Roland have recreated their classic vocoder at a fraction of the cost — and size.
There was a fair amount of cynicism expressed when Roland announced their diminutive, virtual analogue Boutique modules in 2015 but, when I reviewed the JX03, JU06 and JP08, I was impressed. If you could live with four-note polyphony, or could justify buying two of each flavour, they were attractive propositions. More recently, Roland released the TB03 and TR09, which I’ve not tried and, as regular readers will be aware, don’t particularly interest me. But as for the sixth in the series... I was very keen to get my hands on this because, if it accurately recreates the sound and facilities of the venerable VP330, it’s going to make a lot of people very happy.
To understand my enthusiasm, you have to understand that, in the late ’70s, vocoders were either rare and expensive (Moog, EMS, Sennheiser) or more affordable but lower quality (the Korg VC10). All that changed in 1979 when Roland released the VP330, which was rapidly adopted across all genres by users ranging from 10cc to Genesis, Mike Oldfield and Queen, to Vince Clark and John Foxx, to Kitaro, Tomita and, perhaps most famously, Vangelis. But it wasn’t just for its excellent vocoding that the VP330 was craved. Although its string ensemble sound was limited to just one footage, a paraphonic ASR contour and a tone control, it sounded just right, and soon became a classic. But even this lived in the shadow of the Human Voice, which featured 8’ and 4’ male voices below a split point in the middle of the keyboard, and 8’ male and 4’ female voices above it. With the in-built ensemble switched on, this was one of the landmark sounds in electronic music, and remains so to this day.
To start my investigation of how well the Boutique module emulates its inspiration, I placed my MkI VP330 above an Arturia KeyLab 88 on which the VP-03 was perched, matched their levels (taking care to avoid overdriving the VP330’s outputs) and then compared their Strings sections. Unlike the original, there’s no split point for the VP-03’s Strings, so I switched on both the Upper and Lower Strings tabs on the VP330 and compared the two instruments across the whole of the vintage synth’s range. Although there was something a bit strange about the VP-03’s Strings (to which we’ll return in a moment) I found that the tones of the two were similar, and was pleased to discover that the paraphonic response of the original is correctly emulated even though there must have been great temptation to make the VP-03 truly polyphonic. Consequently, I found that I was able to drop the VP-03’s Strings into an existing mix with a bit of tweaking as long as I avoided the highest notes, at which point artifacts were generated by its ensemble effect. If I played the VP-03 higher still, up beyond the range of the VP330, these artifacts became even more noticeable, to the point of making the Strings unusable.
Next, I turned to the Human Voice section where, at first glance, the new model appears to diverge further from the old because it seems to have no split point, offering just 8’ male and 4’ female voices across the whole of the its range. But the panel is misleading, because the VP-03 offers the same configuration as before, it’s just that Roland chose not to label its buttons with both legends. What’s more, the position of the VP-03’s split point can be altered using a system command so, in that respect, it exceeds the specification of the VP330. Comparing the two with no effects demonstrated that, although the ‘bump’ at the start of each note on the VP-03 is slightly different, Roland have done a good job of recreating the sound of the Human Voices across the whole of the range. Nonetheless, the tone wasn’t quite identical, and seemed variable, especially when playing octaves. The problem sounded like phase cancellation, and my suspicions were further reinforced when one note was produced an octave higher than it should have been. To confirm this, I switched off the ensemble, set the Attack and Release to zero, held down a key and then played the same key one octave above it a few times in succession. The tone of successive notes went ‘ah, ee, oo, ah, eh’ and so on as different cancellations occurred. (Having found this, I realised that this was also the source of the strange difference between the Strings sounds on the two instruments.) I have no idea why Roland’s engineers coded things this way because the VP330 used divide-down oscillator technology, meaning that the phases of the octaves were locked to one another.
So now we come to the all-important vocoder. The VP-03 comes with its own, short, 3V-powered, gooseneck microphone, so I decided to test this first and compare it against the VP330 fed by a low-cost SM58 clone. I was impressed. With the mic levels, tones and contours matched, the similarity was excellent, and I was soon using the VP-03 to recreate all of my favourite Jon & Vangelis vocals. Next, I tested the two instruments using identical mics. Again, all was much as it should be, although the VP-03’s vocoder isn’t an exact recreation of the VP330’s for two, very important reasons — one good, one far from good.
