Beer, Herring and the Human Voice: The TC-Helicon VoicePro

TC-Helicon is on a mission to save your vocal tracks.

Over a meal of Canadian beer and Danish herring, IVL Technologies, Ltd. and TC Group posed a question: “Isn’t it time that someone finally provided dedicated tools and solutions for voice?” They answered their own question by forming TC-Helicon and releasing a series of processing units based on Canada’s finest vocal modeling algorithms and Denmark’s best acoustical models. The latest in this series to come our way is the VoicePro professional voice processor, which promises to “allow all of the dimensions of the voice to be refined.”

Refined is the word. The subtlety required for detailed work with vocal tracks and spoken word recordings requires very precise control, and the VoicePro is precise. A jog wheel and four arrow keys allow for quick and easy navigation, and fine adjustment of the many presets and options available on this comprehensive, voice-oriented device. Do yourself a favor and just play around with one of these if you have a chance. It’s actually very easy to get going on your own, and loads of fun. (Be warned, however, there are some creepy effects on this box. And when you’re ready to read the manual, we can get down to the nuts and bolts.)

The VoicePro provides 24-bit DSP processing at up to 96kHz using three proprietary algorithms, as well as EQs, compressors, de-essers, reverb, delay, µMod, transducer, and a multi-path mixer. It is Ethernet-connectible, MIDI compatible, and equipped with an AES/EBU I/O port (DB-25 with supplied breakout-to-2-in/8-out-XLR connector), as well as analog stereo XLR outs. Analog input is available through two XLR inputs (one voice, one auxiliary). There’s a standard BNC word clock connection, as well as a ponderous RS-232 port that’s not currently supported (except perhaps in Canada or Denmark?). There are no preamps, but anyone who needs to beef up their talent’s voice should have a decent preamp to start with. You will definitely need one, as the VoicePro is a little soft on the input side. Nonetheless, once you put a nice mic and pre on the voice input, the VoicePro’s backlit LCD lights up with a thick, rich signal ready to be trimmed or boosted, and tweaked or twisted.

The sound is mighty nice, too. Reproduction is so faithful that you hardly notice the subtle stuff, like compression and EQ: it just sounds better. It also makes it all the more surprising when you use more noticeable effects like four-part harmony or pitch shifting. For starters, I tested it out on myself. My main vocal weakness has always been, well, weakness. VoicePro to the rescue! After two-hours of headphone-karaoke I had a handle on some beefy presets (four-part harmony with compression and de-essing) giving me a handful of confidence. Then I turned the mic over to the beast: a friend and collaborator of mine I shall only refer to as Mr. G. His voice is, perhaps, a little unruly: robust, indeed, but raw as hell. The VoicePro can beef up my wimpy whining, but can it also tame the rebel yell?

How’d it go? Well, let’s just say that Howard Dean might be our president right now if he’d had a VoicePro on the night of “The Scream.” As it turned out, Mr. G was in rare form for our session, pumping out high SPLs, a plethora of popped Ps and super-sibilant Ss along with his infamous throat-singing techniques. Aside from copious compression (after copious limiting on the preamp, of course), a nice combo of HF and LF rolloff with a healthy dose of the de-esser took out the worst of it. What remained was intelligible, but now a little dark and flat, so I added resonance back to the high end using the Spectral interface.

Apparently, the VoicePro’s resonance effect “simulates changes in the physiology of the vocal tract.” The Spectral interface does not resemble anything I saw in my A&P classes, but it is an insightful and remarkably intuitive way to visualize vocal sounds. TC-Helicon refers to Spectral as “an intelligent EQ” on the basis of its ability to isolate sibilants from the EQ processing. This means that I could brighten the high-end without bringing back the ssslur. Mr. G didn’t seem to notice the effects up to this point, but it kept his attention on the vocal mix and focused the performance more than what I am used to from him. This, to me, is the best test of any vocal processing device. Subtlety is important in order for the talent to engage with the sound in the monitors. When the vocalist gets a good sound in the monitors, they are more confident and more focused on putting in a good performance. Equipment is definitely no replacement for vocal talent, but it sure does help sometimes. In this case, I managed to avoid having to use any pitch correction, a major victory for Mr. G and a pretty successful track for both of us. I bet both of our fans will agree.

In summary, the VoicePro’s interface is intuitive and adaptable; the sound is fantastic, and the capability immense. There are great benefits to a versatile unit like this in music, broadcast, and film. Talent in a home or project studio is likely to be more familiar, allowing the VoicePro to be used as a front-end, analog device with a detailed, easily recalled and personalized setup. Larger studios can use the VoicePro’s AES/EBU capabilities for front-end recording, as well as an add-on effect with the same level of control. Broadcast and film studios will appreciate how well the unit handles dialogue. MIDI connectivity rounds out the VoicePro’s capabilities for live performances as well as in the studio. I’ll leave it to the Canadians and Danes to figure out what to do with the RS-232 connector. Whatever you may think of beer and herring, the VoicePro is a tasty addition to any studio. (Sorry about that.)