Doepfer Vocoder module, as photographed by our friend stretta (Matthew Davidson).

Sure, the vocoder may now be something of an electronic music cliché now, but it got its beginnings as a mechanism of encoding speech. It was one of the first electronic instruments. It helped inspire the conceptual model for all digital communication. And, those lofty goals aside, it can still sound terrific when used creatively. (Hint: you don’t have to use your voice as a source.)

These are heady times for the vocoder. Hosts are getting better at accomplishing the routings necessary to produce vocoding effects. Software and hardware vocoders are appearing everywhere. And of course, the great moment has been Ableton releasing a Vocoder in its upcoming Live 8, not so much because of Live or that Vocoder, but because company co-founder Robert Henke was immortalized in a remix (video above) talking about how you wouldn’t need it. I expect one of the first unofficial Live 8 tutorials may use this clip. (Apologies to Robert – especially as that’s exactly the sort of thing I might say speaking to students, and I actually agree. You don’t need a vocoder. For one thing, if you know what you’re doing, you can patch your own. But I digress.)

History and Vocoding without Autopilot

For a different take on the vocoder, let’s first take a trip back in time.

The device in the video is the 1939 “Voder” (Voice Operating Demonstrator). To me, this really demonstrates how much potential is left in the process. The original Voder was played more as an instrument.

Via the always wonderful Digital Tools.

Wendy Carlos, whose use of the vocoder in Clockwork Orange may be as significant to the vocoder as Carlos’ “Switched on Bach” was to the Moog, explains how the Voder functioned:

Homer Dudley also invented the VODER (Voice Operating DEmonstratoR), an electronic speaking instrument, which was unveiled (and demonstrated hourly) at the New York World’s Fair 1939-40. Inside the tall rack of sturdy electronic gear was a pitch controlled reedy oscillator, a white-noise source, and ten bandpass resonant filters. For a Voder to “speak” a talented, diligently trained operator “performed” at a special console connected to the rack, using touch-sensitive keys and a foot-pedal. These controlled the electronic generating components. The results, while far from perfect (it was damn difficult to operate!), were still entertaining and instructive of the principles involved.

That whole article is a must-read, whether you’re a fan of Kubrick, Carlos, vocoders, or (most likely) all three:
“Vocoder Questions” by Kurt B. Reighley, Editor, CMJ New Music Monthly (interviewing Wendy Carlos) [wendycarlos.com]

People who love playable effects of any time ought to gain plenty of inspiration from that video. (And some of the basic ideas need not be limited to vocoders, either. By the way, anyone who doesn’t like keyboards — musical or qwerty — as input devices ought to have a good, long look at the dangly things attached to your palms. There are certain designs that make a lot of sense for biological reasons.)

2008: Depeche Mode in the Studio

I’m about to hear the new album shortly (and hopefully get to talk to the band), but it seems Depeche Mode are enjoying vocoders in the year 2008 — not bad for 1939 technology. Musical instruments may last that long, but electricity-powered inventions are often more short-lived. And it’s also comforting to know that playing with vocoders makes Depeche Mode get as goofy as the rest of us.

Via Depeche Mode News.

The release of the new album isn’t due until April 2009, but I should get to hear it this week (via legal means, don’t worry).

Vocoders in Your FL Studio

“A vocoder? Big news,” say the loyal fans of FL Studio (“fruity loops”) to these Ableton Live newcomers. FL Studio has a lovely vocoder integrated in the host. Musician and Webizen Mark Mosher is happy to get you up and running in this tutorial:

Using Sytrus as the synth carrier is fantastic, as that’s a really, really gorgeous synth (and one you Abletonites can use, too).

Found via Mark’s Twitter account, because the ongoing popularity of this tutorial means people are still watching and asking questions, even though this has been up for some time.

Of course, there are many, many other software solutions to vocoding, all a bit different — and it’s well worth exploring some of your options.

Vocoders at 2009 NAMM

Vocoders still make appearances in new product lines, making this arguably the most popular of the pre-synth vintage electronic instruments, beating out the Theremin.

