As musicians, we are always looking for new ways to explore the possibilities of our art. We’re always looking for new techniques to improve the fidelity and flexibility of the music that they’re able to play, experimenting with different guitars and amps, and of course constantly looking for new effects. It’s just the nature of artists, most of us want to be uniquely expressive because derivative work lessens the impact of what we’re trying to say.
Among effects that you can use to add in (relatively) unique elements to your songs is a vocoder. Though often confused with a talk box, a vocoder is actually a device where you sing into a mic and have the ability to translate the tone of your voice to an instrument, most commonly a keyboard. This effect is used extensively in a wide variety of pop music, both modern and older examples. A notable example of which would be both Cher and Daft Punk.
Because this effect is relatively underutilized in many genres it can be hard for musicians to find an option that suits their needs well. There’s a variety of different options available at a staggering array of different price points. Luckily for you, this article is going to give you all the information you need to figure out for yourself just how to select the best vocoder for your needs. Even better, at the bottom of the list we’re going to give you five great recommendations to help aid you in your search.
Guitar, Keyboard, and Plug-in Vocoders
Essentially, the main options you have with vocoders are the guitar, the keyboard, or a plug-in used in conjunction with a midi-controller. With current technology there really isn’t an objectively better option here, because the ability to transform audio signals while retaining a petite packaging has advanced by leaps in bounds in the last decade.
What Should I Look For In A Vocoder?
For effects of this type it’s hard to say just what you should look for. The reason for this is that many musicians who use digital effects that change their tone to the degree that a vocoder does most likely already has a very specific sound in mind.
The best thing about a pedal-based vocoder is that it gives you more flexibility in what instrument you can use. Essentially anything that is amplified with a cable can be used with a pedal-based vocoder, including keyboards. This means that you can experiment with the effects on different instruments, something that you can’t do if you purchase a synth with a vocoder included.
Apart from that, you’re going to want to look for the same thing you always look for in a pedal. You always want to purchase a pedal with a strong metal casing because of the amount of abuse most pedals undergo through regular use. Also be sure to read reviews for the pedal to ensure that the input and output jacks (both input/output ¼” plugs and XLR inputs) are of a high quality. Lastly, it’s always good to check for any reviews citing a flimsy battery compartment. This is an often ignored flaw in various pedals that can be a bit of a hassle, as it exposes the wires that carry power to the unit to levels of strain they’re not intended to handle.
Top 5 Vocoders
Founded in 1962 by Tsotomu Katoh and Tadashi Osanai, Korg has always been a very important part of the electronic music market. Like many companies, Korg was founded based on the need of a performing musician as opposed to purely being focused on financial gain.
Osanai was an accomplished accordionist, regularly performing at a night club owned by Katoh. Osanai generally accompanied his performances with a Wurlitzer Sideman rhythm machine, which because of the limited options and fidelity of sound he quickly grew to be dissatisfied with. Osanai’s need for a better rhythm machine to enhance his live performances inspired him to make his own, which went on to be the company’s first product. This rhythm machine was called the “Disc Rotary Electric Auto Rhythm Machine Donca-matic DA-20”, which while that is definitely a mouthful it went on to become a quick success in Osanai’s local Tokyo. After the company’s initial success they went on to produce a variety of products for musicians, focusing on electronic options.
A perfect example of Korg’s offerings is the Korg microKorg 37-Key Analog Modeling Synthesizer with Vocoder, an affordable and quality option for any musician looking for a combination synthesizer and vocoder.
The important thing to note about this synthesizer is that the vocoder is an auxiliary feature rather than the main focus of the device, so when you purchase this synthesizer you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck when compared to a pedal-based vocoder.
The synthesizer generates sound with an analog modeling synthesis system, which while made from digital components intends to replicate the warmth and dynamics commonly found in analog construction. The microKorg features 128 customizable presets, an interactive arpeggiator (plays the notes of a chord individually), Chorus/Flanger and Phaser effects, a ring modulator, and 3 different delay modes. Just like any other synthesizer there are a wide variety of different voicings, including but not limited to: bells, electric guitars, various pianos, and a variety of different electronic sounds. The onboard vocoder can be applied to any of these voicings and the effects you combine them with, offering a huge amount of versatility in regards to the sounds that you can produce with this instrument.
