Vocal effects pedal - a simple excourse

Svetlana February 02 2022

What is the vocal effects pedal?

A vocal processing pedal is a signal processing device for altering the tone, pitch, or other sound qualities of vocals, typically through the use of special effects such as reverb and/or modulation.

These are often used in live shows by singers who spend more time dancing than singing, but it now includes an ever-growing range of modern vocal technologies that enhance or distort the voice without significantly affecting the lyrics being sung.

Some vocal effects pedals for singers have become key components of live rigs to enhance their voices with lengthy reverberation, multiple harmonies, distortion, and other voice alterations.

The earliest types were echo chambers (used since around 1950), spring reverbs (developed in the late 1950s), and flangers (developed in the 1960s).

Vocal effects pedal history

In 1939, Electro-Theremin, a foot-operated device capable of producing an electronic siren sound which was the first musical instrument to use a keyboard as well as a control voltage signal. In 1955, Hammond's Organ Company introduced the Novachord. This created sounds that were previously impossible to achieve in a keyboard instrument.

The "Clavivox" by Vox was used by The Beatles around 1966 to create some of their strangers sounds during songs such as "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "I Am the Walrus". In 1967, Robert Moog released his modular synthesizer. His modular synths let artists like Laurie Anderson create music nearly without limitation.

Under the influence of the 1960s folk music craze, singers like Joan Baez and Peter Seeger were using tape loops to repeat phrases or words in long "chains". The principle involved is called flanging.

Bands like The Prodigy used vocal multy effects pedals on their album Fat of the Land (album). The vocals for the 1969 hit song "Sugar, Sugar" by the pop-rock band, The Archies, were produced by recording engineers with an Electro-Theremin.

By the end of the 1970s, a solid-body guitar could contain over 400 obsolete computer chips playing synthesized sounds programmed via internal patch chords. These guitars became highly sought after at auction.

How does a vocal effects pedal work?

A vocal effects pedal for live is a signal processing device for altering the tone, pitch, or other sound qualities of vocals. These devices are often used in live shows by singers who spend more time dancing than singing.

Many voice distorters have become key components of especially singers' live rigs to enhance their voices with lengthy reverberation, multiple harmonies, distortion, and other voice alterations.

Some vocal pedals singers have become key components of performance to improve the sound quality and amplify the best features.

The earliest types were echo chambers (used since around 1950), spring reverbs (developed in the late 1950s), flangers (developed in the 1960s), and also wah-wah pedals (which became a more regular feature on brass instruments in the late 1960s).

Vocal effects pedal types

  1. Ring modulator – A ring modulator is an audio frequency multiplier that uses two non-linear elements: a diode and a resonant LC circuit, to create sum and difference frequencies from input signals. Invented by Donald Hebb around 1947 it has been used with low-risk instruments such as guitars, pianos, or vocals for distortion effects. It can also be used to generate bell-like sounds from brass instruments.
  2. Vocoder – A vocoder (a portmanteau of voice encoder) analyzes speech and then synthesizes it into new speech, often with a musical quality. Vocoders are often used to synthesize singing, as in many musical applications including the Kraftwerk compositions that helped bring the technology to popular attention.
  3. Talkbox – A talk box directs sound from an electric guitar into the performer's mouth by means of a plastic tube adjacent to their vocal microphone. The musician controls the modification of their voice by changing the shape of their mouth cavity and/or position of tongue which changes filters on the harmonics created by the talkbox speaker. Musicians make use of this capability by deliberately positioning their mouths so that certain harmonics are emphasized during a speech for added effect.
  4. Whammy pedal – The whammy bar (a.k.a. vibrato or tremolo arm) is used to temporarily change pitch, making notes either higher or lower in pitch. The pitch is altered when the player depresses a spring-loaded lever attached to the bridge of the guitar with their fret hand while holding down a specific preset fret on the neck of the electric guitar with their other hand.
  5. Flanger – A flanger creates a "whooshing" "jet plane"-like sound, simulating a studio effect that was first produced by recording a track on two synchronized tapes and periodically slowing one tape by pressing the edge of its reel (the flange). When the two tapes' audio signals are later mixed, a comb filter effect can be heard.
  6. Phaser – An example of use is during solo flights (e.g., Steve Vai) when a two-hand tapping passage is played. The phaser effect is used in Vai's song "For the Love of God".
  7. Tremolo arm – A tremolo bar (often shortened to term), or whammy bar, is an extendable spring-loaded arm on some electric guitars that varies the tension in the strings and so causes them to vibrate quickly, creating a trembling sound. For electric guitars, the bridge usually consists of two parts: a stationary bridge piece attached with springs to the guitar body, and a moveable arm (also called a whammy bar or tremolo arm) that alters the length of the strings temporarily, allowing notes to be 'dumped' on the beat.
  8. Compressor – A compressor acts as a limiter by reducing the gain, or level, of an audio signal that exceeds a certain adjustable threshold value. It reduces the overall dynamic range by "compressing" the louder signals above the threshold into a lower range and attenuating those below it so that overall variations in the volume are reduced for more consistent overall sound levels.
  9. Noise Gate – An audio noise gate is a type of electronic effects unit that filters out hums float hisses and other sounds which are not wanted, such as hissing or humming from synthesizers during pauses in playing or breathing sounds created when the player holds long notes. The resulting effect is similar to reverb except it is more precisely targeted to just the frequency of the unwanted noise.
  10. Whammy bar – The whammy bar (a.k.a. vibrato or tremolo arm) is used to temporarily change pitch, making notes either higher or lower in pitch. The pitch is altered when the player depresses a spring-loaded lever attached to the bridge of the guitar with their fret hand while holding down a specific preset fret on the neck of the electric guitar with their other hand.

