Using live onstage vocal effects – for singers
I’ve met a lot of singers who want to know more about using electronic audio effects onstage during live performance. From personal experience, I know that finding the right info can be surprisingly difficult.
If you’ve looked into the subject already, chances are you might have run up against disparaging or unhelpful advice like, “it really can’t be done well” or “just let your mixing engineer take care of it.”
Let’s clear it up: many singers have controlled effects live on stage successfully. Doing so is entirely achievable, so long as you spend a little time setting things up properly. Done well, using effects with vocals is a really worthwhile pursuit that can bring you inspiring results (there are some YouTube clips at the bottom of the page as proof).
Why should singers use FX live?
- Using effects (FX) lets you tap-in to fresh and stimulating approaches to performing, improvising, collaborating/ensemble playing and composing;
- You can experiment with live looping;
- Using FX may help you progress closer towards finding your own “sound” (whether the FX ultimately become part of that sound or not); and
- It’s serious fun.
…and what problems can arise?
- Using effects improperly can introduce unwanted “noise” into your vocal signal, causing not-ideal sound. “Bad” noise can rear its ugly head through ground-loops or incorrect gain-structure (both explained later). Problems such as these can be difficult to resolve;
- The more effects units/cables/equipment your vocal signal travels through, the greater the possibility that things will go wrong. (Though not necessarily). Some equipment might not play nicely with others, your equipment may malfunction, or it may be set up wrong. All these factors can contribute to bad – or dead – sound on stage;
- Fiddling with equipment on stage can be a really bad look. Singers are traditionally the centre of focus on stage – whether we agree with it or not – so if you’ve got things to do on stage, knowing your gear inside-out and using it subtly is essential in performance.
- By using FX, you increase the potential for bad front-of-house sound (F.O.H. – the main sound the audience hears). This is so partly because as a performer up on stage, you’re not positioned to judge how the audience hears sound, so you can’t really adjust certain things and be sure it sounds great to the audience (this is especially so with EQ); and
- It can be impractical lugging FX equipment around and finding space for it on stage.
You can see some of the pitfalls against using FX live, but these generally only start to apply after you’ve moved past point one below. As with many things, the creative benefits of this can really outweigh the potential logistical inconveniences. Don’t let them put you off!
Let’s assume there are three levels of familiarity with the use of live onstage vocal FX:
- “ Where do I start?”;
- “I’ve got something happening. Where can I go from here?”; and,
- “I’ve been doing some serious tweaking and want to do even more (a.k.a. how the hell did I get myself into this business?!)”
1 – “Where do I start?”
By far the simplest way of beginning your journey with FX is by getting a unit that was specifically designed for use with vocals. Some of these include the:
- TC Helicon VoiceTone Create XT, TC Helicon Voice Live Touch;
- Digitech Vocalist Live 2/3/4; and the
- Boss VE-20 Vocal Performer.
These units are a way to get into using live FX with minimal complications. They all have their own little idiosyncrasies and can appear a bit on the expensive side, but they really are the simplest, cheapest route to go down.
How they work:
You plug a microphone cable directly into the machine, which then routes your vocal signal through a series of built-in effects such as reverb, delay, modulation effects, filters, loopers etc. You can usually switch each of these individual effects on or off if you don’t want to use them.
These units then have an an output jack, which you can plug with a lead directly into a powered speaker, or to the mixing desk of the venue’s P.A.
If these are so straightforward, why would you want to do it any other way?
The fact that the all-in-one style vocal FX units are the simplest route isn’t necessarily an advantage.
The aforementioned units are really an all-in-one affair, which can bring to mind the old adage, “jack of all trades, master of none.”
The main reason is that they lack programmability. The effects included, though numerous, often have a limited application. Once you tire of the sound or seek to sculpt the sounds more deeply, you can start to feel feel creatively limited. I generally find that the more all-in-one features something has, the less you’ll be able to edit the functions or “sounds” in the unit.
A very close second reason why these units can be dissatisfying is the actual sound quality of the built-in effects. If you hear other types of effects units that serve only “one” function – such as a reverb unit or delay pedal – you’ll find that these units have a vastly greater range of options and they usually sound remarkably better, richer and more detailed. That’s why dedicated, single-function units can be just as expensive and coveted as an entire multi-FX vocalist pedal.
If you feel limited by multi-FX units, your only real option is to progress to using individual, dedicated effects units.
Looping is a major reason why many singers want to foray into using FX in the first place.
As with the FX, the looping functions bundled with many of the all-in-one vocalist pedals are often a far cry from the advanced functions provided by dedicated loopers.
Again, the dedicated units have far deeper programming, better sound quality and improved usability – which really translates to the unit being more intuitive and “musical.”
Having said this, if you are happy with the built-in FX in the vocalist pedal you have but just want better looping functions, buy a dedicated looper and just plug it in after the vocal pedal. Less “moving” parts = easier times!