The design of microKorg is intended to evoke the aesthetic of retro equipment, featuring a beige-gold finish as well as wooden side panels. The microKorg is also MIDI capable, allowing it to act as a controller for computer plug-ins.
We can’t really describe one overall tone of the microKorg because it has such a wide array of presets available to it. There are also thousands of different combinations of voicings and effects available, all of which can be heavily customized in a variety of different ways.
However, what we can say is that the analog modeling utilized in the device does help to add some warmth and depth to the sound that likely wouldn’t be there without it. It should be noted that just like any other synthesizer you’re not going to get a completely accurate representation of any of the instruments voicings featured in the device, and there’s always going to be digital artifacts present in your tone. However, the voices used are very useable with the vast majority of them being very musically pleasing.
The Korg microKorg 37-Key Analog Modeling Synthesizer with Vocoder offers a great option for any musician looking for a combination synth and vocoder.
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Founded in 1992 by Ian Jannaway and Mark Thompson, Novation has quickly garnered a reputation for producing high-quality musical hardware that’s still affordable for average musicians. The company focuses on producing MIDI controllers (with and without keyboards), analogue and virtual synthesizers, grid-based performance controllers, and DJ equipment.
The great thing about this company is that because their focus is digital music exclusively they’re able to have a better insight into the needs of customers who are looking for this type of equipment. While we don’t discount other companies with a wider range of focus, this is definitely a mark in Novation’s favor.
Throughout more than 20 years of business Novation has released a pretty substantial amount of notable products. They were among the earliest companies to produce quality and affordable drum stations, octave rack unit effects, digital synthesizer plug-ins, MID controllers, and polyphonic (capable of producing more than one tone at a time) synthesizers.
Given the company’s history it stands to reason that the Novation UltraNova is a great product provided that you’re in a situation to take advantage of the features it offers and it’s within your budget. To learn more about the unit, and to see how it stacks up against the competition, check out the information below.
A notable feature of this synthesizer is that if features touch sensitive keys, a feature which allows for a greater dynamic range. Essentially, touch sensitive keys emulate the dynamics of an acoustic piano, where if you strike the keys hard you get a louder tone (with the inverse also being true of course). This gives opens up a world of options that are unavailable in synths that don’t include this feature. You can also turn this feature off, if you are playing something that requires a more uniform volume.
Another thing to note is that while the effects can be edited on the unit itself it also allows you to edit them via a USB connection, which makes tweaking and fine adjustments significantly more efficient. Onboard the synth, in addition to vocoder functionality, you’ll find 256 voicing available. There are a variety of ways that you can customize these voicings, adding different effects and equalization to them in real time.
An interesting option is that you can purchase the unit with either full sized piano keys or mini keys. The full-sized version is roughly $200 more expensive however, and there isn’t a lot of utility added in the more expensive unit that isn’t present on the more affordable option.
Lastly, the Novation UltraNova has a host of connection options. Essentially, just about every combination of XLR and USB inputs/outputs a gigging or recording musician could ever ask for are present in the unit.
For the price it’s one of the more useable synthesizers available. It’s also commonly considered to be one of the better options for gigging musicians considering the features present and the ability to control certain parameters in real-time.
The only common complaint is that the onboard presets are a bit bland. However, due to the huge amount of customizability found in the unit that’s most likely not going to have an impact on the majority of you. You can edit any preset in a variety of different ways, so if there are any you’re dissatisfied with you have the option to align them to fit with your preferences/needs.
The Novation UltraNova presents a great value to the musician looking for a vocoder/synthesizer that is capable of performing well in live applications.
