Since the 1997 launch of its much-lauded Auto-Tune plug-in, Antares has become best friend to scores of pitch-challenged vocalists. Auto-Tune has saved countless singers the embarrassment of hearing their raw performances, and it has spared hordes of listeners, as well. It has also rescued the butt of many an engineer or a producer who didn't have time to wait around for a singer to turn in a “perfect” performance or who simply needed to fix a section of an otherwise stellar track.
Antares followed up with a hardware version of Auto-Tune, the ATR-1, and then set to work creating another alchemic device, the AMM-1 Microphone Modeler, which uses a proprietary technology called Spectral Shaping Tool to — at least, in theory — make a signal from, say, a Shure SM57 sound like it came from coveted transducers such as the AKG C 12 or Neumann U 87. (The ATR-1 and the AMM-1 were reviewed in the February 1999 and October 2000 issues of EM, respectively.)
Now Antares has upped the ante with the Vocal Producer AVP-1 — the Leatherman of vocal processors. Combining Auto-Tune, microphone modeling, tube modeling, equalization, compression, de-essing, gating, and doubling in a single-rackspace box, the AVP-1 arms engineers with enough weapons to handle almost any vocal performance. Furthermore, despite its name, the Vocal Producer is hardly limited to vocal applications: it will happily tackle any sound source. At $599, it is within reach of most musicians and engineers.
With this unit, the question is not so much what's in the box, but what's not in it. Unlike most other “voice processors” — those ubiquitous channel-strip-type boxes outfitted for direct recording of vocals — the AVP-1 does not provide a mic preamp. I initially thought of that as a liability, given the all-in-one nature of the unit. But considering the modest price and how much processing you get, Antares's approach makes sense. The AVP-1 clearly is intended for the mixing rather than tracking environment.
With its 30-plus buttons and knobs, the AVP-1 looks a bit intimidating at first. Thankfully, everything is clearly labeled. From left to right, the front panel provides a 2-line, 20-character LCD; a Data Entry knob; master controls; and separate modules for Microphone Modeler, Auto-Tune, the compressor/gate, the de-esser, and the equalizer/output (which includes the doubler). Each module has its own set of controls, which minimizes annoying menu scrolling — thank you, Antares. Each module also provides its own on button, which is encircled by other buttons controlling the parameters for the given effect.
The AVP-1 is a breeze to operate. Simply push a button, and the display shows the related parameters. Turn the Data knob until the effect is set to your liking, and you're done. Move on to the next parameter and dial away. Once you're happy with the settings, you can save them in one of 35 memory locations. The AVP-1 ships with a wide range of factory-programmed presets, all of which can be overwritten with your own creations.
The unit's rear panel provides one unbalanced ¼-inch line input, two unbalanced ¼-inch outputs (the second one is for a doubled track), MIDI In and Out ports (allowing for real-time automation of most parameters), and an assignable ¼-inch footswitch jack that permits toggling of selected functions. Power is provided by a wall wart.
Pardon me while I digress for a moment, but after years of playing with multi-effects processors designed for guitar racks, I have come to expect the worst from boxes that perform more than one function. Typically, the more they offer, the lower the quality of each function. On top of that, I hate studio gear that is crammed to the brink with buttons, knobs, menus, and whatnot, because often it demands too much attention and concentration to interface with.
However, I was astonished by how simple the AVP-1 is to operate. About a minute after hooking it up and patching in a vocal track, I was happily tweaking away, exploring all of the sounds and functions the AVP-1 has to offer. The only time I had to resort to the manual was when I wanted to try the doubler and I couldn't get any output. It turned out I had assumed the output controls were part of the equalization section and overlooked them. Once I got that straight, I never looked back.
The AVP-1 can be used for tracking, of course, but I stuck with the manual's recommendation and used it exclusively for mixdown. This not only allowed for more experimentation, but it also made testing easier and didn't annoy the musicians.
I started by multing a vocal so I could compare live to Memorex, so to speak. First, I carefully compared the original track to the signal going though the box with all processing bypassed. As I expected, I heard a difference: the original signal had more depth, clarity, and air. That said, the sound quality of the AVP-1's bypassed signal was by no means bad.
Next, I worked with Microphone Modeler. There are a variety of choices for source mic and output mic. The source mics comprise many of those commonly found in personal studios, including models from Audio-Technica, CAD, and Shure. The output microphones are labeled generically as “handheld dynamic” or “large-diaphragm condenser #1” rather than by specific model names. By comparison, the standalone AMM-1 Microphone Modeler provides more than 100 modeled mics listed by make and model. The AVP-1 also lacks some of the more advanced MIDI functions found in the AMM-1.
