808. 909. 303. 330. No, really “330.” VP-330. That last one is also a classic Roland product with a cult following, but suffice to say, it isn’t a household name on the same level. It’s Roland’s 1979 “Vocoder Plus” instrument – the “plus” added because it was not only a vocoder, but also a string and vocal synth. It also got a reboot on Friday’s mega-launch of Roland instruments. Here’s the surprise: it might be the most interesting of the Boutique offerings yet.

You might have seen this coming. One Roland product person told me Friday that there was overwhelming demand from users who saw the Boutique Series for a remake of the VP. It was an obvious choice, too: even if you hate mini keys, a vocoder with mini keys is a no brainer, because it lets you add access to pitch in a small space.

Roland had a vocoder in its recent offerings, too, one inspired by the VP-330 – well, kinda sorta. The AIRA VT-3 “Voice Transformer” had simplistic controls that forced you to dial in settings like “megaphone” or “radio.” So it’s nothing like the VP-330, which feels like an instrument. The funny thing was, the VT-3 was apparently a big hit. So there’s clearly demand for this kind of product.

Enter the VP-03. I’ll be perfectly honest – I had to look up the VP-330 panel to remember what it did. So to anyone who complains that the 303 or 909 is overly familiar and a remake boring, you might well discover something new on the vocoder. But if you do look back at its inspiration, the VP-03 in fact cleverly takes that keyboard panel and rearranges it to fit a smaller space.

And that’s a good thing, because the original VP has some clever and unusual interface features.

The VP-330 was really two instruments, combined into an expressive whole. It’s an intuitive vocoder, but it’s also a synth. The VP-03 assimilates all those controls. It’s a reason to buy it – not because you necessarily were looking for a slavish recreation of a 1979 vocoder, but because it has a lot of good ideas that you don’t typically see on an instrument.

vp-03_rear_gal

vp-03_top_gal

The VP-03 touch strips emulate the pitch bend, vibrato, and formant controls on the original, with some hidden switchable modes. You also get the VP’s unusual pitch envelope controls, which sweep the pitch as you trigger keys. (That is, they are actual pitch envelopes, not just glide / glissando controls, and they’re polyphonic.)

The sounds will be fairly familiar – these are the signature Roland string, synth, and vocoder sounds that made the original so well known. But having them in a compact space with easy controls I found really nice. I wish I knew the VP-330 better; I’ll try to track one down as well as do a full review of the VP.

The VP-03 breaks with tradition, though, in a wonderful way, with two new features. First, there’s a step sequencer – making the VP the love child of the vocoder and the 909.

Then, in the most delightful surprise on the unit, Roland added a sampler. The sampler and step sequencer work together. Hold down a step, record something into the mic, and then you can retrigger that slice from the step sequencer and/or keyboard.

And that to me is a stroke of sheer genius. In fact, for rapidly producing sliced-up sound, the VP-03 for me is what Korg’s volca sample failed to be. (I still love the volca sample, and it is a fraction of the price, but … still. It did make you painfully load samples one at a time from a phone over an audio stream. Argh.)

It’s just painfully fun. And to think about it, no one has created an instrument this simple, for vocoding and sampling and string sounds. It’s going to be an instant staple of a lot of bands, period. I think it’s also an answer to all the grumpy commenters who have complained that Roland isn’t innovating. And not because this is innovation – because playing it is a reminder that it’s the stuff that gives you stupidly good times that wins you over every time.

909day_ - 10

909day_ - 20

There’s an included gooseneck microphone, and it uses standard XLR so you can substitute your own input if you like.

Now, the only bad news is, Roland chose not to bundle the K25m keyboard model – bad news because this is the one time you’re likely to really want it. But this means you can certainly plug this module into a keyboard you already own if you choose – or, in addition to docking it in the K25m, even give it the same keyboardless dock that debuts on the TR-09 and TB-03.