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Founded by Mike Matthews in conjunction with Bill Berko in 1968, Electro-Harmonix was among the first companies ever to produce the venerable fuzz effect. The company filled a demand created by a quick succession of early rock hits by artists such as The Rolling Stones
An interesting fact about the company that many aren’t aware of is that Mike Matthews was actually a salesman for IBM, and had an intimate knowledge of electronics and signal transfer principles before he ever launched Electro-Harmonix. His partner, Bill Berko, was an audio repairman who actually invented the first fuzz pedal sold by the company (the “Foxey lady” fuzz pedal).
Following the popularity of their fuzz pedals Electro-Harmonix maintained the momentum they established in their early career and used it to launch a variety of successful products that are used by some of the most famous musicians (past and present).
A perfect example of Electro-Harmonix’s dedication to innovating, the Electro-Harmonix V256 Vocoder with Reflex-Tune is a great option for any musician on the hunt for a great vocoder. To learn more about how it stacks up to the competition be sure to check out the specifications below.
The defining feature of this pedal is its flexibility. Below are the knobs and they function they perform:
Blend: Controls the amount of effected signal relevant to the amount of clean.
Band: Controls the amount of the effect present in a signal.
Tone: The tone knob controls the frequency emphasis of the effect.
Gender Bender: Emphasizes either male of female tonalities.
Pitch: Controls the pitch relative to the instrument, raising or lowering it.
Mode: Allows you to quickly switch between on-board presets.
Mic-Gain: Boosts or cuts the signal in order to compensate for active or passive mics.
An important aspect of this pedal is that it allows you to save your own presets. This is incredibly important because by the nature of the effect you’re most likely going to have very specific sounds dialed in. The controls on pedals do have a tendency to move during transit, so by having these presets it can save you a lot of time if you happen to be using this pedal for a live performance. There are nine slots available for presets, giving you plenty of options in what sounds you choose to save. There’s also a second activation switch (the part you step on to activate an effect) which you can use to switch presets on the fly without having to adjust the pedal with your hands.
The Electro-Harmonix V256 Vocoder with Reflex-Tune has a ¼” input and output as well as an XLR input for microphones.
It’s hard to give you an accurate representation of this pedal because there are so many options available that you can compensate for in regards to your rig. If you have a darker sounding set-up that doesn’t translate well to the addition of a vocoder effect you can pump up the treble in order to still cut through a mix, and with the band and blend control you have a lot of option in how you dial in the effect itself. With that being said, there aren’t any concerns in regards to the sound of the pedal.
Vocoders are not a common effect, so by providing a relatively affordable option that performs well Electro-Harmonix has done a service to musicians. You have a ton of options in how you dial in your tone, and the V256 is outstanding.
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Boss VO-1 Vocoder Effects Pedal
A division of the Roland Corporation, Boss was first launched in 1974. Though Roland was already established in the market place, the division was intended to divide the company’s resources more efficiently by establishing an amount of separation that would allow specialized workers and engineers to focus on one product at a time. The first product launched by the company was actually the B-100, a clip on pre-amp/pickup that was used to easily amplify acoustic instruments. Though at this time the company was technically still associated with Beckman Musical Instruments, so you can say that the first product launched by the company as we know them now was actually the BOSS CE-1 (a combination vibrato and chorus unit, which was a standalone version of the circuit in the venerable Roland JC-120 Jazz Chorus amplifier).
Because of the brand’s widespread availability, and its dedication to manufacturing a product that’s relatively affordable for the vast majority of musicians, BOSS has gone on to become one of the most impactful forces on the market. Musicians the world over use effects made by the company, and they’ve even been featured on their share of incredibly notable albums. A great example BOSS’s ability to produce pedals that are both durable and affordable is the BOSS VO-1 Vocoder Effects Pedal. To learn more about how this pedal stacks up to the competition, be sure to check out the specifications below.
The most important thing to keep in mind with this pedal is that Roland (as previously stated this is the company that owns BOSS) is arguably one of the best in the business when it comes to dealing with digital effects. They’ve made their name on their digital product, and they have a huge amount of experience when it comes to squeezing powerful circuits into small packages.