GearWire got an up-close demo of the cute little Voice Box from Electro-Harmonic we saw last month. I still love this little box, and if this particular application doesn’t turn you on, it still seems like there’s interesting potential for synths and the like.


href="http://www.gearwire.com/files/media/electroharmonix-voicebox-wnamm09.flv"
style="display:block;width:460px;height:284px;"
id="player2">

Also a big crowd-pleaser at NAMM is the Roland VP-770. Now, when Roland debuted their first “vocal ensemble synth,” it got a pretty resounding “meh” from everyone who saw it — pricey, limited, and even the Roland rep at the time had a tough time wrapping her head around it. But the new VP has a new engine, phantom power input, and a USB key, and in the hands of the right person doing the demo can be a big hit. It’s not all really vocoder stuff, but it does all fit into the voice-controller or “vocoderesque” category.

You’d need to be pretty committed to these effects to go buy a VP-770 — I’m sure Roland is expecting they can leverage their huge prowess in the “worship” market. But I bring up this video for another reason: whether you’re a VP fan or not, you can’t argue with the power that someone using their voice to control a synth can command. I think we may discover new ways of doing that with unique effects and synths that are only loosely related to the original vocoder. As real-time effects processing on computers gets better (thanks to lower latency and more processing power), I think we could see new, never-before-heard effects.

SonicState got a decent demo video, though this deserves sound that’s not on a show floor:

And speaking of new products, don’t forget that Korg’s revised microKORG, the XL has a new 16-band vocoder (Synthtopia write-up). Synthtopia notes that it’s a bit steep at US$750 — though, in fairness, that’s partly because of how cheap the original microKORG is. But for live performance, even as a huge computer advocate, I have to concede that you may prefer a hardware keyboard for vocoder effects, convenience, and reliability, and this is still cheaper than a lot of less-fun “workstations.” The only problem: you can get the similar Korg R3 with a full-sized keyboard and additional controls and features in the same price ballpark, or the simple-but-fun original microKORG for half the price. Updated: scratch that, because the XL has a $500 street, which is pretty damned good even in this economy. (Especially in this economy, I’d wager. That’s getting close to USB controller cheap.)

Synthtopia took this gorgeous shot that I have to reproduce here:

Korg has a strong pedigree in keyboards with built-in vocoders. Image: Brandon Daniel.

And you…

What’s your favorite vocoder or vocoder technique? Got a demonstration that can prove my earlier point that vocoders don’t all have to sound the same? Send it our way…

Previously

Ableton Live’s “Secret” Vocoder; No One Needs a Vocoder

NI Gets KOMPLETE Upgrade, But Spektral Delay, Vokator No More

Tips: Vocoders + Ableton Live; Vocoder Resources, Free Universal Vocoder Plug-in

  • http://www.keyofgrey.com Sean

    There's something delightfully kitsch about Vocoded vocals. I'm not sure if you know about "popping", the oldschool dance style. Almost all songs for that style have vocoded vocals…it's fantastic.

  • Tommy

    Vokator from Native-Instruments, anyone still using it?

  • http://rewiredforsound.blogspot.com JKirchartz

    I <3 vocoders … I've got about 12 VSTs (that I have not touched yet) and I have an Alesis MetaVox (I loved their ModFX line, too bad I was the only one) and a microKorg … I'm not a keyboard player so the tiny keys are perfect for me … always nice to have a 2 octave reach ^_^ … anyhow … When I get home I'm gonna bust some vocoded bass out, maybe even run the korg into the metavox & vocode my vocoder (I'm pretty sure it will cause a rift in the time-space continuum though)

  • http://www.twowordsrecords.com Darren

    I've always loved Underworld's use of the vocoder which I believe was an early Roland VP-330. It's a lot less robot-y and more airy. Check out Underworld's "Cups"
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYxZ5XQ9dYY
    Eno uses it in a similar way on The Passengers' "Different Kind of Blue"

    Used in this way it can transcend the kitsch and become quite hauntingly futuristic.

