Aug 16, 2010

I’ve been getting a lot of pressure from the singer in my band to hook him up with effects for his vocals lately.  I’ve been reluctant to put together a vocal effects system for him because of the usually kludgey nature of adding effects to live vocals: running a mic straight into a guitar stomp box, then into a mic preamp.  This tends to translate into anemic sound, noisy signal and angry live sound engineers.

Enter the Boss VE-20 vocal processor, a dedicated microphone level, voice processing stomp box.

The VE-20 is typical Boss, and I say that in a complimentary way: Boss effects tend to do what their box says they’re going to do, and are built solidly.  The VE-20 is no exception: sturdy metal construction in a twin pedal housing (the left pedal controls global bypass and loop recording, the right pedal controls harmony bypass and patch selection, or can be assigned to several other functions as well.  On the back panel, the input is a combo jack accepting either an XLR (with a full +48vdc phantom available) or 1/4” input.  Outputs are a stereo pair of XLRs running at mic level, and a 1/4” stereo line / headphone jack.

The VE-20 is sort of a “greatest hits” vocal processor: it has the majority of effects one would expect in a vocal stomp box: pitch correction, harmonization, compression, modulation, delay, and reverb.  It also has looping capabilities.

Sound-wise, it’s a very clean unit.  I tested it with a few microphones, including an EV BK-1 condenser, Shure sm57, sm58 and Beta 58 dynamic mics, as well as pre-recorded tracks reamped via a Radial J48 DI.  I never felt the VE-20 was robbing the input signal of any high or low frequency content, and did not notice any sonic ugliness like RF or digital clocking noise piggybacking on the audio.

The slate of effects range from bread-and-butter to special effects.  The factory presets are surprisingly good right out of the box, and offer a good tour of the unit’s capabilities. I really liked the tin-can sounding Radio effect, which would allow my singer to leave his megaphone at home.  The chorus has a good, rich tone to it, and the distortion is usable, if not anything to write home about.  Strobe is a square wave tremolo effect, and I can see getting some good use out of that.  The delays and reverbs are no-frills, but solid sounding.

The VE-20’s pitch correction comes in 4 flavors: soft, hard, electronic and robot.  Soft is very clean, almost not noticeable.  Hard begins to show some of the artificial edges of the pitch correction, and electronic brings these edges intentionally into clear focus.  Robot shifts all input audio into a single, metallic, user-defined note.

Harmonization and Doubling:  Two harmony voices can be assigned, panned, and mixed to taste.  They also can be gender dialed to be sort of more masculine or feminine.  While you’re not going to convince any one you’ve gone through reassignment surgery, it is fun and useful nonetheless.  The doubling setting does a decent quick ‘n’ dirty ’80s group vocals in a box.  Setting the key signature (done on a patch-by-patch basis), is essential to this process, and once done, the VE-20 does a good job of tracking the harmony parts.

While the quality of the effects is good, parameter control could be deeper.

The looping functionality is a nice bonus, but should be thought of as just that: a bonus.  It gives you 38 seconds of loop time with sound-on-sound dubbing.  It sounds very good, appearing to be full-frequency, but unfortunately, the loop is not stored in non-volatile memory.  As soon as you stop loop playback, the loop is lost forever.   I would actually have preferred to have some kind of a feedback-destroyer feature in lieu of looping: this unit is capable of creating violent jumps in tone and volume patch to patch, and it would be nice to have some kind of safety net to minimize feedback problems.

Operationally, the VE-20 is much more of a rack processor than it is a stompbox.  To clarify, this box is menu driven, designed to be used on a patch-by-patch basis, not for quick, on-the-fly changes.  Success with this unit requires spending time crafting patches, not twisting knobs in real time.

Patch changes are done in one of two ways, either with the data entry knob on the top, or via the foot pedals.  Spinning the data knob instantly changes the loaded patch – great for auditioning new sounds quickly.  Holding the right pedal down for more than 2 seconds allows the pedals scroll through the patches.  This should be printed on the VE-20 itself (it’s only mentioned in the manual).

Overall, the VE-20 is a good offering for the price (street, just shy of $250).  It lacks some features I would want in a dedicated live vocal processor: feedback suppression, deeper parameter control, tap tempo, static memory for loops, support for A=something-other-than-440Hz, but shines in other areas: clean sound, usable pitch correction, good harmonization.

Ron Guensche is an audio engineer and bassist in the San Francisco bay area.

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