I couldn’t believe my ears…or eyes. I think I could believe my nose, but that has nothing to do with what we are discussing in this column…vocal harmonizers and the amazing advances that have been made in this technology.
Specifically, I was at the winter NAMM show last January watching a demonstration in the TC Electronic booth of their vocal harmonizer technology. The demonstrator was standing with her guitar and a microphone and what I heard defied what I saw. One female singer producing a multitude of really great harmonies! Both male and female! Wow, if ever there was a technology for tool or toy consideration, this is it.
For those of you unfamiliar with vocal harmonizers, they are devices that allow you to produce single or multiple harmonies derived from your voice. Harmonizers have been around for some time, but like everything else, they just get better and better as technology advances. You plug your mic into the box and out comes lots of yous.
These harmonies can usually be controlled in a number of ways. For example, you can program the harmonizer to produce specific intervals of the note you sing (a third and a fifth above your melody for example) or they can be triggered dynamically from a MIDI keyboard or controller. Imagine being able to sing and produce vocal harmonies defined by the notes you play on your keyboard. Some harmonizers even utilize a degree of artificial intelligence which allows them to calculate the notes and intervals for you based on the key you are singing in. A related, but more subtle device based on similar technology is a pitch corrector, which does just that— corrects errant pitches. Grace in a box.
Now, to the tool or toy component. There are many viable ways to use this technology that can add to your worship experience, but like all of our previous topics, toy-like results can occur if not used artistically and with proper preparation. For song-writers or arrangers, it is a no-brainer. Vocal harmonizers can be extremely useful allowing you to capture the vocal component of a song without having to actually sing all the parts yourself or utilize additional singers. It can be very liberating to lay down these vocal harmonies by yourself, especially when the latest generation of devices allows you to create both male and female background parts. For a singer that may not know how to sing harmonies, these devices do a pretty good job of creating them for you. Songwriters and arrangers already benefit from technology that allows them to create their own drums, strings, horns, keys and guitar parts…why not vocals? Pitch correctors are also very valuable in recording, allowing you to correct fairly substantial pitch flaws in a vocal performance that might otherwise detract from the song idea that you are trying to convey.
But what about harmonizer technology in the course of live worship? Even the smallest church or ministry usually has plenty of volunteers when it comes to singers. Is there a place for this kind of technology there? Of course every situation will be different, but I don’t really see the ministry moment in going to all of your singers and telling them that you are not going to be needing their services any longer because you have a magic box to replace them. Imagine the love.
There are however some pretty valuable things that can be done with these units in a worship context. The obvious one is if you have no singers, or you are leading one-person worship somewhere. The harmonizer becomes a tool that allows you to add a background vocal component to your “one person band”. More likely than not however, you have singers, and these devices can be used to demonstrate what parts you want them to execute. They can even be used to thicken or add some structure to an existing vocal team by subtly blending the harmonies produced by the device with your real singers. Lots of possibilities.
Personally I like any technology that allows for really creative and engaging worship in situations where you may lack the musicians or singers to do it the way you would like. The whole tool or toy concept sort of lies in where the focus ends up. If you utilize a device like a harmonizer and it draws attention to itself, then perhaps you should reconsider its use. We are after all, trying to draw attention to God, not our new toy. On the other hand, any device that allows you to provide a richer, more inviting worship opportunity for your people is a tool in my book.