When you look at most of the technology used in the electronic music industry – synthesizers, sequencers, and computers – it might surprise you to learn that most of it were originally developed for a different purpose.
The vocoder synth is no different; now a system for recording voice and converting it into digital format, it’s original purpose was for telephone and radio transmissions that needed to be encrypted before being transmitted.
It was invented in the early 1930′s and uses an analyzer to break an audio signal down into frequency bands, and then builds a new audio signal based on the amplitudes of those bands.
The Vocoder Synth in Music
After being used for quite a while as a telecommunications tool, the vocoder was experimented with as a musical tool in the 1950′s.
Several years of experimentation later, a vocoder was featured on the soundtrack of the Stanley Kubrick movie, “A Clockwork Orange”. In the 1970′s, the vocoder synth surfaced in the albums of several major pops and rock bands.
Pink Floyd made extensive use of it in several of their albums, as did many other bands of that era. Sounds put through a vocoder can be tweaked and changed in an infinite number of ways, and one of the most common uses is to simulate “robot voices”.
What to Look for When Buying a Vocoder Synth
The first thing you need to decide is whether you want to purchase an analog vocoder or a digital vocoder. These days, most digital synth software comes standard with some form of vocoder.
They are considered much easier to use and will usually cost much less than an analog vocoder. That being said, there are still people (myself included) who swear by the sound produced by an analog vocoder synth – the same is actually true for synthesizers and workstations as well.
Both schools of thought have their merits, so you need to take a look at what you will be using it for. For professional work, it may be a good idea to pick up an analog vocoder, although beginners will want to become familiar with the hardware.
Choosing a Digital Vocoder Synth
Should you choose to go this route, your options are virtually unlimited. Just about every DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) will be sold standard with a basic vocoder, and you have the additional option of downloading external applications for a wider variety of effects.
That being said, it can be hard to get started with so many options, so the best option may be to try out the vocoder in your DAW (if you’re using one) and figure out the attributes that you can easily work with. Then, search for a digital vocoder that features those same effects and work with that.
Choosing an Analog Vocoder Synth
Analog vocoders use carrier inputs and modulator inputs to form the end result. The modulator is your voice (or any other sound) and the carrier is the aspect that changes the sound of the voice by putting it on a different wave. The biggest difference between analog vocoders is the number of bands they use.
When the modulator picks apart the voice input, it converts them into amplitude levels on bandpass filters.
More bands will result in a clearer final product, meaning that your speech will be more understandable when it comes out the other side. Even though speech is most common, any instrument or sound can be run through a carrier to create a unique sound.
Key Features of Any Good Vocoder Synth
The most important thing to look for when choosing a vocoder is the number of bands available, as stated previously. Both analog and digital versions work on the same principles, and so they can be viewed from the same perspective.
Generally speaking, 40 bands is a high-quality vocoder, while the lower quality models will tend to have more like 16 bands. Another aspect that’s directly linked to the number of bands though is the price, so it’s best to sort out a budget first and then look at specific models or programs.
Once you decide what your vocoder synth needs will be, it shouldn’t be hard to find a vocoder that works for you. As always, it’s important to do the research before making an investment in a piece of musical equipment, especially if you plan to be using it for a long time. Working with a vocoder can be fun and rewarding once you get past all the technical jargon!