Intelligent Electronic for Intelligent People

Vocals. Processing. “How do you get those harsh vocal effects.” Answered.

Vocals. Processing. “How do you get those harsh vocal effects.” Answered.

Whatever you want to call it – Terror EBM, Dark Electro, there is a rather unique and if I had to be honest, pretty narrow vocal style associated with it. It’s been discussed at some length, a google search will bring you to many of the bands commonly using that style discussing it, not always honestly, and generally they will tell you a whole different variety of rarified, esoteric, and painfully expensive processing and technique.

I can’t speak for every band in this genre. I can speak from what I personally use, and what I have learned in all the years I’ve been screwing with my own vocals. Don’t take this to mean that I consider what I have done, what I will do, perfected by any stretch – it’s not. So, first some common factors:

The sound you are most commonly hearing – it’s sometimes high and piercing, it’s sometimes lower and grumbling, it’s sometimes more intelligible and sometimes less… but it’s always somehow clear that yes, you are listening to a band in this genre. That sound in 90% of cases can be traced to one processor.

The Boss SE-50. It’s a little half rack space processor Boss once made, designed mostly as guitar multi FX.

Inside that little box is an algorithm called “Pitch Shifter” it’s basic function is to split the signal into four parts, allow you to pitch each part slightly differently, and when it’s combined again, you get “that” sound. It’s as close to a cure all box for that particular vocal sound as there is. How do I know this? I use it. Want more proof? I have seen entire shows held up because a band forgot that processor, I have seen bands try like hell to hide that they have it on stage, I have personally borrowed one of the two I own to bands on numerous occasions.

Is it the only thing that can do that effect? No, but it is the most commonly used. Go look at the gear list for a band you like, in this genre (i’ll wait) in 90% of cases, there is a Boss SE-50 on that list. Possibly a Boss SE-70, which is the same thing, with a few more effects and options. Is it that easy? Buy that processor for $80.00 on eBay and go to town? No, it’s not. It can be if you want it to be, but… honestly if you are trying to find your own style you need to be a little more creative. Some bands don’t bother, most do.

Here is some common questions and some downsides:

Q :“What kind of distortion do you use on your vocals”

A: I don’t use distortion of any kind. It would utterly impossible to use on stage without feedback.

Q: “I bought that processor… what preset is it”

A: It’s based on “Pitch Shifter” adjust the “Mode” (Mode effects the amount of time between when you sing and when the effect starts, because it effects the quality of the pitching algorythm. You usually want this at 1 or 2, although you may, since there is four settings for each pitch in this preset, you may try setting one of the mode settings to 3 if you find your vocals sound too metallic.)

The next setting is “Pitch” this is the rough pitch of one of the four parts in this pitch shifter. Each one of the four needs to be set. In general, I will set this to -1. “Fine” is the third setting. The only reason I find to change this is again, if the vocals are a bit too metallic or just slightly inharmonious. Adjust to taste for your voice. The other settings are “PreDelay” and “Pan” Predelay can be zero, pan can be either 50/50 (L/R) or if you want, you can pan part 1 to 100% L, Part 2 to 100% R (ultimately you are putting in this case, part 1 and 3 all the way L, part 2 and 4 all the way R)

Now, all of those settings, are going to need to be set 4 times. There are again, 4 parts to this pitch shifter.

Setting will vary by band, and by style, but… if you want a starting point:

Set all four “Mode” Settings to 1.

Set all four “Pan” Settings to 50/50.

Set all four “Fine” Settings to 0.

Set “Pitch 1” to -1. Set “Pitch 2” to +1. Set “Pitch 3” to -1. Set “Pitch 4” to 0.

Go listen to “Our New World” those are the exact settings I use for that song on stage. Myself, a microphone, a Boss SE-50. Go to YouTube and look for “nolongerhuman live Our New World” that effect, what you are hearing… is precisely what I described above. No more, no less.

Q: Is that the only processor that can do that?

A: No. There are a few plug in’s (Waves has a 4x pitch shifter, there are pedals that do it, there is a purple digitech processor that can do a variation, there are reactor patches that are close. The Boss is simply common, rugged, inexpensive, and easy to change on the fly.

Q: “So and so band said they hate that processor”

A: I am not that band. Maybe they do hate it. It’s also entirely possible they are lying.

Q: “What about preamps, “vocal chains”, Tubes, Neuman Mic’s, what about plug in’s, what about this guy that told me about this tube distortion?

A: Gear is as unique as your voice is. I will say that you can use, literally any combination of FX and mic’s and preamps ranging from $30 to $5000, and you will of course get varied results.

Now, with all of that said.

There are a handful of bands off the top of my head that do not use a Boss SE-50, as I said it is by far the most common, but that alone presents a problem. No one really wants to sound like everyone else, even if they actually kind of do, no one is going to come out and admit it. There are also some bands that never did make use of it, but again, we are talking about “that” sound. The sound you are asking me about because I would assume you heard it on my music. If you are asking me what you heard on another bands music, you might want to ask them, not me.

Another thing, which is described in detail below, is that your actual singing style into a microphone is going to have a large effect on this. If you are playing live, be prepared for the worst, always. Too many bands don’t.

An example from shows I have had… where feedback simply cannot be eliminated, you get a sound guy who flat out hates electronic music (most of them do, in my experience) or the M/C of the show leaves a fucking live mic on stage (happened to me) or… your ex girlfriend/boyfriend hates you and pulls the plug at a show… if it can happen, it does. You will need to get your voice to the point where you can sound at least passable even without effects. This means, you need to practice, practice, practice.

I have played a number of shows with NO EFFECTS. None. Nothing. It was the only way to make the show go on so to speak. A good performance is your job, it’s why you are there, and you owe it to the people who listen to your music.

