Vocoders aren't just about tinny robot voices from awful '70s records — some could generate lush choir sounds and opulent strings too.
Thanks to the 1970s, when vocoders were used liberally on songs closer to pap than pop, the vocoder has come to be viewed by many as a gimmick to fall back on when ideas evaporate. But despite the appearance of 'robotic' vocoder voices on ballads, novelty songs, and terrible science‑fiction programmes of the day (anyone remember the Cylons on Battlestar Galactica?), a few artists, like Wendy Carlos and Kraftwerk, showed that vocoders could be the perfect partners for synthesizers. In the late '70s, Roland almost closed the gap between these two instruments when they released a keyboard vocoder — the VP330 Vocoder Plus.
As the name Vocoder Plus implies, the VP330 boasted features other than a keyboard to broaden its appeal. It was in fact two instruments in one (marketing clichés ahoy!) — a vocoder and a string/human voice ensemble. While ensemble keyboards were generally regarded as naff accessories for electronic organs (with one or two exceptions, such as the brilliant ARP Solina), the VP330's voice and string tones were of high quality, and those lucky enough to afford the £1,100 needed for a VP330 could totally lose themselves in glorious swathes of sound.
The mere presence of a conventional keyboard on the VP330 put it ahead of its contemporaries, the most prominent of which was the EMS 5000. This used only the tiny mini‑keyboard from the company's Synthi models, and the VP330's other competition, such as Moog's 16‑channel vocoder, and units from Synton and Sennheiser, were rackmounting devices with no keyboard. Coming from Roland, the VP330 had the additional advantage of wider distribution.
A user of the VP330 has only to plug in a microphone (via standard quarter‑inch or XLR connectors) and their voice can be transformed into a robot choir. Admittedly, this is not something budding Barry Whites would consider indispensable, but for New Romantics and Numanoids, it was ideal. The VP330's 4‑octave keyboard gives scope for male or female tones, and the light action facilitates high‑speed soloing (imagine reciting a Shakespeare soliloquy while playing the riff from 'Layla' — you get the idea!) Some singers used the VP330 in a more subtle way, mixing it just under the sound of their natural voice. For example, Jon Anderson used one to great effect on 'The Friends of Mr Cairo', and Genesis pressed one into service on 'Duchess'.
The rich overtones which the VP330 layers onto vocals come courtesy of the ensemble circuit. Like a chorus unit, this gives a stereo spread to the sound, but with no hint of flanging. Without the ensemble effect, the VP330 sounds rather weedy — more like other vocoders, in fact. Roland were obviously aware of this fact, as they made Ensemble a non‑switchable option on the VP330's string sound! Layered on top of the ensemble effect, further outboard processing can produce over‑the‑top modulation, although with practice, the VP330 can be enhanced by delays, phasers and so on.
The relative output levels of the vocoder, string and human voice sections can be adjusted in a mixer section on the keyboard's top panel, and when all three sections are carefully balanced, the VP330 yields a huge sound which can easily fill out a track, lessening the need for synth pads. The Vocoder Plus is a capable solo instrument, thanks to its vibrato controls and the pitch‑shifting fader to the left of the keyboard. Although the pitch shift has a limited range, it is possible to coax expressive lines out of the beast. The 4' male and female voice presets are the best to work with — they're perfect for eerie vocal melodies, and much more useful in my opinion than the koto and flute sounds often over‑used in adverts.
The VP330's string preset is worthy of a special mention. Roland have always been respected for the quality of their string patches, and very few keyboards have a string sound as indispensible as the VP330's. Whereas most keyboards from the DX7 onwards have copied the sound of bowed strings, the VP330 emulated the sustain portion of orchestral strings. Naturally, being analogue, the VP330 can only give an impression of this sound, but in this case, the impression is enough — it creates a lush sound that few other keyboards can capture.
What place does the VP330 have on today's musical battlefield? If you can find one of these beauties, and lay hands on the exorbitant fees they command (between £500 and £600), you might bypass the human voice and strings sections altogether, and play sampled drum loops through the vocoder part of the keyboard. In the production of sound effects, a vocoder is a fantastic tool for merging one sound into another, as demonstrated by Pink Floyd on the sound of barking dogs for their Animals album. If pads are your thing, you can take a leaf out of Vangelis' book and use a VP330 for strings, as he did on albums such as Blade Runner and Mask. Alternatively, you could use one for 'shadowing' a vocalist in real time, or for lead lines where something unusual is required. The VP330 can provide both a blast from the past and a much‑needed breath of fresh air to '90s musicians, and will no doubt continue to be highly useful in the next millennium.
If you'd like to know more about the theory behind vocoders, and some of the fantastic, lush effects that can be created with them — or even if you just fancy sounding like a Cylon off Battlestar Galactica — check out the article on Power Vocoding in SOS January 1994.
Here is a sad story — a personal experience I'm sure many readers will recognise. I once heard an amazing snippet from an obscure, long‑deleted record, which I carried around in my head for years. Eventually, I saw the album, hanging temptingly — and expensively — on the wall of a local shop. Naturally, I bought it, and, as you can imagine, I couldn't wait to get home and listen to it — but of course, it turned out that the snippet I'd heard before was the only good bit on the album. Here is a warning, then, to anyone contemplating paying a high price for a VP330. Like my record (It'll All Work Out In Boomland by T2, in case you're wondering), this instrument is rare, expensive, much sought after by foolish collectors, and not very good.
If you ignore the hype and look at this instrument dispassionately, you'll see it for what it really is — a 1970's string machine with a built‑in vocoder. The vocoder itself is very nice, although not uniquely so, the strings are quite pleasant‑sounding, if a little tinny, and as long as you make sure the ensemble effect is on, the human voice is excellent — a remarkable and unique sound. This is all very well, but the instrument is completely scuppered by its single envelope generator, which is shared by all of the notes you play. For many modern readers, the effect of this limitation, common to many '70s instruments, may be difficult to imagine. Suffice it to say that for anything other than monophonic lines or the simplest of chordal parts, the VP330 is horribly frustrating to play, and if you program a long release time, it's just about impossible to come up with anything musical at all.
This would be bearable if VP330s were cheap, but of course they aren't. You'd be lucky to pick one up for less than £500, and even at that price, they're terrible value for money. The Boss SE70 effects unit has an excellent vocoder among its algorithms, and you might well find one for half the price you'd pay for a VP330. Furthermore, the choir and string sounds are easy to sample — what you lose in authenticity you will more than gain in playability and versatility. Don't waste your money! Hire a VP330, sample its sounds, and spend the money you've saved on something better. Norman Fay