  • http://www.onyxashanti.bandcamp.mu Onyx Ashanti

    hey peter. heres a couple of links of my vocoder useage.

    this is a vid from before i left the US last summer where i do all the beatjazzy stuff http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uWb_RSIR3c

    and this is my ode to not being a lyricist. http://onyxashanti.bandcamp.mu/track/i-cant-find-

    The more i use my vocoders (fruity vocoder, vokator and TAL vocoder)live to more i want to use them exclusively. there's an intimacy that is hard to get from just playing synths. i plan to do alot more stuff with them.

    thanks for the article. i cant wait to see what ableton's vocoder is like.

    onyx

  • meatshake

    I'm still holding on to Vokator- it's got a nice crispy sound.

  • Peter

    I hate to admit this, but even after going through the manual I still don't know how to use Vokator. Someday, I will be smart enough to use it.

  • http://www.onyxashanti.bandcamp.mu Onyx Ashanti

    it's really easy to make vokator sound crappy, but it can do some really really ill stuff. try using the internal synth. and assigning the internal input envelope to parameters, MASSIVE-style; really easy to sound crap, but when you tweak it properly, its sounds nasty wicked.

  • http://www.cekay.de/ cekay

    First I have to say thank you for this great article! I sometimes used Orange Vocoder, then there was this TC Vocoder thing that could just mix a left and right signal but with absolut top quality (years ago, sorry dunno exact name anymore)

  • http://www.antisound.net stk

    Vocoder's a love'n'hate thing.

    I love getting a massive, airy vocal tone by using big detuned polyphonic supersaws as the carrier, and high-passing the vocal modulator.

    Orange Vocoder, and occasionally Imageline Vocoder, ftw.

    The roboty KW tones turns my stomach, tho.

    Anyone after the classic sound on the cheap could do worse than TAL Vocoder.

  • http://www.proemland.com proem

    i love the vocoder.

    it may be cliche

    but I'll never stop using it

    especially now that i have a pretty decent hardware one (korg R3)

    vokator isnt that tough the modulation stuff makes it way fun to use,… but ive yet to find a semi practical use for it

  • http://www.nailmusic.com Neil Alexander

    I love the way jazz great Joe Zawinul used vocoders, especially on tracks like "Do you want Some Tea, Grandpa?" from "My People" or the 2 CD Live disc. Outstanding.

  • http://www.covops.org Andreas Wetterberg

    Have been using the Ableton Live 8 vocoder for a while now… and I must say… it's killer! Does the "classic vocoder" so beautifully, and then you get into formant-shifting, noise-shaping (with the noise mode that's built in) and the lovely pitch tracking mode – also known as instant "intergalactic – planetary" mode.

    My old trick of vocoding two beats with each other sounds really good through there as well, esp. combined with some multi-band dynamics. Yum.

  • Justin

    vokator

  • bliss

    Peter, since you neglected to show a little Logic 8 vocoder love, I've taken up the slack!

    poiesis1111: fun with vocoding

    ;)

  • Polite

    @proem i love the vocoder on the r3. it's so much fun, especially with all the effects you can layer on top of it. i love the phrase recorder with it as well.

    Shiny!

  • http://www.datascraper.org/pdx PDX

    I love the vocoder on the Korg Radius. I believe its the same one that the R3 uses.

    Vocoders ftw.

  • Doppleganger Justin

    Vokator +1

  • http://rekkerd.org ronnie

    g200kg Vocovee (and Vocov) is a great freebie for Windows users.

  • http://kapyaho.info Jere KÃ&curre

    Robert Henke's comment about vocoders keeps popping up again and again… Somebody asked about Ableton's work-in-progress device (now in Live 8) that looked suspiciously like a vocoder, and he was maybe caught a little off guard. I'm pretty sure he was being ironic, but people just took it literally and out of context. See the full clip.

