement it. But why do we add effects to any instrument? For me it changes the palette, which adds to the vibe of the song and enables me to use sounds in a live setting that were previously reserved for the studio.

Not only can effects add to the quality of a performance, they also have benefits in the practice room. The general acoustics of your apartment or house probably aren’t sonically flattering, but you shouldn’t have to go to a gig or sing in the shower to experience pleasing sound. We as singers feed off our sound, and can experience new and interesting timbres from some basic equipment that won’t break the bank. Exploring this equipment at home will make you want to practice and allow you to work more efficiently with sound engineers to perfect the sonics of your live show.

Delay/Echo

Something as simple as practicing with a delay or echo on a digital processor or effects unit can help with time, because of the metronomic repetition of delay. Arpeggiating triads, 7th chords and their upper extensions with delay or echo can also help you practice singing in tune.

For example, we might start to investigate triads and 7th chords using permutations of the chord in time with the selected delay setting. Apply this to each triad spanning multiple octaves

(major, minor, diminished, augmented) and basic 7th chords

(maj-7, dom-7, min-7, min-7-flat-5, dim-7, min/maj-7):

Triads: 1-3-5, 1-5-3, 3-5-1, 3-1-5, 5-3-1, 5-1-3

7th chords: 1-3-5-7, 1-5-7-3, 1-7-3-5, etc.

Looping

A looping unit can be a helpful tool for any musician. For a singer, this effect allows for the layering, one at a time, of a few voices to a choir’s worth. Sung basslines can be recorded and repeated, over which you can improvise or practice the melody. You can also do the opposite: Record a melody and practice writing basslines and adding guide tones. This will help you further understand the role of the bassist while solidifying knowledge of the roots of the chords and the harmonic landscape of the song.

I also use the loop effect when writing or working on reharmonizations. Chord progressions, sung melodies and lyric ideas can sometimes pass quickly; with looping, I just have to press record with my foot and I don’t lose the idea at hand. I can save it for later-most looping units have a number of channels where one can save recorded ideas-or continue to develop the idea at that time. This to me is much more convenient than using a multitrack recorder for the same purpose.

While a looping device can be effective during live performance, it needs to be treated like any other instrument requiring many hours of practice. Its use can range from creating pads or chords with a band to performing solo pieces. The exciting and challenging thing about using the effect in a gig is that it retains the live-performance dynamic; in other words, if you make a mistake or sing out of tune, the flubbed line or part will repeat over and over.

ADDITIONAL EFFECTS

The chorus pedal, which detunes the voice to varying degrees, is a favorite of mine for soloing or giving that doubled effect over the chorus of a song. I use an octave pedal for emulating a bass sound or doubling a line in a composition. There are so many wonderful toys to choose from, including distortion, Auto-Tune, synth patches, harmonizers and vocoders. A few great brands for effects are Boss, TC-Helicon and TC Electronic. Boss pedals feel softer, switch quietly and have a larger foot trigger, as opposed to the harsh clicking of the small, metallic, button-like activation switches on pedals by many other manufacturers. Some pedals designed for the voice don’t cut it for me and I defer to guitar effects. I have also explored using Ableton Live computer software with pedal triggers, but was scared away from live usage by the very real possibility of the computer crashing on a gig. I also didn’t like the idea of having to watch a computer screen to see whether I was in record, play or overdub mode when looping. My current rig includes an Audio-Technica AT4054 condenser mic, Boss RC-20XL Loop Station, Boss OC-2 Octave pedal, TC Electronic Corona Chorus pedal, Alesis NanoVerb processor, Boss GE-21 graphic EQ and Mackie mixers (an MS1202 at home and an MS1202-VLZ on the road). Happy exploring.

JD Walter is a New York-based vocalist whose latest release is One Step Away, featuring the great jazz trio Tarbaby. Visit him online at jdwalter.com.