With that out of the way, out favorite thing about this pedal is how simple the layout is when compared to the amount of features you have available. You can control the tone of the effect, the level to which it is present in the signal, introduce digital harmony into your signal, and emulate classic talk box sounds. You can also introduce distortion into the signal, giving the unit an even greater amount of utility than it already possesses.
Lastly, the BOSS VO-1 comes with a ¼” input and output as well as an XLR input located on the side. It can be powered with an aftermarket wall unit or through the use of a standard 9-volt battery.
It should be noted that just like any other BOSS pedal the VO-1 is incredibly durable. The circuit board is housed inside of a durable metal casing, and there aren’t any reports of issues with any of the onboard jacks. It’s the kind of pedal where if you drop it you’re more likely to damage your floor than the unit itself.
The only possible concern with the unit is that due to its construction it may not have quite the utility that a synth/vocoder combination would, but to be fair it’s also more flexible in which instruments you can use the effect with.
The Boss VO-1 Vocoder presents a great value to any musician looking for a quality pedal-based vocoder. Lastly, because it is a BOSS product you can rest assured that it’s going to be a very durable piece of equipment.
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Roland VP-03 Boutique Vocoder
Founded in 1973 by Ikutaro Kakehashi, Roland has been one of the pre-eminent manufacturers of musical instruments and gear for more than 40 years. The company has produced some of the most notable amps and pedals ever, used on countless recordings by some of modern music’s most important musicians. Two great examples of bands who have adopted the brand and used it heavily are Nirvana (Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain used a Boss distortion pedal for the majority of his career, a brand which is owned and managed by the Roland Corporation) and Sublime (the main amp used by Sublime’s front man was a Roland Jazz Chorus). The vast difference between these acts goes to show the wide range of musical expression that can be covered with Roland products.
An interesting fact that many may not know about the corporation is that its name doesn’t carry any particular meaning. The name Roland was found in a telephone directory, and was used because like many Japanese manufacturers of musical instruments operating at this time Roland was intending to focus on exporting products to the U.S. Because of this they chose to go with a name that would be easily pronounceable by Westerners.
A perfect example of the utility and affordability of Roland products, the Roland VP-03 Boutique Vocoder offers a great value to any musician looking for a high-quality vocoder.
The main thing to note about this vocoder is that it’s a miniature version of a previously established and recognizable product, the Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus. The vocoder doesn’t have the wide array of features of the VP-330, but it does offer a lot of utility regardless. It features the same technology used in the VP-330 in regards to the vocoder, human voice tones, and string sounds on board. You can actually achieve a similar level of features to VP-330 by purchasing the K-25m, which focuses on the synth elements more so than this unit. This unit does not have a keyboard, so if you’re looking for something more flexible you may be better off going with a different option.
The VP-03 includes a gooseneck microphone, which will save you a bit of money since the unit doesn’t require the purchase of a microphone in addition to its base cost. The VP-03 also has a pretty wide array of options, such as an onboard USB output, built-in speakers, a headphone jack, and both input and output XLR jacks. You can also power the unit via battery or USB.
Roland is known for always building incredibly durable products. A perfect example of this is the BOSS line of pedals, which though they don’t have the critical acclaim of boutique options are the standard by which other pedals are judged in regards to durability. Basically, in this aspect you can be completely confident when you purchase this product.
With that being said, the lack of an included keyboard is a tad bit inconvenient. Without a keyboard the unit loses a lot of flexibility, and there are options that do included a keyboard in this price range even if they aren’t capable of quite the same quality of sound. However, should you happen to have a keyboard on hand already going with this unit may be the better option because by omitting the keyboard Roland is able to more easily focus on the quality of the unit and its available sounds.
While the omission of a keyboard with the Roland VP-03 will require many musicians who purchase it to also purchase a keyboard to get the most functionality out of this product it is a quality option in some scenarios. If you happen to already have a keyboard you may find that this is your best choice because of the product it borrows its circuitry from.