So because live and studio work are totally different creatures, and because I literally just detailed precisely what I use live, it must be said that the studio is a bit different.

The first two albums, my vocal chain looked like this: Microphone – Boss SE-50 – Lexicon MX400 – Soundcard – Compression plug in set with very hard compression, an EQ plug in (Roll off everything under 130hz) Chorus Plug in (It’s called Betabug Chorus, it’s free) and often a delay plug in that was included with MOTU Digital Performer. again, adjust settings, set to your taste.

The third and current albums, I have changed a bit. It’s been years now of me learning how to make the sound I want, and so, in addition to still having an SE-50, I am now using a TC Helicon Voicelive, and a Shure SM7B microphone. Why, if the SE-50 is so perfect, am I changing it up? Simply put, the rest of my studio has expanded, what was once a very functional computer based studio has become a larger creature with higher quality across the whole track. Does that make the SE-50 obsolete? You would be the deciding factor. You decide what works for you. I am only answering your question about what you are hearing when you are listening to nolongerhuman.

In the end, there is so much misinformation and posturing by bands who work out of their homes but desperately want it to sound like they hire an engineer for each track, so much jargon and meaningless crap out there… and all it does is make it seem like magic. I am just pulling back the curtain a little bit. Every band wants to have access to a massive mixing desk, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in preamps and mic’s. Almost none in this genre do. It’s electronic punk music. We make do with what we have. We used to be proud of it, now, as I said there is a ton of people pretending a higher station than they actually have.

Lastly… i’ll answer this question before I get asked.

Q: “I bought the SE-50, and I have a mic, but, I sing through it and it doesn’t sound like how you said”

A: First, whisper. Pick something really angry to say, any phrase you like. Whisper it. Now, force more air up and force out a louder whisper, keep doing this until you are almost a volume of a yell, but still whispering. It sounds harsh, raspy and likely out of tune at first. Now, try that through the pitch shifter. Over enunciate the words, learn to control your breathing, learn to gather up the air from your stomach not your throat. Practice. That’s how it’s done. Don’t bother screaming, it will just sound like crap.

Finally, a couple of thoughts:

Don’t be afraid to sound like everyone else. Really, don’t. It’s the seemingly petrifying rebellious fear of sounding like “all those other bands” don’t be afraid of it. DO BE AFRAID IF THAT IS “GOOD ENOUGH” FOR YOU. There is no shame in attempting to emulate, but stopping at a copy of what you love is lazy. Find your sound. What sounds good to your ears, keep pushing. Don’t just do it with vocals, do it with everything. Never listen to your song and settle with good enough, keep learning, keep adapting, adding new influences, trying new things. Every musician out there sounds like something else. We all have the same scales, the same notes, same chords, it’s how we add ourselves to that equation that sets us apart. That’s your unique and non duplicatable influence, that’s your addition to the world of art. It’s you. It should be personal, and carefully crafted to best suit you.

Second, the vocal style described above will not at the moment win you any popularity contests. People are attached to it as much as they hate it. Most music listeners want to be able to sing along. If you push your vocals too far into the realm of unintelligibility, you risk making your vocals just another loud instrument.

People want to know what you are saying. If what you are saying isn’t worth a damn, back to the drawing board. If you have nothing to add to the pool, don’t get in, just to pee in it.

Large portions of bands have moved to a much less heavily effected style. Some pull it off with ease, and many don’t. You don’t have to be a good singer to be in an EBM band, but you do have to have an ear for tuning and timing. The problem is, many bands transition to cleaner vocals without learning how to sing. So, you end up with a worse end product. Again though, this is about how to achieve “harsh vocals” my opinions on other styles wouldn’t fit in this already novel length somewhat labyrinthine post.

So. That’s how it’s done. In gruesome detail. In the future people that ask me, will be directed to this post. I hope you found something in it useful.

nolongerhuman. over. out.


3 responses

  1. very informative. i have known for a long time about the se-50 and pitch shifting but i never desired it since as you laid out, it is what so many have used. i was always interested in trying out the tc electronics fireworx which i believe has pitch shifting capabilities, but it is a bit more pricey.

    If anyone wants to try out a cheaper (free) solution i would recommend using this plugin freeware effect which you can download online called ‘shifterbank’. It is of course only a software effect but essentially it will let you split the pitch into four (or more) parts and adjust them to a pretty well emulated sound we hear in all aggrotech/ebm/etc. My chain is something like a compressor or distortion into shifterbank into delay/reverb then crank up another distortion/compressor at the end of the chain. I wonder how well it holds up in comparison to the se50.

    March 14, 2015 at 4:26 PM

    • I have used shifterbank, two things to note, I believe it is PC only, which limits it somewhat… but as for sound, it’s close, but Shifterbank tends have an even heavier effect on the voice. I am guessing the algorithm used isn’t quite as well written. Like I said, it’s close though.

      Honestly, depending on the money one is looking to invest in a studio, the most powerful option at the moment is the TC Helicon Voicelive. It’s a very clean sounding unit, and it has it’s own preamp, plus reverbs, etc. Still though, it’s a $500 unit versus someone just wanting to try out the “old classic” heh.

      March 14, 2015 at 4:39 PM

  2. Cusp

    Hey Clint, Do you think bands that produce songs like this will ever open up their songs for a DJ Edit kit? Personally speaking I prefer the song (from Fractured) “Cold Eyes (Reprise)” to the original. So many bands have a great song and then screw it all up with bad vocal processing.

    I agree that TC-Helicon has some great “vocal modelling” processors, and instead of that gas voice or saw-gas sound, you can get some very good, dynamic output… the best example is

    March 15, 2015 at 9:20 AM

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