Let’s start with the good. If you turn to the system commands, you’ll find that you can alter the character of the vocoded sound, creating voices ranging from deep ‘male’ to unfeasibly high ‘female’ voices. I found that I could build huge choirs if I recorded multiple instances of the same line using different formant positions, especially if I sang the line each time to introduce differences in timing and inflection.
The other reason is the VP-03’s greatest limitation; it has no analogue External Synth Input, and the only way to inject an external carrier into the vocoding algorithm is via USB. To do so, you have to install the appropriate Mac or PC hardware driver and then select the VP-03 as both your sound input and output device, as well as connecting it to itself in your MIDI connections window. Next, you have to select the VP-03 as both the audio source and destination as well as the MIDI destination in your DAW software, and then adjust the latency and record timing to ensure correct operation. Having done so, you can use USB audio channels 5+6 to replace the internal carrier and, if desired, use USB audio channels 3+4 to send the modulation signal, obtaining the output via the analogue outputs or USB audio input channels 1+2. This means that you can’t (for example) take the analogue output from a drum machine and use this as the carrier, nor can you vocode a sound with itself (which can create wonderful ‘breathy’ sounds) without streaming two copies down the appropriate USB audio channels. It’s a great shame, and I have no idea why Roland hobbled the VP-03 in this fashion.
The VP-03 emulates two further effects found on the VP330. The first of these is vibrato, which offers rate, depth and delay controls. This affects the vocoded signal and the Human Voice, but not the Strings, as on the original. The second is the VP330’s unusual pitch-sweep that’s intended to imitate the upward slur of human voices and stringed instruments when hunting for a new pitch. As on the VP330, the VP-03 offers both manual control of this and an Auto mode that bends the pitch when you release all previous notes and depress a new one. When combined with suitable Attack times and delayed vibrato, this can be rather effective.
It also offers two additional facilities that are going to excite many potential users. One is a Chord Memory that allows you to store up to 16 chords and then recall them using the buttons labelled 1 to 16. The other is a surprisingly flexible six-note polyphonic, 16-step sequencer that, in a huge improvement over the first generation of Boutique modules, syncs to MIDI and outputs notes to MIDI. It even allows you to fill each step with a short sample recorded from the mic input. However, given that there are no dedicated sequencer controls, you have to programme all of this using combinations of the Play/Stop button, the ribbon controllers, the memory button and the step buttons. This wouldn’t be my chosen method for programming and using a sequencer, but I’m confident that many people will find interesting ways to use it, especially if sliced-up sounds are part of their audio repertoire. Having created and stored your chords and sequences, you can back them up and restore them over USB.
Many purchasers will probably start using the VP-03 with the supplied gooseneck microphone, but I would recommend that you try a selection of other mics to see what works best for you. This isn’t just because the supplied microphone is far too short for most purposes, but because doing so allows you to place a compressor between the mic and the input, which can be the secret to successful vocoding. There’s no 48V phantom power option so, if you want to use higher-quality mics, they’re going to have to have their own power supplies or you’re going to have to route them through another device and modify the signal appropriately. Oh yes, and while I’m thinking about the microphone, it would have been nice if Roland had used a combined XLR + quarter-inch input socket so that players could use line-level signals as modulators without having to jump through hoops.
As you would expect of something built in 1979, my VP330 generates low-level hum and hiss that is exacerbated by the ensemble effect, so a noise gate with a fast attack and a gentle release has always been a useful accessory. Consequently, I was delighted to find that the output from the VP-03 is almost devoid of noise, and that Roland has dispensed with the Noise parameter found on previous Boutique modules. (Adding unwanted background noise for the sake of it has always seemed a hanging offence to me.) However, the VP-03 also lacks the simple delay effect that’s built into the earlier Boutique modules so, once I had finished analysing it, I hooked it up to a Space Echo (which would have been almost obligatory in 1979) and it sounded superb. I also defeated the onboard ensemble and played it through external effects such as choruses and phasers, which allowed me to obtain another range of high-quality sounds. Mind you, some people may find the six-note polyphony of the VP-03 a bit restrictive but, for genuine musical uses rather than academic comparisons, I found it adequate. Back in the ’70s and ’80s there were string synths with the same limitation, and nobody seemed to mind too much at the time. So, given the purposes for which the VP-03 was designed, I think that its polyphony is sufficient — more voices would have been better, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Likewise, velocity sensitivity would have been nice, but the VP330 didn’t offer this so I’m not going to complain. Indeed, the simplicity of the VP-03 is entirely appropriate. The VP330 commands ridiculous prices today not because it does many things quite well, but because it does a handful of things extremely well.
