Meet the Vocoder: Make your synth speak and sing

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The vocoder starts with an analog sound and crossbreeds it, in real time, with synthesized textures to create some powerful and versatile musical elements.

In “Meet the Talk Box: Shape sounds and open new creative doors,” musician/producer Julian Pollack talked about how to make your guitar or synth wail like a human voice via the talk box. As cool and versatile as it is, though, the talk box is far from the only game in town when it comes to blending organic characteristics of the human voice with more synthetic sonic elements. Case in point: the vocoder.

Originally invented for telecommunications purposes in the 1920s and used for encrypted communications during World War II, vocoder technology has been applied to music making for well over half a century. In a musical context, the vocoder often starts with an analog sound — say, a human voice sung into a microphone — and then crossbreeds it, in real time, with synthesized textures to create some powerful and versatile musical elements. Many artists from Kraftwerk to OutKast have used the vocoder to add a robotic element to their songs.

Here are tips to get you started in your own vocoder experimentation.

Understand the basics of the vocoder

The vocoder relies on an alchemy of two different types of sonic inputs. The first, the “carrier wave,” is often the synthesizer sound itself. This could be a clean analog sawtooth wave; a highly-processed, distorted, digital concoction; or anything in between – but it’s generally a normal synth sound you trigger by playing notes on a keyboard.

The second element is the “modulator,” which is most often your voice, sung or spoken through a microphone plugged into the vocoder. The vocoder analyzes the unique frequencies of the modulator sound and basically uses filters to impose a similar sonic shape on the carrier wave. The result? You can play a synthesizer with your fingers and have it sound like it’s speaking or singing whatever your mouth is putting into the microphone at exactly the same time.

Choose the right vocoder for you

“There are some really good, accessible vocoders out there, so it’s easy to give one a try,” says New York producer and multi-instrumentalist Justin Goldner. In particular, Goldner recommends the Korg microKORG and microKORG XL synthesizers, both of which have built-in vocoders.

Goldner also points to the Roland VP-03. “Roland uses analog modeling to create a digital version of the classic VP-330 vocoder that was released in 1979. The VP-03 is very affordable and put lots of interesting parameters right in front of you.”

In a mobile mood? Here are a few links to phone and tablet-friendly apps that can help you make vocoder-flavored effects on the go:
This iOS Vocoder features amazing flexibility (RouteNote)
VirSyn’s VoxSyn iOS app is more flexible than your average vocoder (MusicRadar)
What’s the best vocoder App? (Audiobus)
Best iPad Vocoder (iPad Loops)

Experiment with words

“The most straightforward way that you can use a vocoder is to make your synthesizer ‘talk’ or ‘sing’ specific lyrics or phrases,” says Goldner. Making this sort of effect is pretty simple — hold down the note or notes on the keyboard that you want to sound and then talk or sing, rap, or whisper into the microphone. Experiment with different pronunciations, vocal phrasings, volumes, levels of articulation, and other variables of your vocal performance and see what sounds the best coming out. Don’t be afraid to try speaking or singing in ways that might at first feel silly or ridiculous — you never know what could end up sounding amazing coming out of the other end of your vocoder.

Experiment with other vocal effects

Though processing words may be the bread and butter application of the vocoder, according to Goldner, “the most interesting uses of the vocoder that I’ve ever heard consist of shaping the sound in ways that don’t necessarily have anything to do with words.”

Case in point — try using the vocoder like a wah wah pedal, or some other sort of filter or crazy effect. “When you’re playing a trumpet, you can make your sound brighter or darker by the amount of pressure you apply from your breath. With a vocoder, it’s the same idea. You can change the timbre of your synth by changing the quality of what you sing into the microphone. Try singing different vowels with different vocal qualities — not as words, but just as textures — and see what happens.”

Use the vocoder for expression — and percussion

Goldner recommends taking the previous advice a step further and using the vocoder to intentionally shape sounds over time in creative, unconventional ways. “Let’s say you have a sound that plays over two bars in a recording you’re working on, and let’s say you want it to crescendo or diminuendo, or follow some other contour or dynamic over those two bars. Use the volume of your vocals, and the vowels or syllables you’re singing, to bring out those dynamics.”

The vocoder can also be used effectively for percussion — try beat-boxing into the microphone or simply making rapid “t” sounds with your mouth in a rhythm that you like. You can even get noteworthy effects sometimes just by gently tapping the side of the mic or mic cable along with the beat and seeing what sorts of vocoded textures come out.

Try different vocoder inputs

There’s no law that says your modulator needs to be a human voice and your carrier must be a synth. Try using anything and everything for each input and see what interesting hybrids you come up with. If you discover any particularly potent and unexpected combinations, tell us in the comments below!

To learn more about how vocoders work, check out these articles:
Introduction to Vocoders (Innovative Synthesis)
How Vocoders Work (PAiA.com)

Here’s Imogen Heap performing “Hide and Seek” with the help of a harmonizer and vocoder.

Have you played with a vocoder before; perhaps you’ve recorded with one? Leave a comment to your song or share your experience below!

Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

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