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What is a Vocoder?

The Voice-Encoder or Vocoder has been a staple of popular music for the last 40 or so years. If you've ever heard a "robot voice" in a song, there's a decent chance that effect was achieved using a vocoder, or a vocoder in combination with other voice-modulation methods. The Vocoder however, began it's life as something far different.

What is a vocoder (the techincal stuff)?
A vocoder is a device that takes the sound of a modulator signal (usually human speech), measures changes in spectral characteristics over time, splits that signal into a number of frequency bands and creates amplitude envelopes for each band. The amp information for each band is then sent to a matching band-pass filter, where each band's level is determined and set to the corresponding frequency from the modulator signal. From here the carrier (noise source, synthesizer waveform), is processed through the filters and as such, the carrier is filtered so the harmonic content that comes through is reminiscent of the modulator (voice) signal. The result is as a less complex incarnation of the original voice. The whole process allows for a reduction in the amount of information required to store and transmit speech. You now only need a series of numbers, not a complete audio recording. Obviously the larger the number of frequency bands used, the more accurate the analysis and re-production (and the more data required).

Developed by physicist and Bell Labs engineer Homer Dudley in the late 1920's, the Vocoder was originally intended to make long distance communication easier by reducing signal bandwidth. This application wasn't very successful, as the process was deemed too expensive and speech clarity wasn't adequate. But in 1942 the U.S. military commissioned Bell Labs to develop the system into a way of securing voice communications for use during World War II. For military purposes the U.S. was able to encrypt the control signals sent from the envelopes, used to facilitate the re-synthesis of the signal. By encrypting these signals they were able protect transmissions against interception.

Vocoders in music
However by the late 1960's, several manufacturers had begun to build vocoder units for more creative purposes. We know that vocoders analyse the incoming signal by splitting it into frequency bands or ranges. Then use a carrier and corresponding set of band-pass filters to "re-synthesise" the original signal. Using something with rich harmonic content, such as a synthesiser as a carrier signal allowed people to modulate their voices in a very futuristic, inhuman way. This method also allowed easy control of the pitch of this modulation, making it very musical. Obviously this futuristic, robotic aesthetic appealed to early electronic musicians like Wendy Carlos and Kraftwerk, but by the late 80's the vocoder had made it's way into many different genres of music, being utilised by artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, Phil Collins, Neil Young, Michael Jackson, Herbie Hancock and countless disco and boogie tunes. To this day, it's still a popular tool in pop and electronic music, with the likes of Daft Punk being extremely well known for employing vocoder in their productions. In a wider sense, vocal modulation is more popular than ever as a creative technique with artists across the board using talk boxes, auto-tune and similar effects to change or "de-humanise" their voices.

If you're looking to add some robot action to your productions, below are a few vocoder and voice-modulation units on the market today:

Roland Boutique VP03:
The VP-03 is a miniature version of the VP-330 Vocoder Plus, one of the most popular vocoders ever made. Part of the Roland Boutique series, the VP-03 brings together the worlds of synthesized sound and the human voice, using the latest ACB technology to accurately emulate the sound that made the original so influential. The VP-03 has the VP-330’s vocoder, human voice, and strings sound sources on board, and comes with a gooseneck microphone.

Roland Aira VT-3:
Built for creative speed and live performance, the VT-3 features high-quality specs, 10 different vocal presets and reverb. The VT-3 is designed for ease of use with a simple layout and three pre-set buttons to recall your favourite configurations.

TC Helicon Perform VE Pro:
A vocal sound designer that allows you to not only apply vocal fx in real-time but also sample your voice and then use MIDI control to re-play, pitch-shift, modulate and run through a vocoder. It's designed to basically turn your voice into a MIDI controlled instrument. It also features a looper with built in drum samples.

Waldorf STVC String Synthesizer Keyboard:
A 16 voice, 49 key polyphonic string synthesizer that includes a vocoder with 250 bands and a high quality goose-neck microphone, that plugs into the front panel. It also has a cool "freeze" function that lets you freeze a short speech fragment, which is then repeated by the Vocoder whenever a key is pressed.

Korg MicroKorg range:
A modern classic, the MicroKorg has been extremely popular since its release in 2002. A 4-voice analog modelling synth, a major part of it's charm comes from the 8-band vocoder with included goose-neck mic.

Boss VdO-1 Vocoder:
An easy to use stomp-box vocoder. It features four different modes - Vintage, Choir, Advanced and Talk-Box an connects to your set-up like any other pedal, with the exception of needing a microphone. It's a simpler way to incorporate vocal modulation into your production or live set-up.

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