My Secret Weapon for AMAZING three-part harmonies –

My Secret Weapon for AMAZING three-part harmonies

Let me start by saying that this blog is loooong. Probably the longest I’ve ever written, but hang in there with me because I believe you’ll walk away with lots of value, or else I wouldn’t have been so long winded, haha…

I am going to share a little secret with you that I don’t think I’ve ever shared with anyone. Here goes- The reason I am so nuts about singing is simply because I LOVE vocal harmonies. Growing up listening to bands like the Bee Gees, Journey, and Earth, Wind & Fire solidified my love of the three-part vocal mix. From there on, I’ve heavily gravitated towards harmony bands. Since I am a rocker at heart, I loved harmony lines by bands like Saigon Kick, TNT, Alice in Chains, Nitro and even Bon Jovi. Something about the blending of two-three voices captivated me, painting an aural picture that I had to listen to over and over and over again.

I’d say the reason I love harmony so much, besides the obvious beauty of it, is the fact that I am a keyboard player. Hearing a three-part vocal harmony, to me is like playing a perfect chord on the keyboard. I tend to think of my voice as a synthesizer, when I sing, so it makes perfect sense. The voice is an instrument, so it is easier for me to relate my keyboard when I think of vocal lines. In fact, when I add grit, I pretend that I’m a dirty Hammond B3 organ, and when I do a vocal run, I think in terms of cool keyboard licks…

I’ve been asked many times to write a book for explaining and creating vocal harmonies. I know I’ve written a lot about vocal technique in books like “Raise Your Voice”, but, for me to write an entire book on harmony, well, I’m not your man. Sure, I can tell a keyboard player or a guitarists that the easiest way to find a harmony that will blend with the lead vocal line would be to sing the third, fifth, or octave, above or below the main line. But, would that fully explain what I meant? Well, sure, if you are a musician who plays keys or guitar and understands music theory. A trained musician could sit down, pick out each third, fifth, augmented fourth, seventh, etc., above and below the lead vocal, painstakingly figuring out the harmony notes line by line, note by note, until they found the exact harmony line that would fit the song. Hey, that’s actually not a bad idea, but it is tedious work. If only there were an easier way…hmmmmm…

If you aren’t ‘music theory savvy’ but still yearn to master the art of harmony vocals, I’ve found an easier solution- TC Helicon’s VoiceLive2 vocal effects & harmony processor… I must confess, I am a vocal gear nut and my favorite company for vocal goodies is of course, TC Helicon. I’ve tried other gear by companies such as Digitech and Antares, but I always come back to my TC. I’ve owned the original VoiceLive vocal processor, several rack mounts and pedals by TC as well, but it wasn’t until I got my hands on the VoiceLive2 that I realized that I had been handed a loaded gun and started shooting.

The music that I am currently writing with my own band, for our vocal/performance workshops is heavily harmony based. So the VoiceLive2 has been put through the wringer during our writing sessions and rehearsals. Through the writing process, my guitarists don’t sing because they are working out their guitar and bass parts, which means the it’s up to the ole’ VoiceLive2 to function as my backup singers. During the past many, many, many months, I’ve learned to love this harmony tool and discovered some pretty cool features on the unit that allows you to tweak your harmony sound about every which way possible, making this crazy little machine my “secret” harmony weapon.

So, what makes the VoiceLive2 my secret weapon for AMAZING three-part harmonies??? Drum roll please………………You can plug your guitar or keyboard into it and allow your instrument to control the harmonies. In other words, the chords your guitarist strums will guide the harmonies created, which are still built around the notes that you sing. This may sound a little difficult, but trust me, it’s not. In fact, I’ve decided to explain how I set up my VoiceLive2 for harmonies, by giving you a step-by-step walk-though, so that all of the VoiceLive2 users out there in harmony land can catch on and start benefiting from this little blog today.

“Jaimeeeee, you got some ‘splaining’ to do! How can a guitar or keyboard become the band leader for the harmonies?”

