TC Helicon VoiceLive Touch Review
The TC Touch
Vocal effects are present more than ever in modern music, but if you want special effects, you don't give the control to the sound engineer. Loopers are also hip, especially for artists making solo performances on stage. So, when such a serious manufacturer as TC-Helicon offers a voice processor, harmonizer and looper in one single box (everything you need for a single voice, voice + guitar or voice + keyboards performance) it is worth taking a closer look at it. Let's go!
Who is TC?
TC-Helicon is a Canadian company belonging to the TC-Group, a holding that controls several prestigious pro audio manufacturers like the very famous TC-Electronic, but also Lab.gruppen amps or Tannoy speakers... TC Group merged with Gibson in 2008. TC-Helicon specializes in voice gear, from processors to mics. Their products have a good overall quality and a rugged construction plus they sound pretty good.
The VoiceLive Touch is a variation of the VoiceLive 2 footboard, which offers more possibilities (to a certain extent) and is also 60% more expensive. The street price of the Voice Live 2 is around $800 while you can get the Voice Live Touch for only $500. And unlike the VoiceLive 2, the VoiceLive Touch includes a looper. And not a toy one.
The VoiceLive is not just a light version of its predecessor. In fact, its designers had the idea of developing a concept with a radically different user interface based on a "touch" interface. Definitely trendy, but is it a good thing? We'll have to discuss the matter further. Let's start discovering the unit!
At first hand, the VoiceLive Touch gives the impression of being quite sturdy. Its heavy weight, in spite of the compact size, is responsible for that, but also the materials. The housing, except for the front panel with the touch interface, is made out of some sort of rugged rubber plastic. Why this material? Because the VoiceLive Touch's special shape allows you to place it on a table or on a microphone stand, which is a very convenient solution to always have it at hand. The fixation system is well thought out as you can see from the pictures. However, the rear handle used to fix the unit to a microphone stand makes connections a bit harder, even if it hides the connectors from the audience. You can't have everything, right? Long jacks can be problematic.
Although the overall design of the VoiceLive Touch is very nice and original, the touch interface looks a bit awkward, as if it had been designed in the 80's. In some (rare) circumstances, you'll be dazzled by the reflections. The external PSU is the same as for many consumer products, which is hard to understand for a stage device, especially at this price. An adapter plugged into a multi-outlet power strip or an extension power cord is not exactly what you want to have or see in the middle of the stage. Luckily, the length of the cable should be enough to hide it behind a monitor speaker. I know, it's an insignificant detail, but once you discover its features you'll agree with me that such a product deserves better.
The features of the VoiceLive Touch are very comprehensive. Just take a look:
- Voice effects processor
- Automatic tuning correction (so you can sing in tune)
- Harmonizer (to add a choir to your voice)
- Basic guitar effect
- Phrase sampler
Let's just mention the tuning corrector briefly: it offers a single "strength" control (in %). If you sing like an angel you'll set it to 0 if, but if you are a shower singer you'll probably have to set it to 100. As always with such tools, the performance looses its natural expression with higher settings. In extreme cases you'll even experience bizarre results (like the famous "Cher" effect). But it's a very handy tool: it is not easy to sing in tune with choirs and effects added to your own voice. The tuning corrector makes up for this. Since it is global, we prefer to use the one included with some effects for presets that require it. Do note that the samples were recorded without tuning correction (I guess you'll hear it anyway!).
The processor includes six effect categories: harmonizer, modulation (chorus, flanger, ...), delay, reverb, "double," and "FX," which includes different effects (only one can be used at a time). The effect chain has independent sections you can switch on/off individually (like separate stompboxes). Each section offers several (quite) basic parameters. Let's take the delay as an example: you can choose from 18 different delay types, set the effect amount added to the mix, the stereo width, and the tempo. And that's it. No direct feedback nor damping nor feedback delay time: just select the delay type number to change to a new sound. The 18 delays cover a wide range of effects but don't allow the precise processing you get with standard parameters. Below you will see that that wasn't the goal of the VoiceLive Touch.
