If there's one trend that dominated pop, hip-hop, and electronic production in 2017, it was the creative use of vocals—whether chopped up and rearranged as melodies or sampled to make more organic sounding synth leads—and a quick look at the Spotify charts shows that processed vocal leads aren't going anywhere just yet.
With unique vocal processing being all the rage, we've been on the lookout for plugins that offer a genuinely novel way to mangle an ordinary vocal lead into something more unique—and discovered a hidden gem in Antares Harmony Engine EVO, from the same development team that made Auto-Tune a part of our everyday lexicon. If you're a producer looking to add some vocal tricks to your toolbox, Harmony Engine EVO is an absolute must-try.
Setup and First Impressions
Harmony Engine EVO can be downloaded from the Antares website, and is available as a RTAS, AAX, VST3, or AU plugin—as is standard for Antares plugins, all formats require iLok authorization. On PC, you'll also get a VST2 plugin for use in Ableton Live.
If you've used AutoTune before, you'll find Harmony Engine EVO's GUI instantly familiar. The plugin is laid out in an intuitive, easy to understand format despite it's highly advanced functionality and various operating modes; it's impressive how much power Antares has packed into a relatively compact interface here.
Harmony Engine EVO, at its core, is built around 4 Harmony Voices plus a 5th channel which carries the input signal, which can be attenuated or muted for a fully 'wet' or processed signal. Depending on the Harmony Source mode you've selected—Fixed Interval, Scale Interval, Chord Degrees, Chord Name, Chord via MIDI, MIDI Omni, or MIDI Channels—the harmony voices will function differently, but they always serve essentially the same purpose: harmonize the input vocal or instrument signal by a set musical interval, with various options available to customize the timbre and stereo placement of each individual voice. As we'll see when we examine each mode below, the results can vary tremendously between different Harmony Source settings—but the results are almost always interesting, and sometimes they can be downright incredible.
Antares Choir functionality is also built-in with Harmony Engine EVO, giving you control over 2-16 Choir harmony voices to thicken out your final sound, with controls for Vibrato, Pitch variance, Timing variance, and Stereo Spread.
Finally, the plugin offers a bank of 15 user-definable Harmony Presets, which allow you to store specific chords or voicings you'd like to harmonize the input signal with on the fly using MIDI triggering—we'll explain this in more detail below, but suffice it to say it's a lot of fun—and a great tool to use for producers just beginning to delve into more complex chords and music theory.
The most basic operating mode of Harmony Engine EVO is Fixed Interval; you pick a set interval (4th, 7th, Unison, Octave, etc) for each of the four harmony voices, and the input signal is harmonized by each voice's specified interval. While the results here were perfectly fine—and were sonically impressive—this is not the mode we think most producers will find useful.
Harmony Engine EVO really begins to shine when you switch on one of its three MIDI modes: Chord via MIDI, MIDI Omni, and MIDI Channels. Chord via MIDI is precisely what it sounds like; instead of each of the four harmony voices being set in advance and staying at a fixed interval, each voice tracks a single voice of an input MIDI chord (with up to four notes) in real time. Using the Register control allows you to roughly define the register of the harmony voices which will be generated; pushing this control to its lowest value will generate harmony voices with a low pitch (similar to a low male vocal register), and shifting this value up will generate harmony voices which are higher in pitch. Spread is essentially the vocal equivalent of the Detune/Spread control you'll find on most good synths; a low Spread value will voice the harmony voices very tightly together, whereas a high Spread value will spread the voices further apart.
If you're after something in the vein of the Hide and Seek vocoder sound—a motif which has been popping up on a number of big pop records recently—this is your ticket. Chord via MIDI mode is a ton of fun to use, and it's an incredibly useful way to thicken up backing vocals or to turn your vocal lead into a more synthetic instrument. We'd love to see a few more voices added in a future update for more extended chords, but four note channels are adequate for most chord voicings.
MIDI Omni is quite similar to Chord via MIDI mode, except it disables both the Register and Spread controls; while the two modes often produce pretty similar results, MIDI Omni gives you slightly more control and direct playability of the harmony voices, as Harmony Engine EVO is no longer using fixed Spread and Register values.
If you really want micro-level control over your MIDI harmony voicings, MIDI Channels may be your mode of choice; whereas the other two modes randomly assign one of the four incoming MIDI notes to a harmony channel every time a chord is played, MIDI Channels takes the randomness out of the equation, with every MIDI channel from 1-4 assigned to a set voice, which does not change as new chords are played. Since each harmony voice can have it's own Pan, Delay, Pitch Amount, Amplitude Amount, and Throat Length/Formant settings, you might find this mode more useful if you want to precisely determine how each note of your chords will sound and where it will fall in the stereo field. That being said, this mode can be a pain to use due to the nature of the control it offers—you'll have to send note data via 4 discrete MIDI channels, so some more advanced routing in your DAW will be necessary here. For most common use cases, we'd recommend sticking to Chord via MIDI or MIDI Omni.
For producers who don't want to play in their chords but rather select them by scale degree or name, Harmony Engine EVO has you covered as well. Chord Name mode lets you select just about any chord variation for any note—ranging from basic major, minor, and 7th chords all the way up to second inversions of sus7 chords—and trigger this chord as a harmony preset in real time using MIDI and the built-in Harmony Preset panel. If you want to have your vocal lead "play" a CMaj7, Gsus4, Am7, F progression, simply select each chord one by one, save each as a Harmony Preset pad, and trigger these in real time as your song plays either via DAW automation or MIDI.
In Conclusion/Recommended For
We'd recommend Antares Harmony Engine Evo for any producer looking to add some unique and flexible vocal effects to their tracks—if you're after vocoder-type effects, hybrid synth/vocal leads, and vocals playing along with your harmony parts, Harmony Engine Evo is the best option we've found to date, by a wide margin. Harmony Engine Evo sounds great, and even when the pitch tracking isn't 100% accurate, it often leads to happy accidents and unique pitch effects you likely wouldn't have stumbled on otherwise. This plugin doesn't try to do everything, but it does what it does exceptionally well—we'd highly recommend it.
- If you're after vocal-chord and vocoder effects, this is the ticket.
- Very cool vocal/MIDI harmonization modes.
- Pitch tracking is excellent.
- Great way to thicken up backing or lead vocals.
- A highly creative tool.
- 4 Harmony Voices are adequate for many chords, but some extended chords won't work here. Would like to see 6-8 voice support.
Purchase Antares Harmony Engine EVO on Reverb.