What is the best and most handy way to process vocals during live performance? Vocal processors, guitar pedals or maybe through Ableton Live with some kind of vocal controller?
I like using a vocal processor to add various effects to my vocals when performing live on stage. The type vocal processors I have used are like "pedals" or stomp boxes that can be controlled with footswitches but similar vocal effects processors can be mounted to a microphone stand or rack mounted.
The vocal processors (some also include guitar effects as well) described below are all designed for live performance use and have no detectable latency (delay between input and output). Software based processors residing on a computer are fine for recording but usually have unacceptable amounts of latency for live use.
The one I am currently using is the Digitech Vocalist Live 5 Digital Harmony and Effects Processor which can add multiple effects as well as up to four parts of harmony voices based on a pre-set key or using automatic key detection by listening to your instrument when you input the signal of your guitar or keyboard into the processor. It is controlled with foot switches that allow you to make changes on the fly hands free while singing and playing your instrument.
The Live 5 has been discontinued but the Vocalist Live 3 which adds up to two harmony voices and is smaller and less expensive is still be sold by DigiTech. You can find the Live 5 used.
The Vocalist Live 3 allows you to choose the type of reverb, EQ, Compressor, Delay and Chorus. The harmonies can be switched on or off as needed and can be adjusted to have a male or female voice.
Another unit I have used (at open mics) which is very effective and simple to use is the TC Helicon Harmony Singer. This is a single foot switch processor that also includes intelligent harmony based on the chords you are playing and provides user defined reverb styles and can automatically adjust your vocal tone and dynamics and has a built in de-esser. I love the sound and simplicity of this unit and plan to get one myself soon. See picture below:
I also own a TC Helicon VoiceLive Play GTX foot pedal vocal/guitar processor. This unit came with over 100 presets and then I was able to download 500 more and add them to the processor using a USB connection. Obviously that's way more than you need but you can change the order to match your set list and delete the ones you will never use.
Unfortunately this unit has also been discontinued but can be found used. It has been replaced by the VoiceLive Play Electric and VoiceLive Play Acoustic. Both of these units (like the ones above) allow you to input your guitar and will tailor the harmony voices to the chords you are playing. See below.
A new product by TC Helicon is the VoiceLive 3 which is TC Helicons answer to the Vocalist Live 3 by Digitech. This is a full featured vocal and guitar processor with a built in looper.
TC Helicon also has several processor just for vocals that don't allow for an instrument input. One of these is called the Mic Mechanic and is billed as a "sound guy in a pedal". It allows you to choose and adjust reverb effects and automatically adjusts tone and compression and also offer de-essing and gating. It has pitch correction available if you want to use it or need it.
If you are on a tight budget you could start with one of the Voice Tone Singles pedals from TC Helicon such as the VoiceTone R1 which gives you 8 different reverbs all adjustable for level. This pedal retails for less than $100.00 US.
You can read about all of the TC Helicon Vocal processors on the TC Helicon Website Product Page
Whichever unit you get you will want to play around with it and make notes of which settings (or presets) work best for your voice for the songs you intend to play. Each of these units is designed for processing of the signal from only one microphone at a time.
If you need to process multiple vocals and don't want each vocalist to have their own individual processor, you can use a mixer with built in effects (sometimes called "FX"). I have a Mackie Mixer and the effects are very good quality. But I have to choose one effect for all 12 channels. The only thing I can control on each channel is the volume, gain, EQ (3 band per channel) and the amount of whatever effect I am applying. The chosen effect will apply to all channels including the instrument channels and vocal channels. Of course you can override the instrument effects with a separate effects pedal for each instrument (same with vocal processors by turning the effects level to zero on the mixer).
Good luck and have fun experimenting and performing with your vocal effects processor.
The "best" option really depends on your budget. A very reasonable solution would be to use a mixer and route to an effects processor unit. There are also mixers with built in effects, but these effects can often be total garbage (especially on inexpensive mixers) so be aware of that.
Mixing from a laptop will likely be more difficult to do in a live setting unless you know what you're doing. You'd also need to purchase an audio interface with enough channels to mix your band. In addition computers introduce latency (delay due to processing time) which is essentially non-existent even on digital hardware effects units. Then there's the stability of the laptop itself as you don't want random computer crashes happening during your show. So there are a lot of factors to consider when bringing a laptop into the mix.
Overall, a mixer and an effects units (like Lexicon) is a great way to go. Also buying used will help get you better quality for less money.