You also get a "lead level" setting for each effects section. It allows you to attenuate your voice when only that effect is active. It is similar to a standard dry/wet setting but the fact that it activates only when no other effect is on allows you to create (very) interesting special effects.
Some sections offer more settings, but some are very basic. Besides the "lead level," the reverb provides you only with a send level (routing to the mix) and a selector to choose among 30 reverb types, which is quite a lot considering that they all have different colors and duration. This approach is good because of its simplicity (some people don't know what all parameters of a delay or a reverb are for), but it can be frustrating for people who are used to tweaking effects. Especially given that the effects are identified only by a number rather than a name, which makes it difficult to find them and often requires you to try all of them.
Thus, fine tuning your presets with the VoiceLive Touch demands quite some time before going on stage. Even though most factory presets sound very good, they require you to at least adjust levels.
The main feature of the device is without a doubt the harmonizer. Not for nothing it has eight dedicated keys on the interface. It allows you to add other voices to your vocals (on the third or octave, for example), just like if you had a full choir with you; or at least a vocal group. The settings are quite sophisticated: you get 15 different styles, you can freely turn on/off each voice, and each voice has its own volume, pan and "gender" (the formant, actually).
The harmonizer can operate "free," follow a scale and a tonality (either global or set for each preset) or be controlled by an external source (a full mix, a guitar or a MIDI keyboard), so that the harmony voices stay in tune depending on the song being played (for example for the minor/major third). Note that unlike its "big brother," the VoiceLive 2, the VoiceLiveTouch doesn't allow you to enter a personal scale; this shouldn't be a big concern except maybe for jazzmen.
This harmonizer is very powerful. It allows you to get light choirs to slightly thicken your vocals or to create effects that alter your voice completely. For instance, you can use it as a high and down octaver to make a man sing like an opera diva or like a beast in a sci-fi movie. The voice is altered indeed. The "diva" option won't make anyone believe that you have Jessye Norman as a special guest, but the effect is very practical and easy to use.
And what about guitars? You can use it in two different ways depending on the connection. Very clever! You also get a thru output for the guitar. Connecting a jack in the thru out makes the guitar control the harmony, but it also mutes the guitar in the main output (vocals out): the thru out delivers the unaltered guitar signal so you can use it to feed stompboxes or an amp. On the other hand, when nothing is connected to the thru out, the guitar signal is sent to the effects and mixed with the vocals in the main out. It can be also used in the looper, which we describe below. This system allows different setups. For example, the second solution is excellent for a singer/acoustic guitarist performing solo, while the first one will be the favorite of fully packed pedal boards.
And now, let's have a look at the looper.
With the harmonizer, the looper is the device's second main feature. Do you want a proof? Almost half the documentation is dedicated to it, including half a dozen pages with very useful tips on vocals looping. Could this be the product's main feature? Just in case you forgot what a looper is: it is a recording system that allows you to stack audio loops. If you are a good singer, you will be able to create full arrangements on your own live on stage. A good example is to see how Didier Lockwood uses it in this video:
Or a demonstrator (with skills):
Not only the looper in the VoiceLive Touch is well thought out, but its possibilities are pretty wide and interesting. It couldn't be easier to use: it has two dedicated buttons, one to record and one to stop or (re)start the playback. Plus, it also has an undo function to delete the last loop recorded. Classic but effective.
Moreover, the VoiceLive Touch also provides two very interesting modes: "loops" and "shots," which make it some sort of phrase sampler. You can assign loops to memory locations. This means you can chain different synced loops and switch between them freely, like with a groovebox. This mode is very well implemented and effective for live performances: if you have an empty memory location, the previous loop will be copied there (avoiding blank locations). You can also empty a memory location while you are recording into this same location, which allows you to record, for instance, a solo with an accompaniment and then play back only the solo part.
The shots mode is a bit different. In this mode, you assign loops to the controls normally dedicated to your favorite presets so that they behave like the pads of a sampler in trigger mode: touch to start the loop playback and release or start another loop to stop the current one. This gives you the possibility to play real rhythm patterns or to remix your own loops. Note that the VoiceLive has no permanent memory: you must do everything in real time.