  • AL:

    Being stuck in the distant past (1993), I'm still using the vocoder in the Boss SE-50 effects box, or the vocoder effect algorithm in the Korg Wavestation A/D (which can get really crazy with the vector mixing and wave sequencing)

  • http://nickkent.net nick kent

    It's worth noting that a whole lot of tracks that sound superficially like a "good" vocoder are actually a Sonovox (used in jingles and cartoons from the 1940s on) or Talkbox. Also while that World's Fair clip of Dudley's VODER (related to a vocoder but not a vocoder) gets dropped a lot because it's on youtube, I believe he realized a proper vocoder during that era. Certainly there was military communications development of the concept dating to WWII. Not to make funny voices but as an early form of multiplexing.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Nick: interesting, though generally the VODER is credited as the origin of the species. And yes, absolutely you have related creatures that don't do exactly the same thing — I think, interestingly, a parallel to the Thereminesque things that aren't quite a Theremin.

    But then, on the other hand, if you take the basic concept of how to encode signal in this way, it could lead you to lots of other similar experiments.

    To me what's most interesting about the VODER is that you DO have to play it directly. But I have to get a little deeper into understanding how it worked…

    @Jere: well, what he says in context is that a vocoder is "exotic." And that's been the central debate, really. Is it a special effect, or something that can be made more versatile? I don't disagree with Robert, necessarily, and you need at least a little irony / humor to look at these unusual effects.

  • http://www.rockrobertson.com Rock Robertson

    What? No Love for the Electrix Warp Factory?

    the easy-squeezy lemon pieezy vocoder. I love mine, but I did buy everything in the Electrix line when it was all cheap.

    Well built and transmits MIDI from all knobs. Lovin' it!

  • cubestar

    My fave is DtBlkFx (Which is also free/Xplatform), probably followed by IL vocoder:

    http://www.kvraudio.com/get.php?mode=show&id=

  • http://snapshotintime.blogspot.com/ wi_ngo

    I've used vocoder a LOT in my day. It's all over my band's first album. I used Orange Vocoder a bit back when it first came out, but now I stick with the Nord Modular. Man, that thing can do SICK vocoding – capable of lots of variation.

  • josh

    EZFFT – Part of the Reaktor Library has an amazing 'secret weapon' vocoder. shhh, don't tell anyone!

  • nightstand

    Henke was just trying to keep live 8 vocoder as a suprise. The vocoder was already under construction when Henke said this vocoder thing..

  • http://www.myspace.com/keatshandwriting Joel Leppard

    I know it's cliche- but I lvoe the vocoder too.. something unique about it.

    I used Orange Vocoder, but I dont like it. I tried the reason vocoder in a midi class I toook, but I couldnt figuere it out. Has anyone used the reason vocoder?

    I used it on this song:
    http://soundcloud.com/keatshandwriting/keats-hand

    Someone mentioned the TC Vocoder above. I think its actually the DC vocoder- Ive heard of it but never used it.

    Great comments!

    ~Joel

  • http://keithhandy.com Keith Handy

    I love the art in the Korg ad! All that airbrushing and shiny-lip stuff goes perfectly with a stereotypical vocoded sound.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Whoa, whoa, don't sweat it … Robert Henke has now, entirely unintentionally, entered the History of the Vocoder, and we love him for it.

    And yep, vocoders can be great. Some people hate synthesizers, too.

  • http://www.honhim.com/blog honhim

    Nice post abt the vocoder. I am interested in the Nord Modular G2. It seems a very good synth and vocoder. Anyone have news about the G3? I am still waiting for that.Here I got an amazing performance in youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IoUbzTCKwck

    I tried many vocoder vst. It seems vokator is the best around in the software.

  • http://www.myspace.com/videomusik Video Music

    I have been lusting for Eiosis ELS vocoder for a long time now. Only have the demo, but it seems capable of doing some pretty gritty sounding material as well. I've been holding back on buying it because of the 220 euro pricetag, which seems a little steep for "just an effect". That's where your talking about using the vocoder as an instrument because really interesting Peter. Might give it another thought when the pockets gets less deep.

  • Eme

    The song that made me get interested by that vocoder thing: "Closer" by Anathema, from their album "A Natural Disaster". It's a great progressive rock track, and absolutely out of the typical vocoder context, IMHO.

  • http://nickkent.net nick kent

    Peter, Take a look at the wikipedia entry on Homer Dudley. I think it verifies he built actual vocoders in the 30s and the related but purposefully different VODER, which I guess shows the power of a good clip and cool name getting lots more attention than more buried info gets.