In each case, the mic model evoked the general character of the mic selected. To my ear, though, the models sounded more like different equalization settings than different mics. Some sounded good, but others sounded a bit artificial. Then again, if all you have to work with is an SM57, the Microphone Modeler definitely expands your sonic options.
I also tried the modeler on miked instrumental sources. The drum-mic models sounded quite good, and I got some cool guitar sounds by changing mics, as well. Granted, I had to do a little guesswork because the AVP-1 does not provide the source mics I had used while tracking the instruments I ran through the box. But once I found a close source, I simply auditioned different output mics until I found what I liked.
To be honest, I have never liked pitch correction, no matter what the price or pedigree of the device. Frequently, the side effects are worse than a slightly out-of-tune performance. Even so, there are cases for which pitch correction is necessary, and the AVP-1 does an admirable job of easing a vocal to where it should be pitchwise. However, it was often a challenge to dial in the “just right” settings — those that would satisfactorily correct the pitch without making the track sound like the one on a certain Cher single or otherwise tipping the AVP-1's hand.
Fellow engineer Ducky Carlisle set up some blind listening tests for me. Using a vocal he had tracked, he switched back and forth between the original performance and the Auto-Tuned one. We could hear the differences, both good and bad: the processed vocal sounded less clear and a bit grainier, but more in tune. We could also hear the subtle tugging of the pitch correction.
SQUISH AND STOMP
Inexpensive dynamics processors, be they analog or digital, rarely suit my fancy, so I wasn't too surprised when the AVP-1's compressor failed to thrill me. Often it was too noticeable, even at subtle settings. But with tweaking, I was able to tame the unit's compressor to the point where it did what I wanted.
Thankfully, adjusting the compressor's parameters is a snap, and the display makes it easy to see what you are tweaking. I particularly liked the threshold control; turning the Data Entry knob moves the vertical threshold line from left to right in the display while the signal level is indicated by horizontal lines moving across the display, making it clear how much compression you are applying.
The AVP-1's gate worked flawlessly. It was easy to adjust and did exactly what it was supposed to with no chatter or other nonsense. I rarely use gates, but given that one is integrated into the AVP-1, why not take advantage? The gate worked wonderfully on vocals, and it handled percussion duties with aplomb.
The unit's de-esser was a bit tougher to master: either I heard too much compression or not enough. After some time spent tinkering with the controls, though, I found a setting with a low ratio (2:1) and a quick attack and release (5 ms and 20 ms, respectively) that worked pretty well for mild de-essing. Heavier settings, however, sounded artificial.
BANDS ON THE RUN
The AVP-1's equalizer section consists of two bands that allow for every conceivable type of processing. Shelf, rolloff, peak and notch, and bandpass options with all the requisite parameters allow for tremendous flexibility. Although I would have preferred another band or two, I was able to cover a lot of ground with the two bands.
The more equalization I used, the more I heard unpleasant side effects. For example, when I cut or boosted by more than 6 dB, I could hear extensive phase shift and a loss of clarity and detail in the signal. But honestly, given the unit's multiple functionality and low cost, I would have been surprised had I not heard those things.
Once I figured out how to turn on the doubler (push the on button, dummy), I set to work trying to channel John Lennon. The doubler has a few options and some important settings to consider. For instance, it has a mono/stereo option you can use to mix the doubled sound in with the original or send it to a separate output. The latter, of course, allows for fun stereo vocal sounds as well as increased processing options.
The way the doubler works is determined by the Auto-Tune settings. If you are simultaneously using Auto-Tune, the second output will carry the original, uncorrected sound. If Auto-Tune is not engaged, the second output will carry the source patched through the current Auto-Tune settings. In other words, when using the doubler, you need to be aware of the Auto-Tune settings. For example, if you are using a heavy amount of Auto-Tune to fix a problematic vocal, the doubler will bring the out-of-tune vocal back into the mix, likely making things worse.
As long as the source isn't too off-pitch, though, the doubler makes life easy. In a hurry or dealing with a vocalist who can barely get through one track, much less two? The AVP-1 is your savior.
After I auditioned each effect on its own, it was time to start stacking things up. I cycled through the various presets, all of which wisely have Auto-Tune bypassed. In general, the more functions I used simultaneously, the more the signal quality deteriorated. The sound became more artificial, and I heard more phasing and hash and less clarity. That is typical of budget-priced digital multiprocessors.