2 – “Where can I go from here?”
If you want to progress to using single, separate FX units, you need to put together a system in a particular way. It’s more complicated than using a prebuilt unit, but this way is still really only comprised of two main sections:
- A microphone preamplifier. You plug your mic in and connect the output of this to your FX. The preamp amplifies your microphone signal to something the FX can process. The first part of a mixer – or the input of a vocalist pedal – does exactly the same thing. You’ll also need:
- Effects. Depending on what type you’re using, you may need to add a couple of other components as explained below.
Then, it’s just a matter of plugging the output of your system into a P.A., similar to how you would with a normal microphone.
The only difference doing things this way is that because you’re already “preamplifying” the mic signal, you don’t need to preamplify it again with the P.A. mixer (or powered speaker).
Instead, you can just plug your signal from your FX rig, into the insert section of the mixer. If there’s no insert, just plug it into the XLR (canon) connector in the mixer but keep the gain knob really low (to avoid distortion). A D.I. box with a “pad” (gain-reduction switch) will help here.
Mic preamps come in all shapes and sizes, but pick something simple and relatively cheap. A really cheap option is to get a little mixer with an “aux send,” which can be used to link to your FX and return the sound to your mixer (figure 1).
The two main different “types” of FX:
RACKMOUNT FX (RACK UNIT)
If you’re using a rack unit for FX, just plug the output of the microphone preamp straight into this (and adjust the gain so that you’re not distorting the FX unit). After that, plug the FX unit’s output into a D.I. or straight into the mixing desk (again make sure the gain is “trimmed” accordingly).
GUITAR PEDAL (STOMP-BOX)
Guitar pedals are primarily designed for use with guitars, but can be used with vocal signals with a little TLC. Guitar pedals can be a wonderful addition to your FX arsenal because they’re designed to feel “musical.” You can get anything from a cheap – but versatile – “Boss-style” stomp-box to a boutique handcrafted pedal that could cost more than your microphone did.
Guitar pedals are expecting to “see” a different type of signal to the output of your microphone. That’s why we use a preamplifier to begin, and one more step: reamping.
What is reamping?
Reamping – courtesy of a little box – involves converting your mic signal into something that the guitar FX unit can process properly. A reamping box is essential if you’re using guitar pedals for processing vocals coming from a microphone.
Reamping boxes work by converting a low impedance, high voltage preamplified microphone signal, to high impedance, lower voltage signal like what a guitar would output. This keeps signal quality high and unwanted noise to a minimum.
After first converting the mic signal for guitar FX, some types of reamping boxes then re-convert it back to a microphone style signal (figure 2), ready to send to the mixing desk. (This is essentially called a reamping-amping unit).
This second step is basically what a D.I. (direct input) box does, so you can use one of these if your reamping box only converts the signal one way (figure 3).
Just because you may have been able to get results by plugging your mic directly into a guitar pedal, maybe by using an XLR to 1/4” jack cable: it’s not worth it! Friends don’t let friends plug directly into guitar FX.
Reamping boxes are relatively cheap for how useful and important they are. A couple of brands of reamping boxes include:
Better yet, use a reamping box that is designed specifically for vocalists. These have a microphone preamp built-in, a reamping section, plus a D.I. section to re-convert the guitar FX signal back to a mic signal suitable for your mixing desk. It’s virtually all-in-one!
You can also theoretically use two D.I. units, one in “reverse” to send your signal to the guitar FX, and another to re-convert it back to a line level mixer input.
Alternatively, find a local pedal repair person or electronics nut to make one of these up for you fairly cheaply. I’ve got a guy in Adelaide if you need.
Having said all this:
I know someone who just uses a +48v (phantom power) supply unit to power his condenser mic, then feeds the signal directly into his various looping units. He has no noise or hum issues – but – his pedals were also designed for use with line-level inputs. It’s up to you to experiment. You may find that this works for you.
I’ve also met someone who uses a little in-line transformer cable to plug a mic directly into guitar FX. I personally think the tone is heavily compromised, but it it works for you, great. You may save yourself a considerable amount of time and money.
It’s easy to get overly concerned about noise in your signal. While it’s really important to work towards having a nice clean signal, remember that live performance gives you some leeway. Great music still trumps tone quality every time!
Computer-based FX systems
You can also use computers as effects processors. Possible setups include using software such as Ableton or Mainstage and operating it on stage with a MIDI controller. Electronic musicians do this kind of thing all the time.
My personal experience is to not trust computers in live performance unless you’ve spent mega bucks on building a dedicated audio system. I prefer the rugged, reliable one-function FX boxes in my live rig.
3. ‘I’ve been doing some serious tweaking and want to do even more (a.k.a. how the hell did I get myself into this business?!)’
Here are some of the questions I’ve asked myself along the way. Hopefully they’re of use to you in your pursuit.
What are some different dedicated looping pedals?