Well, if you’ve been singing long enough, I am sure you’ve realized that generally, the note you sing is based around the root of the main chord your guitarist is playing. So let’s say your guitarist is strumming a C Major chord which consists of the notes C,E,G in no particular order. If you are wailing on the C note, depending on how you’ve setup the VoiceLive2, the harmony could be the 3rd above or below, 5th above (the E or G) or below or octave above or below. These harmonies follow the C Major scale. Now, if your guitarist was playing a C Minor chord, this would change the harmonies to a minor scale, which means the third above would change from an E (major scale) to a D# (minor scale).

I know, I know, I;m floggin your noggin, especially if you aren’t “theory savvy” as I put it earlier. So, skipping all the theory jargon, simply turn on your VoiceLive2 and let’s play around with it a little. Plug in a mic and set of headphones and take a little time scrolling through the presets. Sing along as you scroll and listen to the harmonies. If you don’t hear any harmony, simply click the harmony button to turn it on.Once you’ve found a harmony blend that sounds cool to you, it’s time to try the preset out in rehearsal. Have your guitarist plug in through the back of the unit, then out to their amp and sing along as you jam on some tunes. Tell the members of your band who plan to sing harmony to listen to the harmonies created by the VoiceLive2…This IS the SECRET to developing harmonies…We are repetitive creatures and just like listening to a song over and over again until it is ingrained in our skulls, listening to those VoiceLive2 harmonies every time you practice a song, will impregnate the harmony patterns upon your backup singer’s minds. They’ll eventually be able to sing the same exact harmony. Once they start singing along with the VoiceLive2 harmony and commit it to memory, you’ll have a bigger, better sound than ever before!


Note: Now, there may be times when the harmony sounds terrible and doesn’t seem to be following along. It could be that your guitarist is playing a million notes and changing the harmony, but most likely it’s simply not setup to follow an instrument. Therefore, then next section will cover exactly how to set up the VoiceLive2.

Now, the VL2 may seem a little overwhelming at first, but it isn’t as bad as it seems. If I were smarter, I’d write a “Dummies guide to TC Helicon’s VoiceLive2”, but I’m not, so, you’ll have to settle for these blogs;) Here’s a dummies diluted guide to getting started with harmonies on Voicelive2:

1. Fire up the ole’ processor once more, plug in a mic and headphones, scroll to the preset program you like best, then press the EDIT button.

2. Next, hit the arrow buttons on the right side (the ones below the big wheel…You know, the ones above the “navigate’ sign.) As you click the arrows and look at the screen, you’ll notice that you can scroll through the effect types, (such as Delay, FX, Harmony) left to right.

3. Scroll over to the HARMONY tab.WOW, what a wide selection of areas to tweak, just under the harmony area. We are going to have some fun! I’ll cover a few choices to get you started, but PLEASE explore the rest…Make sure you head to to download the full manual and extra presets before you start experimenting. Trust me, you’ll need the manual to pave the way…

Back to experimenting…You’ll notice that the blue screen has a wide white strip across a specific area of the screen. The white strip is the active editing area, which allows you to adjust any setting highlighted in white. Time to do some tweaking.

4. The first area which can be adjusted is the Harmony Style. In this area, you can change how many harmony voices are active, with choices like “1 above”, “2 below”, etc, as well as setting the harmony output level. To adjust any of these choices, simply turn one of the four small MIX wheel, which are located right below the screen, to the left or right. All the style area really does when set to be controlled by a guitar or keyboard is set up the number of harmonies that are active right off the bat, from one-four, as well as pump up or dampen down the harmony output. If this area looks a little weird, mentioning notes like C,D,E, etc., it means the harmony is set to a specific scale as opposed to being controlled by an external instrument. You can change this setting from Scale to other options like Natural Play at the very bottom of the Harmony editing area, which is discussed a bit in #9 in this list.

5. Let’s drop down to the next area which is for Harmony Voicing. You can drop down an editing level by twisting the big round knob, which is located in the top right corner. The Harmony Voicing area sets the actual harmony to octaves, high, higher, low, lower. In other words, it’s basically setting the 3rd, 5th or octave harmony.

6. Next, twist the big wheel again and drop down to the V1-3 level. Here you can turn on or off a harmony and bring the levels higher or lower to blend in the mix. Now, a smart singer would be vocalizing into their mic about now, testing these harmonies and getting a little hands on experience as they adjust the levels of their ‘background singers’.

