An affordable, all-in-one vocal-processing solution.
One of the main advantages big studios always have over home and project studios is that they are better equipped for recording vocals. The right equipment for recording professional-quality vocals - microphones, mic preamps, compressors, equalizers, gates, de-essers, and reverbs - usually requires a hefty five-figure investment. Even then, you still need a decent-sounding room to record in. However, thanks to the virtual-studio revolution and vocal-processing plug-ins such as TC VoiceTools, the playing field is getting more level every day.
The TC VoiceTools TDM bundle provides a variety of processors commonly used for vocal-recording applications in a single package. Actually, the software consists of two separate plug-ins. One plug-in is TC VoiceStrip, an all-in-one channel-strip processor offering a compressor, EQ, de-esser, gate, and low-frequency cut; the second is TC Intonator, a pitch-correction device. TC VoiceTools is compatible with any Power Mac approved for use with a Digidesign Pro Tools 24/Mix system running Pro Tools 4.x or 5.x software. I tested the package with a Power Mac 9600/350 with 320 MB of RAM, a Pro Tools 24/MixPlus system, and Pro Tools 5.0 software.
CRUISING THE STRIPReplacing a whole rack's worth of processors, TC VoiceStrip is the bundle's true workhorse. TC adopted a vintage design concept, providing the look and sound of classic processors with relatively limited controls that are optimized for vocal applications (see Fig. 1). Although the plug-in eats up 50 percent of a DSP chip on a Mix card, its channel-strip design provides efficient use of resources because it supplies six different effects on a single insert and doesn't require any RAM. Should you decide that you prefer a certain equalizer or compressor, for example, you can bypass those effects individually.
TC VoiceStrip's 3-band EQ section is tuned especially to the frequencies within the normal vocalist's range, which lets you make reasonable, but not overly drastic, tonal changes. Each band features controls to boost or cut gain up to 18 dB. The low band features a shelving filter with adjustable frequency from 100 to 350 Hz. The mid band's filter is bell shaped, and the frequency range spans 700 Hz to 7 kHz. The high band consists of a shelving filter with a fixed 2.5 kHz frequency. This section also includes a SoftSat switch that provides a subtle, analog-like, soft-clipping harmonic distortion effect. Even at extreme settings the effect prevents hard clipping, offering smooth tones with none of the harsh overtones encountered with digital distortion.
Like the EQ section, the compressor is designed with vocal applications in mind. The feedback-type compressor's processor gets its sidechain input from the output. Controls include Input Drive (24 dB boost or cut - the compressor's threshold is fixed at -24 dB, so the harder you drive the input, the more compression you get), Output Gain, a Pre EQ switch that lets you change the routing order of the compressor and EQ sections, a Ratio control with a 1:1 to 64:1 range, Attack (0.1 to 50 ms), and Release (50 ms to 2 seconds). The compressor maintains a smooth, natural sound no matter where the controls are set, which avoids the unnatural breathing effects often encountered with overcompressed signals.
The de-esser's controls consist of a Threshold knob with a 0 to -30 dB range, a Frequency knob with a 1 kHz to 10 kHz range, and a Monitor switch for listening to the sidechain signal to help you determine the desired cutoff frequency. The de-esser's operation is level independent, so sibilance is always removed - even when the recorded material's level changes.
A standalone gate section offers Threshold (0 to -70 dB) and Intensity (0 to 100 percent) knobs. An independent low-cut filter lets you adjust the cutoff frequency in 5 Hz increments from 60 to 120 Hz. You can also select a DC removal setting optimized for eliminating DC noise.
A NICE VUTC VoiceStrip's master controls consist of round, porthole-style input and output VU meters, input and output clipping indicators, and Input and Output level controls. In Stereo mode, an In/Out switch appears between the two VU meters, so you can use both meters to monitor input or output levels. Left and Right level controls are provided for the input and output sections. When the plug-in is bypassed, the control panel turns entirely gray except for the clipping indicators, making it easy to determine at a glance whether the processor is engaged (see Fig. 2).
TC Works included 21 presets that provide users with a good idea of TC VoiceStrip's capabilities. Most of the settings are quite tasteful, and you can apply many of them to preexisting recordings with only a few minor tweaks to get good-sounding results. Even the more exotic settings, such as the booming, in-your-face Rap preset or the "telephone voice" ThinFX preset, sound more musical than gimmicky. I applied the plug-in to a variety of prerecorded source material - including a multitrack master of a Lisa Loeb song, a semiprofessional demo by a rock band with a male vocalist, and some a cappella vocals lifted from a hip-hop single - and the plug-in let me give the vocals a smooth-sounding, professional polish in all instances. The analog-style processing rounds off the rough edges that often accompany raw digital recordings, providing a more natural sound quality.