The looper is very well thought out. And it is pretty easy to use, which is not necessarily the case with all VoiceLive features...
The thing with "full touch" concepts is that they are nice but...
The VoiceLive Touch interface is "full touch." Keeping up with the trend! Looking at the unit you'll think it's a good idea for stage applications: no dust-accumulating buttons, no potentiometer knobs that fall down... In short, no mechanical control elements. However, I'm not utterly convinced by the full touch philosophy for stage applications.
The main advantage of the touch technology is that it gives you the possibility to interact with a changing interface. If the VoiceLive had a touch screen with user interfaces that changed depending on the features you are using it would be pure genius. But the interface of the VoiceLive Touch is not a screen. It's just a sleek surface where the "buttons" are printed. And I don't really see the advantage compared with standard buttons that allow you to use a piece of gear without almost having to look at it. Standard buttons allow you to keep a finger on the controls while looking at the audience and to activate them at the right moment to trigger a feature. It isn't hard to know if you actually pushed it or not. However, you can't do the same with the touch interface. To trigger something you have to touch the surface and you must look at the device to be sure that you touched the right button (and not between two buttons or more than one button at the same time). And the only thing that confirms that you pushed the right button is an LED. Some rotary controls would be nice on the VoiceLive in order to set effects more easily.
Instead, all parameters must be set using a horizontal slider, which we must admit is very well thought out: it is the only element of the user interface that makes touch technology a real advantage — irreplaceable with a standard control. Sliding your fingers slowly over it changes the parameter value. If you slide your fingers faster, the values scroll more rapidly on the screen and slow down progressively (as if you were spinning a wheel). To stop the value from changing you just need to tap on it. The slider is surrounded by two arrows which provide different functions.
But the danger of the VoiceLive is to overuse this slider. It serves too many tasks and many functions are accessible with a key combination with the slider plus another button. This approach (as some sort of shift or control key) would be great if you had the shortcuts written somewhere on the device, which is not the case. As a consequence, you'll spend your first hours opening the documentation to find out the basic controls! Irritating.
One last remark: the LED display is too small to display the full preset or parameter name. The display is not the easiest to read. Why didn't TC-Helicon use a standard LCD with several lines?
The user interface is clearly not the VoiceLive Touch's main asset. Let's be clear: it is not a problem for on-stage applications, but for parameter setting and more complex functions (or functions you don't use often) you'll need to read the user's manual. Finally, the VoiceLive Touch is a paradox: it is very simple and accessible in some aspects but it can turn really complicated with advanced settings.
Regarding the interface, do note that an optional footboard with three freely assignable switches is available (strongly recommended for the looper section). Its street price is about $50.
How Does it Sound?
It sounds very good. The guitar effects section is especially powerful with an acoustic guitar. As for vocals effects: they all sound clean and are effective... In short, everything as usual with TC-Helicon (at least regarding all their products I've had in my hands): the sound is perfect.
Too perfect? It's all a matter of taste... For me, they are a bit too perfect. The VoiceLive Touch produces a very clean and sophisticated sound, like on any big American music production. This can be a real advantage for most musicians, but won't be everybody's taste. It depends on the music style. However, if you perform on small stages with an average-quality P.A. system (and often no sound engineer), this sound quality is easy to amplify and it will provide your performance with a more professional touch.
Here are some sound samples (French songs) that I recorded. Demo videos are available on the TC-Helicon website (with much more talented demonstrators than me).
While I was very enthusiastic about the concept in the beginning, I ended up with mixed feelings because the VoiceLive Touch has some excellent features as well as some irritating ones. The touch interface didn't quite convince me. In fact, I was surprised by some design faults, as well as by some very nice ideas and some complexities. But the VoiceLive Touch has many advantages too: besides its perfect sound quality, some very intelligent features and its versatility (I couldn't mention many of its applications in this review), it has a very powerful harmonizer and an excellent looper. Both are crucial in the decision to buy the unit. When I was a solo performer (voice+guitar), I would have been delighted by such a product.