So, would I ever use a VP-03 in preference to the original? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is, ‘yes, sometimes’. Despite its omissions in other areas, the VP-03 has one great advantage over an unmodified VP330 — it has MIDI. This means that you can sequence the carrier, getting this just how you want it in advance rather than concentrating upon your playing while attempting the perfect vocal performance. What’s more, all of its controls send and respond to MIDI CCs, so you can automate it and, for live work, play it from a suitable MIDI controller with the knobs and sliders mapped to the controls of your choice. It even responds to a sustain pedal, which is useful, and the VP330’s Hold function (which allows you to freeze the current modulator parameters) is accessible using MIDI CC66, the sostenuto pedal command. But would I use one on stage? I doubt it. Although the unit feels robust and the controls, while small, are perfectly usable, the 3.5mm sockets are not going to stand up to life on the road, and a USB power input is not something that I would trust in front of an audience.
Before finishing, I feel that I have to mention a couple of other omissions. Firstly, the VP-03 doesn’t offer any patch memories and, given that other Boutique modules have up to 64 of these, this seems a bit heartless. You can overcome it using the extensive MIDI specification to create short bursts of all of the relevant CCs to set up a configuration, but this is long-winded and laborious and, clearly, it would be much simpler to save and recall patches. Finally, like previous Boutique modules, the VP-03 lacks a proper manual and is supplied only with a single side of A2 covered in text so small that anyone who remembers Spurs winning the FA Cup will barely be able to read it. The product deserves better.
The VP-03 doesn’t sound exactly like a VP330, but it captures its character very closely. Of course, there will be some for whom only the precise sound of the original will do, so they will forever agonise over whether a MkI is more desirable than a MkII (or vice-versa) and spend their lives searching for an expensive and potentially fragile instrument of questionable calibration and reliability. For the rest of us, the VP-03 offers an affordable and convenient alternative. Nonetheless, you have to wonder why Roland hobbled it by omitting the external synth input. Likewise, I am not impressed by the lack of a conventional power supply input, and the variable phase oscillators are a very silly mistake. Were these omissions and errors remedied, the VP-03 would be an almost irresistible purchase for anyone with an interest in the VP330. As it is, I wonder how many people will wait to see whether Roland produce a ‘pro’ version.
The analogue I/O on the VP-03 is limited to stereo (3.5mm TRS) line-level and headphones outputs. MIDI In and Out are provided on five-pin DIN sockets and via the USB socket, the latter of which also carries digital audio and powers the unit. Like earlier Boutique modules, there’s no socket for a conventional power supply, whether for mains or low-voltage DC, which is far from ideal. Although you can run it off batteries for those balmy summer days when you fancy a bit of impromptu vocoding in the middle of a field.
- All three sections — Strings, Human Voice and Vocoder — are very similar to those of the VP330.
- The controls send and receive MIDI CCs and the sequencer syncs to and transmits over MIDI.
- The ability to insert audio slices into sequences is a nice touch.
- Like all the Boutique modules, it seems well built and robust.
- It retails for less than 20 percent of the typical price of a vintage VP330.
- There’s no analogue external synth (carrier) input.
- Phase cancellation is noticeable in the Strings and Human Voice sounds.
- The connectors are lightweight and I wouldn’t trust them on stage.
- There’s no conventional power supply input.
- It has no patch memories.
Although the VP03 doesn’t physically resemble the synth on which it’s based, it does a fine job of emulating it and, for some purposes, could be used as a direct alternative. It also boasts some interesting extras. Unfortunately, it has a couple of errors and omissions that may preclude some people from buying it. If these are not a problem for you, you’ll find that it’s both great fun and great value.
Roland UK +44 (0)1792 702701
Roland US +1 323 890 3700