7. Now, TC brings us to a really cool function. The next setting, right below the V1-3 Level is Gender. What??? Fun, fun, fun…Now you can make your harmonies sound like man, woman or child, and in some cases, ghosts, goblins, monks and aliens. Hey, I even heard Popeye’s girlfriend singing along with me. A setting of 0 matches your voice with no affectation whatsoever. But, by twisting one of the four little MIX wheels clockwise, it changes the gender sound to a more feminine quality. Settings change between 1-50, the big Five-O being as feminine as VoiceLive2 will get. Turning one of the four MIX wheels counter-clockwise changes the harmony directly above the knob to a more masculine sound, 50 being as manly as you can get. This can create some pretty unique blends.

8. There are many other areas which can be tweaked, including panning the harmonies left or right to get an ‘across the stage’ affect, adding a doubling and choir affect for a thicker sound, adding vibrato to the harmonies, as well as adjusting the humanization of the harmonies, so that they can sound loose or tight (almost robotic like). So play around, read your manual and tweak, tweak, tweak.

9. Wait, that’s not all folks…I should’ve put this one first, because I’m sure you all have this question- “What if I hear a few bad notes when I use the VoiceLive2?” Well, like I mentioned earlier, it could be the guitar or the processor not set up correctly. So the first ting we need to do is to see if the VoiceLive2 is even set to receive a guitar or keyboard. Scroll down to the bottom of the harmony editing tab until you reach Lead Level. You’ll see that in this editing strip you can choose the type of Natural Play. By choosing Guitar, it will respond to your instrument. Next, have your guitarist plug into the back and take another crack and creating killer harmonies.

If that doesn’t solve the problem, you may have a nutty guitarist like I do, who plays all over the place. A lead guitarist can make your harmonies sound a little funny at times because they may be playing licks instead of rhythm, confusing the VoiveLive2. So, in this case, you can ask your guitarist what key the song is out of. Then set the GLOBAL Key Scale under the setup menu to OFF, so that the harmony you choose doesn’t affect every preset. Next, Hold down the HARMONY foot switch to enter the Key Set mode, the use the PRESET up and down foot switches to run through the various keys until you find the one you re looking for. Then save the preset.

10. “Wait, what if my song has more than one key???” Easy. Hold down the STEP foot switch until the screen changes and says “Copy From…” In this case, you simply copy from the same preset number. once you click the STEP foot switch to accept, you’ll have two steps in the preset. Hold down the Harmony foot switch and adjust the harmonies

Phew, that was a lot of words. Hope it helped to get you started. So what are you waiting for? The VoiceLive2 isn’t going to program itself! I am begging, get off your keister, get into your VoiceLive2 and play around with the coolest vocal processor on the planet to begin mastering your harmonies and much, much more. This is the ONLY way you’ll learn the art of tweaking your TC sound. Experience will make you a better VoiceLive2 programmer. Okay, before I finish, here’s one more step for you…

12. Once you’ve tweaked your sound, don’t forget to save it by clicking the STORE button. Speaking of storing, its a VERY good idea to hook up your VoiceLive2 to your computer, fire up the free VoiceSupport software that comes with TC Helicon products, and back up your custom tweaked programs.

FYI- ALWAYS back up your programs by exporting to your computer, especially if there is an update. I updated my VoiceLive2 with the new looping program, forgot to back up all of my tweaked presets and lost my ENTIRE set list of sounds simply because of that simple mistake. Oh well, back to square one….

So, in ending, if the VoiceLive2 can create amazing harmonies, why train your band to sing at all? Because the world needs more singers, and although I use my VoiceLive2, I still expect my guitarist, Scott Stith and bassist, Keith Gilbert to sing along with me. Plus, there are still some things that cannot be done with VoiceLive2 at this stage, such as two of us harmonizing, while the third does a little walk down lick followed by harmonies. Well, I guess we could if we all had a VoiceLive2….But don’t tell Keith and Scott, I want all the cool sounds to myself. Still, Scott and Keith are hooked on listening to my VoiceLive2 to learn their harmonies, and it makes life so much easier on all of us. Now, crack open you VoiceLive2 and start busting out some killer harmonies!!!

PS- Now if TC Helicon would design a processor that would sing for me for when I need to go take a whiz because of all the water I drink, I’d be set;)

About the Author Jaime Vendera

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