The AVP-1 is simply great for extreme vocals — one of my favorite sports. The more I played with the AVP-1, the more I liked using it as an effect. If you've got it, flaunt it. Try using the wrong settings for the mic modeler, squashing the dynamics to dust, cranking up the tube emulation, or even creating some artificial vibrato with Auto-Tune. Now we're talking extreme.
I got my favorite sound by taking a vocal and modeling it through a kick-drum mic with the tube saturation on full. I compressed the signal aggressively and got a wonderfully twisted vocal sound. Admittedly, the signal did have a fair amount of digital hash, but I was going for a demented sound, so that didn't bother me much.
I also got some cool sounds on other instruments. For instance, I took a clean guitar track, multed it through the AVP-1, and changed the mic from an SM57 to “large diaphragm condenser #2.” I then added a touch of tube saturation, some compression, and an equalization boost around 4 kHz. The result was a nice, sparkly, “British” sound.
RACK OF ALL TRADES
The Antares Vocal Producer AVP-1 is one of the most comprehensive standalone voice-processing devices ever devised. Indeed, there is nothing really comparable on the market, at least not with both microphone modeling and automatic pitch correction.
The AVP-1 also gives novice engineers the opportunity to learn more about signal processing. Thanks to its user-friendly interface, wealth of processing options, and clear, comprehensive, and informative manual, the AVP-1 is a great route to the world of effects — including cutting-edge stuff. I can also see the AVP being useful in a live setting, where the pitch correction, dynamics, EQ, and mic modeling allow the engineer to quickly polish a vocal sound, and where the compromises in resolution and detail will not be revealed by the P.A. system.
In general, devices that offer several processes are primarily designed for people seeking multiple functionality in a single, low-cost box. From that standpoint, it's difficult to beat the AVP-1. If you are on a budget and looking for a number of effects, I can't think of anything else that offers this much processing power and flexibility. In that context, my beef about sound quality really isn't a big deal. If I were equipping my personal studio and I had a small budget and a large wish list, I would be hard-pressed to come up with a better solution than the AVP-1.
Sean Carberryis technical director of The Connection on National Public Radio. Thanks to Ducky Carlisle at Room 9 from Outer Space and Milt Reder at Rear Window Studio for their assistance. Carberry can be reached atwww.carpedonut.com.
Vocal Producer AVP-1 Specifications
Inputs(1) unbalanced ¼" lineOutputs(2) unbalanced ¼" TS (second one for doubler output)Other PortsMIDI In and Out; (1) unbalanced ¼" footswitchFrequency Response10 Hz-20 kHz (±0.2 dB)Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise<0.005% (@ 1 kHz)Dynamic Range100 dBMaximum Gain+24 dBDisplays(1) 2 × 20-character LCD; (4) 5-LED indicators for input level, output level, compression gain reduction, and de-esser gain reduction; (1) 4-LED tuning-correction indicatorPower Supply9 VAC external (wall wart)Dimensions1U × 5" (D)Weight4.5 lb.
Auto-Tunechromatic and 24 diatonic scales, all user customizable; retune speed; pitch-detection sensitivity
Microphone Modeler (available models)(1) handheld dynamic; (1) studio dynamic; (1) small-diaphragm condenser; (2) small-diaphragm condenser; (1) large-diaphragm condenser; (2) large-diaphragm condenser; (3) large-diaphragm condenser; (1) kick-drum mic; (1) snare-drum mic; (1) cymbal mic; (1) telephoneTube Saturation Drive0 dB-12 dB
Threshold-36 dB-0 dBRatio1:1-99.99:1Attack1 ms-200 msRelease20 ms-3,000 msKneecontinuously variable
Threshold-96 dB-0 dBRatio1:99.99-1:1
Threshold-40 dB-0 dBRatio1:1-99.99:1Attack1 ms-200 msRelease20 ms-3,000 msHighpass Frequency2.971-20 kHz
Parametric EQ (2 independent bands)6 dB lowpass; 6 dB highpass; 12 dB lowpass; 12 dB highpass; bandpass; notch; low shelf (variable slope); high shelf (variable slope); peakingDouble Trackingstereo or variable mono mixt
Vocal Producer AVP-1
EASE OF USE4.5QUALITY OF SOUNDS3.0VALUE4.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Provides an unprecedented combination of processing options, including real-time pitch correction, microphone modeling, tube modeling, parametric EQ, compression, gating, de-essing, and doubling. Intuitive controls and layout. Easy to use. Versatile. Fully programmable. MIDI automation. Great for extreme sounds.
CONS: Average sound quality. Surfeit of options can sometimes complicate mix process.