CORRECTIONAL FACILITIESWhereas TC VoiceStrip is the kind of processor that you would use often on entire tracks, its counterpart, TC Intonator, is an effect that most users would probably apply sparingly. TC Intonator is a pitch-correction plug-in that fixes intonation in real time. Although I have yet to encounter a pitch-correction plug-in that can transform a tone-deaf warbler into Maria Callas, TC Intonator does a reasonably good job of correcting notes that fall a few cents sharp or flat of the ideal. If you have hopes of turning your 17-year-old sister into the next Christina Aguilera, however, you're probably better off investing in a voice coach.
TC Intonator provides a good selection of controls that supply a considerable level of flexibility to help you achieve the results you desire. The well-designed interface includes a guitar tuner-style bar meter that shows in red how sharp or flat the signal is compared with the desired note (see Fig. 3). The amount of applied correction is shown in green. You can select scales and modes from pull-down menus and create your own scales by engaging the 12 buttons on the keyboard display.
Each button shows the detected pitch in red, which is helpful when you want to select existing notes from a performance as reference points. Four knobs allow you to select the amount of pitch correction, manually adjust the pitch, select attack time over a 2 to 2,185 ms range, and set the low-cut filter's frequency from 55 to 265 Hz. The low-cut filter offers standard fixed-frequency and adaptive modes. Other features include an input signal indicator, an input level clipping indicator, and a tuning reference control for fine-tuning the plug-in to a recording.
UNNATURAL LAWWith all these control variables, it's also quite easy to get results that sound somewhat unnatural. Although that may not be ideal for a recording of a jazz or opera singer, it could be just the special effect needed to make a pop or dance-music recording stand out. By setting the pitch-correction window to an extreme range such as 400 cents, turning up the Amount control to 100 percent, and dialing in a fast attack time, you can create a yodeling sound that warbles between two notes, similar to the vocoder effect heard on Cher's "Believe," Kid Rock's "Only God Knows Why," and Daft Punk's "One More Time." In fact, it's hard to avoid that effect whenever the pitch correction window is set to a wide range. A Note Hold button helps eliminate excessive note wavering when that result isn't desired.
Another fun application is to choose an entirely different scale or mode than the original performance. Again, that approach doesn't provide the most natural-sounding results, but it can often warp a vocal performance in a delightful way. For example, I was able to twist a major-scale melody into a bizarre Arabian-scale line that gave the vocalist's performance an exotic feel - just the ticket for an experimental-flavored remix. While TC Intonator was primarily designed for subtle pitch-correction applications, the "wrong" settings provide adventurous producers with some rather rewarding tone-twisting possibilities.
CODED LANGUAGEUnlike most Pro Tools plug-ins, which use a floppy disk-based key for copy protection, TC VoiceTools employs a challenge-and-response code authorization. You can use the plug-ins for 21 days without authorization while you wait to receive your response code, so you don't have to worry about any downtime if you need to use the software immediately. TC Works promises to deliver the code within two days through e-mail or fax (in my case the code arrived less than 24 hours after I submitted the challenge code). Because new Macintosh computers no longer come with floppy disk drives, this approach is a reasonable and welcome alternative. This method also avoids the hassles of losing authorization during a system crash; just type in the response code again, and you're up and running (make sure to write down the code somewhere you can locate it easily).
ALL FOR ONETC VoiceTools can provide a significant competitive edge when it comes to recording professional-quality vocals. Although it provides most of the processors necessary for taking the rough edges off of a raw vocal performance, you're still going to need a high-quality mic, a good mic preamp, and a decent reverb to sound even halfway close to the pros. TC VoiceTools won't replace a rack full of Fairchild limiters, Urei compressors, and Neve and Pultec EQs - or their software-emulation equivalents for that matter - but it does provide admirable results for a lot less money. Even if you already have outstanding single-application TDM plug-ins, TC VoiceTools is still worth consideration because it uses up considerably less DSP. Maybe you can use that DSP-hogging reverb on a few more tracks instead of shelling out more bucks for another Mix Farm card to complete your mix.
While TC VoiceTools can greatly improve the sound of your vocal recordings, keep in mind that it is not a cure-all for a poorly recorded vocal. That is one case where the "garbage in, garbage out" condition really applies. To get the best results out of the software, make sure that the performance sounds as good as possible going into your Pro Tools system. Considering the product's affordable price, you might be able to come up with enough money to at least rent a top-drawer Neumann mic and a slick mic preamp to ensure that your performance sounds its best from the start.
If you are really serious about improving the sound of your vocal recordings, give TC VoiceTools a try. This is one situation in which an all-in-one solution provides excellent results without any significant compromises.