Most everything else that the other new Boutique series has, the VP-330 has, too. So you get 24-bit, 96kHz sound over USB, onboard MIDI in and out, power over USB or batteries, and an engine that uses ACB modeling for realistic digital facsimiles of the analog gear. There’s no CV of any kind on this unit, though it’s not as obvious how it would be implemented as on the TB-03 and TR-09. Visually, it looks more like the earlier Boutique models, with light-up faders – it’d be nice to see more of the vintage flair the 303 and 909 got, but it’s missing here.

Anyway, it all makes me want to start an electro band. And fair warning – you might feel the same.

The VP-03 is US$349.

https://www.roland.com/us/products/vp-03/

  • dustinw

    This is a really interesting unit. My first instinct was “mini-keys vocorder” .. meh, but the sampler are sequencer really make this interesting.

    Peter: If you are going to do a review can you test out two things:

    (1) “You can also connect the VP-03 to other devices, either through the standard MIDI IN/OUT ports or via a Micro-B USB connection that handles both audio and MIDI data.”

    Can you check if this one really has class-compliant drivers? i.e. can I hook it up to my iPad? The 09 and 03 pages say you can hook it up to a Mac or PC, but this one says external gear.

    (2) “You can keep your favorite settings and voice step sequencer patterns safe too via the USB data backup function.”

    Can you check what format the voice step sequencer patterns are in? i.e. is it in a format that someone could hack/modify? I would love to be able to load my own samples (i.e. wierd wav files)!

    • freeks

      VP-03 has 100ms sampling time so what can you load there? One snare 😀

      • dustinw

        Hmmm that is pretty short, but that’s enough for a looping wave form. Where did you read the 100ms sample time? Is that 100ms per step?

    • As far as I know all Boutiques are not class compliant, unfortunately!

      • dustinw

        Yes, all the other Boutiques are not class compliant (which is a shame, I would love to hook the new 303 to my iPad).

        Roland is very clear with the other Boutiques that you need drivers (even the new ones), but with the VP-03, they say “You can also connect the VP-03 to other devices, either through the standard MIDI IN/OUT ports or via a Micro-B USB connection that handles both audio and MIDI data.”

        Which is a bit ambiguous. It might just be me wishing… but I am hoping that for the VP-03 they shifted directions and decided to go class compliant.

  • Jörg Starkmuth

    Unfortunately, there is more (and very significant) bad news: The VP-03 lacks one of the most essential features of a vocoder: the possibility to connect an external synth as a carrier for the vocoder effect. So you are limited to the internal sound of the synth for the vocoder. The other bad news is that it is apparently limited to 4-voice polyphony like the other Boutiques, which is even worse for a string/choir synth than for a lead/bass synth. Some sources claim it’s 6 voices (the official specs are unclear regarding this), but a Roland employee has confirmed it’s only 4.

    EDIT: Meanwhile, a guy from Roland in our Facebook group (“Roland Boutique Range”) has confirmed that it has 6 voices, not 4, and that an external carrier can at least be received via USB. Which means though that at least two audio interfaces must be enabled: the VP-03 and one to receive the sound from the external synth, which is a problematic task on a PC (ASIO4ALL does not work for me, it crashed my entire Windows).

    • Freeks

      “The VP-03 lacks one of the most essential features of a vocoder: the possibility to connect an external synth as a carrier for the vocoder effect. ”

      Indeed 🙁
      I was going to buy VP-03 but it lacks good robot vocoder sounds. Choir and strings make very lame vocoder sounds.

      I had Roland SVC-330 Vocoder and it sounded great with external synth.

      Ps: Peter: tried to comment with iPhone 6+, but the UAD banner blocks the commenting section. This site is badly coded for iOS browsers.

      • Dubby Labby

        Safari on ipad mini 4 = no problem. Are you using other browser?

