Vocoding is capable of a broad range of sounds, from the traditional “robot talking” effects to unique, organic-sounding synth and drum effects. Like many commonly-used techniques for synthesis and processing (and qualifying as both), vocoder effects can be cliched — but they can also be used to great effect.

Before today’s vocoders, there was the voder, developed at Bell Labs as a sound compression mechanism. From “As We Think”, Vannever Bush 1945, via Obsolete.com.

The only real challenge in using vocoders in software is routing, since you need two signals — a carrier and a modulator. People are regularly asking how to do this on the Ableton Live forums, because there’s not an obvious way in Live to sidechain signal. Here’s one tutorial, and it’s friendly to people who have never used a vocoder before:

How To Use A Vocoder In Ableton Live [SonicTransfer]
More Orange Vocoder Tips [SonicTransfer]

Since some of the links are broken, here are the vocoders mentioned in the article. Both are Mac/Windows compatible, but only mda TalkBox is free:

Orange Vocoder Mac, Windows [Prosoniq]

mda Free Effects (Download the whole archive in VST Windows or VST/AU Mac format; TalkBox is in each version — and yes, the free mda stuff now runs Universal on Intel Macs)

Interestingly, this tutorial assumes you want a non-live solution. My preferred method is to set up two channels, one with the vocoder, and another with a live mic input (or other source), then route into the vocoder using the “Audio To” dropdown. I’m working on a tutorial specific to this with some other tips, so stay tuned.

My own vocoder of choice, which immediately suggests breaking out of the cliched vocoding mold with lots of wacky experimental presets and lovely-sounding synth sounds (I’ll share some of mine if I come up with anything nice):

Native Instruments Vokator [also in Komplete]

The wildly-powerful Vokator from Native Instruments, capable of sounds from the gorgeous to the mangled.

The vocoder has a long and fascinating history, one that goes beyond the narrow knowledge many people have of it. Wikipedia keeps getting better and better and has an extensive history; Obsolete.com looks at the first vocoders:

Vocoder [Wikipedia]
Homer Dudley’s Speech Synthesisers, “The Vocoder” (1940) & “Voder”(1939) [Obsolete.com: 120 Years of Electronic Music]

Note that Bob Moog and Wendy Carlos get credit for creating the vocoder as we now know it. (The original vocoder sounded quite different!)

The best news, here, however, is that you can build your own vocoder thanks to a PAIA kit designed by none other than Craig Anderton. It’s a traditional 8-band model (none of this new-fangled, 128-band nonsense), but with a “spectral cross modulator” for some additional effects. I would be running to buy one myself if I weren’t dead broke.

PAIA Vocoder

If anyone has one, let us know how it is to work with.

The key with making new vocoder effects is to get out there and experiment; love or hate the song, Imogen Heap’s blockbuster “Hide and Seek” (just when you thought vocoder hits were dead) came out of some happy accidents as the vocoder modulates between pitches. That’s made it hard to perform — and inspired choral a Capella versions — but it demonstrates yet again that the organic effect of struggling a bit with your technology often creates the most satisfying results.

Got more vocoder questions or tips? Send them on in.