- Gibson (Oberheim) Echoplex Digital Pro/Digital Pro Plus
- JamMan (was made by Lexicon, now Digitech)
- Boss RC20/20XL/RC50
- Akai Headrush
- Electro Harmonix 2880
A comprehensive list can be found at http://www.loopers-delight.com/tools/tools.html. For looping info, I can’t recommend this site highly enough!
How “gourmet” should my mic preamp be?
Just get something that does the job. There’s not much point using a very high quality mic pre for a live gig – in my opinion. It’s debatable whether the difference between a $1000 preamp and a $200 or basic mixer preamp will be worth it for a live performance.
This all changes with recording. But, if you want to use your FX rig for recording, you should swap-out your mic and preamp for something higher-end anyway.
For the record, I know a very accomplished singer who uses only a +48v phantom-power supply unit before his FX loop. This goes against the principle of using a preamp to create good gain-structure, but may work because the FX he uses were built to accommodate a line-level input (such as the Gibson/Oberheim Echoplex). I wouldn’t recommend this route, but it certainly works very well for him.
Should I use a preamp with compression or EQ?
Some preamps include a compressor and EQ section (usually causing them to be renamed channel strips). Compression and EQing are an integral part of live and recorded sound, however, generally it’s best to leave them alone while performing with a live onstage FX rig – at least when you’re starting out.
The benefits of compression include ensuring a vocal signal maintains a consistent sonic level, helping it “cut” through or sit above the stage mix. On the downside, improperly used compression can overly even-out your dynamics, negating your efforts at creating a living, breathing performance.
As for EQ, most preamps and some microphones already have a useful low-cut filter, designed to remove “plosives” (the bursts of air caused by “B” and “P” sounds) or some microphone fumbling noise.
Generally, EQing should be left to the mixing engineer, or at least be done on the F.O.H. mixing desk before a gig. When you’re performing, you simply can’t hear the sound well enough from the audience’s perspective to be able to adjust EQ well. You may inadvertently make things sound worse.
There’s a hum when I plug it all in. What do I do?
You’re probably inevitably going to come across a hum or buzz, or both, at some stage. They’re usually solveable, or reducible to a good-enough level. Hums and buzzes can arise for a few different reasons. Try any or all of the following:
- Find the source of the problem. If you’ve come across noise problems, take some time out when you’re not at a gig to isolate the issue. Start by plugging just your microphone into the preamp (or mini mixer), and connect that to your P.A. Do you hear the noise?
If not, connect just the next piece of gear. Any change? Keep going in a similar fashion and hopefully you’ll find the offending unit, which may or may not require repairing, substituting, omitting, replacing etc.
- Plug all your gear into the same power outlet. If your gear is plugged into a different outlet to the P.A, you can encounter the famous and irritating “ground-loop hum.” If this isn’t possible:
- Flick the “Ground lift” switch on a D.I. (or your re-amping box) can sometimes help the low 50/60hz “ground-loop” hum you get when your gear is plugged into a different power outlets, or to the P.A. you are going in to.
- Isolated power supplies for all FX such as a VoodooLabs Pedal Power 2/Iso5, or the Dunlop/MXR MC403 are smart way to power all of your pedals. The various cheap power packs that come with some pedals can introduce interference to your audio signal, so isolating your power is a great step.
- Balanced cabling. This is using TRS (tip, ring, sleeve) cabling, which has a separate earth wire designed to contain some types of interference (guitar cables have only two wires, forcing one of which to carry any interference encountered). Balancing can help remove unwanted noise, but note that most FX units aren’t ‘balanced’, so this may not make any difference at all.
- Try a “hum eliminator” like the one made by Ebtech to filter out ground loop noise. It may reduce your signal somewhat, but is probably the lesser of two evils.
The power packs sold with guitar FX are often the cause of noise and interference. Using a transformer-isolated power supply unit can drastically clean up your system signal.
- A Bypassing pedal – or looper pedal (not the same as the loopers we talked about earlier) – allows you to cut guitar pedals out of your signal chain when they’re not in use (hence, taking them out of the loop, so to speak).
Your FX units stay ‘on’ and you essentially use your bypassing pedal to bring them in or out of your vocal signal. Many pedals lack “true bypass”, which means that even when you’ve clicked on their bypass switch, they affect the tone of the signal routing through them.
- A digital switching unit, such as a SoundCraft Switchblade or RJM Mini Effect Gizmo, is one step up from a bypassing pedal. These electronic units use “buffered”, transformer isolated inputs to improve tone and reduce signal loss, while relay-based switching helps to clicks and pops when switching FX (which can really sound terrible through a loud P.A. during performance).
Feel free to get in touch with me if you want some advice or troubleshooting tips, or want to show me your setup (please do!). I am going to post pics and a rundown of my system when time permits. And now, here are the inspiring clips:
Theo Bleckmann – Lili Marleen
Imogen Heap (Frou Frou) – Just for Now
Dub FX - Love Someone (talks through his process)