What are the top-5 vocal effects pedals?

TC Helicon VoiceTone Harmony-G XT

This is the world's first intelligent guitar/voice-box effects pedal. The Harmony-G XT features auto-tone generation for creating professional vocal harmonies, plus USB audio/MIDI connectivity and compatibility with the VoiceSupport iOS app.

TC Helicon VoiceTone Doubler

An amazing effect that offers you 2 voices to create rich, heavenly harmonies that sound bigger than life. Works well with both male and female vocals - especially good at fattening up thin vocals or adding high-end to old recordings.

Roland AIRA Series VT-3

When you need your vocal to stand out in the mix, the VT-3 Voice Transformer is ready. Like its predecessor (the original VT), you can control a wide range of parameters with two simple knobs – no deep editing menu available – and engage one of four modes for each parameter for a quick fix or to create unique effects.

Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork

This is a polyphonic guitar synth pedal that will convert your guitar into an 11-string monster capable of producing both lead and bass lines simultaneously! The engine behind this magic is the same as the one used in EHX's famous 2880 Super Multitrack Looper.

Boss VE-20 Vocal Performer

Yes, this brand is the one that dominates this list (three effects pedals). The VE-20 is an extremely affordable vocal processor with a digital processor under its hood. It takes your voice and pitch shifts it up or down two octaves—perfect for matching your vocals to any track in different keys. It also offers harmony generation, plus de-esser and reverb effects.

How can you decide what vocal effects pedal is right for you?

Choosing the right vocal effects pedal can be difficult. Many of these pedals are very similar, even if they're coming from different brands, and the only real difference is in the features that each has to offer.

  • Compare your performances with similar songs - Listen to sound samples of songs that you like and see which vocoder was used. Try singing along using your microphone plugged into an effects processor (such as Garage Band or ProTools) to hear what it sounds like when applying different kinds of effects to your voice.
  • Go through reviews - Online reviews for various vocal effect pedals act as unbiased guides for what you should get, not just based on how well it performs but also taking into consideration its price point and overall value.
  • Read product specifications - Product designations are usually clear and concise, listing all of the features that are available so you can choose the one that you really need out of all the bells and whistles.
  • Determine your budget - Some effects processors have similar features but vary in price so it's advisable to figure out how much money you want to spend on an effects processor before zeroing in on a particular brand or model.
  • Check out harmonization and pitch correction - Using an effects processor with these features makes it easier for you to have more control when working with a microphone.
  • Compare the ease of use - A good vocal effects pedal will have sliders and knobs that are clearly labeled so you can make adjustments without having to refer back to the manual or spend a lot of time fiddling with settings.
  • Think about connectivity options - If you're going to be using your vocal effects pedal in different studios, it would be best if they offer XLR outputs because most microphones use this connection type.
  • Reverb and effects - Make sure that the effects processor you choose has a wide range of reverb and effects to choose from.
  • Choose a pedal that matches your style - Nowadays there are many kinds of vocal effect pedals available for all kinds of musicians, not just singers. For example, there are specific heavy metal distortion pedals made specifically for guitarists.
  • Compare internal vs external processing - Some vocal processors have their own microphone preamps built-in so you don't need an expensive microphone preamp to use them with microphones. Others have only basic features but focus on vocals, while others let you control every aspect of your sound but it means having to deal with a lot of buttons and knobs which can be confusing especially if you're new to using effects.
  • Think about latency - Some effects processors come with very little lag time between your input and the actual processing of your voice, which is good for singers who like to hear their effects in real-time (such as guitarists).
  • Find out if it can be powered by batteries - Singers who travel a lot will appreciate pedals that don't need an external power source; some even run on batteries so you don't have to carry around power cables or adapters.

Bottom line

The most important things to consider when looking for a vocal effects processor are what you're going to use it for and how much you can spend. It's best if you narrow down your choices based on the features that matter the most to you so that in the end, all that's left is something that's high quality and within your budget.

The above 5 vocal effects pedals are excellent examples of the best vocal effects pedals in the market. Read below for more information on each product and complete product specifications with sound samples.