DigiTech Vocalist Live 2 and Live 4

“He or she sings like a guitar player” is not a compliment, and while DigiTech’s Vocalist Live products can’t exactly cure that curse, they are designed specifically for singing guitar players looking to enhance their sound with harmony vocals and effects. The hook to both the DigiTech Live 2 ($499 retail/$350 street) and Live 4 ($699 retail/$500 street) is musIQ technology that’s designed to “hear” the guitar part and generate appropriate harmonies based on the chords being played through it. The concept is undeniably cool, and the results are certainly interesting to any player who has ever tried to blend with someone who sings like a drummer.

The Vocalist Live 2 and Live 4 are based on the same 24-bit/44.1kHz processing power. Live 2 is capable of generating two harmonies, and it offers compression, reverb, and enhancement effects. Live 4 can generate up to four harmonies, and it offers a wide variety of vocal effects, plus guitar effects to the main mix (although not to the Thru signal routed to your guitar amp). It’s also programmable, and it sports expanded I/O capability.

I got my hands on these Vocalists just in time, as I was having trouble finding good players who could also sing my harmony-packed tunes. I was psyched to try the DigiTech units on a series of rehearsals and gigs, starting with Live 2. Connection and operation was a breeze; I just plugged in my guitar as if the Vocalist was a standard guitar pedal, added the mic’s XLR cable, and started tweaking.

Live 2’s controls are essentially split in half. Above the right-side Harmony on/off footpedal lie two sets of buttons: High, Unison 1, and Low; and Higher, Unison 2, and Lower. High and Low generate harmonies a third above and a third below the sung pitch. Higher and Lower deliver harmonies a fifth above and below. There is some wiggle room, here, as the Vocalist will sing, say, a fourth or sixth if it “thinks” that’s best. Unison provides just that—a copy of the sung note. To my ears, the lower harmonies sounded better than the higher ones, which are passable, but sounded rather helium-induced the higher they got.

Effects rule the Live 2’s left side. Above the Effects on/off footpedal (hold for guitar tuner), a single Compressor control knob adds welcome punch when engaged. Under the Reverb knob are Studio, Room, and Hall options that sounded good enough for the live arena, and were especially handy in lieu of an informed soundperson. Enhance options called Resonance, Clarity, and Shine produced subtle EQ filter effects. I found it was best to set and leave all the controls at about 3 to 4 o’clock in order to provide effective processing that didn’t sound too tricked out or unnatural.

The Vocalist does a good job of “understanding” the guitar part being played and generating appropriate, well-tracked harmonies. However, certain chord/melody combinations work better than others. The Vocalist can follow bends and vibrato well, although big bends and vibratos can throw it off if the chords are changing underneath. Of course, the Vocalists musIQ isn’t so smart that it knows when to leave off a word or a syllable, so unless you want to tap the Harmony pedal continuously to add harmonies to specific phrases—or parts of phrases—it’s best to learn which lines really work well with Vocalist-generated harmonies all or most of the way through.

The Live 4 is about twice the size of the Live 2, and its programmability allows you to dial in more harmonies that do work well. It also allows the user to bypass the musIQ technology altogether, and select a key and tonality (major or minor) in order to generate harmonies when no guitar signal is present. This did not work well for me, so I stuck to the musIQ, and turned off the unit for unaccompanied parts. The additional harmonies on the Live 4 are octaves, up or down. The octave down setting kicks booty, delivering a Larry Graham-approved low male vocal sound. The Live 4’s 50 factory and 50 editable user presets can be recalled using its two additional footpedals, which scroll up and down. It’s very cool to readily call up preset programs from CSN (Crosby Stills and Nash) to Blind Boys (obviously based on gospel legends, the Blind Boys of Alabama), and you can create your own 4-part harmony formula using the 32-option Voicing control. Voice Styles allows you to choose between Guys and Gals to back you up, and there’s even a Drunk setting for extreme pitch and time decoupling!

The Live 4 is loaded with effects options. Nine vertically-aligned LEDs and six horizontally-aligned knobs can be used to select, tweak, and store settings for essentials such as preamp, EQ, and delay, as well as such luxuries such as pitch correction. You can also bring on wild lead vocal effects such as Persona (ever wanted to sound like an opera singer?). I found Pitch Correction most useful as a subtle thickener, and would not recommend trying to use it as a lifesaver—no matter how well you tweak the many available scale settings.

The trick to using both Vocalists onstage is smooth execution and good taste. The harmonies don’t sound as authentic as a well-rehearsed group of singers such as, say, the Eagles. And if you’re not careful, the result can wind up sounding more like the Chipmunks. You need a solid understanding of your vocal arrangement, as well as a quick foot. The musIQ is for real, so you have to be sure to turn off the harmonies for an a cappella chorus, or it generates garbly gook. Also, if you forget to punch out between tunes, your stage banter will sound like an alien speaking three languages simultaneously.

Either Vocalist can be a boon to the overall onstage aesthetic. They are certainly way cheaper in the long run than hiring extra musicians. If you’re serious about dialing in great harmonies and effects, it’s a no-brainer to plunk down the extra cash for the Live 4 because it offers so much more flexibility. The Live 2 wins for affordability, easy of use, and the fact that it takes up only half the space of its larger sibling. I found that if I stuck to more deliberate melodies (probably a good thing unto itself), and used the Vocalist judiciously, both the Live 2 and the Live 4 ultimately made my band sound bigger and better. Durability is a final consideration. These units are more like studio boxes than good old-fashioned rock ’em/sock ’em stompboxes, so if you buy a Vocalist, you may want to get a padded case pronto.