    Your Theremin analogy is interesting in that I've also noticed a cool name like that collects a bunch of not quite the same at all technologies because dropping the name gets people more excited. And I guess many do meet a goal of providing a degree of Theremin-like sound or experience. What's interesting about the Sonovox – a vibrating speaker touched to the the throught sort of electric larynx in reverse device is the technological basis isn't even very close to a vocoder – i.e. no filters, electromechanical not electronic & only works with talking because it uses the vocalist's mouth to articulate the speech. The big difference is I guess in their original day no one called them vocoders because the term wasn't in wide usage. Now people hear recordings using and simply assume these 40s-70s and recordings are vocoders. You know, "what model vocoder did they use, it's so inteligible, it must be that super rare expensive one" – and it's really a guy with a speaker, funnel and a plastic hose.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, wait a minute, Nick, I don't see what about the Voder is *not* a vocoder — it's just a different control mechanism, with the same basic signal flow. And the Voder I believe got quite a lot of demonstration and attention in the 30s, as it's often cited in books (pre-YouTube!).

    I agree that a talkbox really isn't a vocoder. Although, you could argue the point conceptually — you're actually using the human being as the filters. (Well, and this demonstrates the way in which the vocoder is conceptually close to the human voice on a really conceptual level)

    I don't think it's just 'cool factor,' though. I'll defend the Theremin, in that I think all of these "Thereminesque" devices really *are* influenced by the original concept. You could argue even the Nintendo Wii controller, on a conceptual basis, is indebted to the basic idea of some sort of resistive gestural interface. And you can make arguments like that without getting nearly as abstract as, say, patent applications. ;)

    I guess another interesting societal question would be to examine how it is that now terms like Theremin and Vocoder *are* in wide usage … but then, "FM," "subtractive synthesis" are not.

  • usedtobe

    Downloaded TAL, love it. I have the electrix warp factory too, love it, even though it's really noisy. Vocoders are badass, even if you're just using it like you'd use a mod wheel and filter. huuuman.

  • JollyRogered

    Was listening to Johnny 'Guitar' Watson last night, a track called something like 'Wrong Woman' on the Bow Wow album – gets my vote for the funniest use of Vocoding. The little scats between verses are just hilarious.

    I agree that this is the sort of thing that vocoding does best – kitsch, cheese, humour, stuff that music needs more of – but also that in the right hands (like Eno's) it can be used to create some staggeringly beautiful sounds too.

    It's a shame that Prosoniq seem to have decided not to update their VST version of Orange Vocoder to UB, but are just sticking to AU – a rather odd decision, imho…

  • nick

    Dudley's VODER does have the same kind of technology on the back end, can't argue there, but the front end is a totally different interface for a different use than what he called a VOCODER. I guess that's not unlike having a digital to analog converter being used with a soft synth or with a AD converter.

    You have a good point about someone's mouth/throat acting as a filter. A case of an an electro acoustic approach vs. an electronic approach.

    I still think "Theremin" and "Vocoder" are words that sound cool and represent something exotic = buzzworthy. Umm and there were some years when companies were eager to expound their FM synthesis capabilities and Yamaha's legal team threatened action on anything FM based on their very specific implementation.

  • mitchell

    I'm surprised no one's mentioned the long-discontinued Digitech Guitar Talker. Though marketed as a pseudo-talkbox, it's most the convincing digital (i.e., fake) vocoder I've heard- and I've owned vintage Roland analog vocoders.

  • entasmiquity

    Dies anyone know of an inexpensive and effective vocoder for Apple's GarageBand? I got rid of my warp factory some years ago when I moved into a smaller place, but I miss that vocoder sound!

  • Lsd25

    I bought a Next/MAM (Music and More) vocorder. I have been very happy with it. It is fun to have to manipulate things with a lot of effects after or before. The MAM is nice all hardware and I have heard rumor that the Beasty Boys and one of the later Kraftwork tours used em. They go for around $60. The MAM Warp (copy of Wasp filter) with midi control is also nice. I keep a look out for more of thier rack stuff. Including analog drum module, and sequencer.