      • celebutante

        Respectfully, I have to disagree with the idea that the lack of an external carrier input is a big limitation (I’ve owned a VP-330 and SVC-350, hopefully this gives me a little credibility). Analog vocoders have few filters (ten in the vintage Rolands), and in plain english, anything other than a big, mucky, harmonically rich carrier doesn’t really sound like much. In other words, something saw wave-like typically sounds best (i.e. the built-in string sound, which is sonically close to a sawtooth wave). Even with more harmonically complex digitally waves, the small number of bandpass filters tends to “smear” the sound, for lack of a better word. In other words, unless the filters are wide open (as in, you’re screaming “WAAAAA” into the mic), you won’t hear much of the delicate digital complexities anyway). IMO, the interesting thing you can do with vocoders is using modulator sources other than voice, i.e. drum loops, gated/beat-synced sources, etc.

        And I haven’t heard the VP-03 yet, but if Roland got it right, the string wave in a low register with ensemble effect off should result in a great “robot” voice.

        • Jörg Starkmuth

          True, but a vocoder can not only be used for voice. It allows you to modulate (or more correctly: filter) anything with anything, which can produce a wide range of strange effects.

          • Jörg Starkmuth

            Meanwhile I also found that the vocoder cannot be applied to the string and “human voice” sounds of the VP-03 (those are separate additions), but uses its own, dedicated carrier wave, which is probably based on the same oscillators as the other sounds, but minus the filtering, thus producing the sawtooth-like signal you mentioned.

          • dustinw

            Yes!

            Guitar -> Fuss pedal -> Vocorder sounds awesome, especially when modulated by something like a busy drum loop.

    • Bjorn

      Wouldnt one just connect an external source to the XLR?

      • Jörg Starkmuth

        That would only allow you to use the external source (instead of the microphone) as a modulator for the internal sound, which can produce nice effects. But it would not allow you to use the microphone to modulate an external synth – which is the main function of a vocoder. With a vocoder that has such an input, you can make just about anything “talk”, even a drum machine. With this vocoder, you can only have “talking” strings and artificial human voices, which is nice, but very limited.

    • Aaron Zilch

      Indeed. The sound of modern digital synthesis ( advanced FM, additive, granular, and wavetable ) used as a carrier with an analog vocoder is beautiful and highly flexible. It’s a shame because there are not many options that I am aware of for circuit modeled vocoding. I ended up rigging together my own in the box, with multiple instances of The Drop and max for live envelope followers. Sounds awesome but eats all the CPU so it’s basically just a toy for resampling.

    • Teetons Friar

      Ripples my nipples. Balderdash!

  • Dubby Labby

    Voice ste sequencer.
    The VP-03 includes a new Voice Step Sequencer not included in the original VP-330, which allows you to input a single note, chord, or your voice into each of the 16 steps, with each step comprising up to six notes. The result is a distinctive rhythmic effect that brings dynamic motion to the VP-03. You can use a series of functions to change the order of steps within the sequence for unpredictable and inspiring results. Saving your best sequences to a computer via USB is easy using the backup/restore function.

    Mmm…
    Mmmmmmmmm…
    No. Not really a sampler, or almost not the kind some users were expecting.

  • Dave O Mahony

    Nick Batt uploaded a demo with David the Roland demo guy and the take away from it for me was – I need to watch the vocoder closely!

  • box

    A kid’s toy. Without possibility connect a carrier, it is such a waste.

  • Dave

    Seems I’m the only person here who digs the VP-03. Does it sound exactly like a VP-330? No, but that’s actually the reason I like it so much.

    This little box is dripping with that elusive late 70’s lo-fi synth pop vibe. It’s just a super cool grungy retro sound that is very useable when I don’t want to go for the typical high-end synth sound. Sort of a punk electro attitude that makes me smile.

    If I want proper strings/voices I’ve got half a dozen superior keyboards in my studio. But none of them can duplicate the VP-03’s groovy lo-fi retro vibe. Reminds me of the days when I couldn’t afford nice gear so I was forced to be creative with cheap synths, a drum machine built from diy plans in Popular Electronics magazine and my dad’s Teac A-3340S. Funny how I miss those days now.