Vocal Codes From The Underground
Roland's VP330 Vocoder Plus not only helped to put vocoders on the map, but has since become a classic keyboard in its own right. Gordon Reid says "synths that make you go Hmmm".
Invented in the '40s and popularised in the 70s, the vocoder is entering a renaissance in the '90s. Roland's old VP330 Vocoder Plus may be one of its stars.
It's 1979. The world is awash with Mellotrons, Minimoogs, Hohner Clavinets, and punk rock. On to this unsuspecting stage Roland unleash a new generation of keyboards: the Jupiter 4, the Promars, the RS505 Paraphonic Ensemble - and the VP330 Vocoder Plus. Except for the Promars, none of these is particularly innovative, and the vocoder is far from revolutionary... The Korg VC10, the EMS 2000, and the Sennheiser VSM501 Vocoder dominate the market. Nevertheless, despite an astronomical price tag of £1143.48 (around £3,000 at 1991 prices) the VP330 rapidly becomes a cult instrument. A unique combination of facilities, high-quality vocoding, and simplicity of use result in its acceptance by some of the best-known names in the electronic and rock worlds. Vangelis, Genesis, Tomita, Laurie Anderson - even Cliff Richard uses one. Today, with vocoding re-emerging in the shape of Roland's own Boss SE50 effects unit and the Korg Wavestation A/D, it's worth looking back at the VP330 to see just what made it (and still makes it) such a desirable instrument.
The VP330 isn't a large keyboard by modern standards. Sporting a four-octave keyboard which is, inevitably, neither velocity- nor pressure-sensitive, it's very similar in size and chunkiness to other popular keyboards of the time such as the ARP Omni II string machine and the Korg CX3 organ. You know the type: wooden end-cheeks, fixed mains lead, and two holes for your music stand. The clearly laid-out control panel sports large, friendly rocker switches to activate the voices (although these were replaced on final models with LED momentary switches), and a selection of typical Roland sliders and knobs control the various facilities provided by the instrument's three sections. Three sections? But surely this is just a Vocoder, like its rackmounted stablemate, the SVC350. Well, not exactly...
A good starting point for understanding the VP is the Strings section. The late 70s were the heyday of the string machine and, whether it was purely a marketing ploy or whether Roland appreciated how useful the Strings would be when combined with the Vocoder section, we can now only guess. But, if you look closely at the architecture of the VP330, you'll find that it readily lends itself to the creation of a string ensemble effect. This is because the sound generators within the instrument use the octave-divide technology commonly found in electronic organs and so-called string machines of the day. The rather thin but harmonically rich output from these oscillators is an ideal starting point for the creation of ensemble-type effects and, as we shall see, choral style voices. Only the treatment varies between sections. The Strings section offers just one footage (8'), plus variable attack, a release control (which is shared by the rest of the instrument) and a tone control. There's also a preset keyboard split, either side of which the voice can be turned on or off. You may laugh, but these were reasonable facilities back in the Pleistocene era. Indeed, the fondly-remembered RS505 Paraphonic Ensemble contained many similarities to the VP330 Strings section - not least of which was the sound.
The next section is Human Voice; when the VP was launched, this was greeted with amazement. The basic waveform is filtered to give a vocal, if somewhat nasal, formant. On its own, this doesn't sound like people singing, but the VP also includes an Ensemble button which introduces a complex series of pitch modulations to the basic sound. Stereo outputs are provided to create a more spacious sound when Ensemble is selected (which is, for most purposes, all the time) and these contribute to thickening things up considerably. The result is almost voice-like, and extremely usable. For the first time choral voices were emanating from a keyboard that didn't weigh a hundredweight yet still had to be handled like a Ming vase. The VP330 was hailed as the electronic musician's replacement for the Mellotron.
Like the Strings section, the Human Voice is split at middle C. Unlike the Strings, however, it provides different timbres on either side of the split: 4' and 8' male voices in the Lower register; and 8' males and 4' females in the Upper; and Vibrato, with rate, delay, and depth controls. This, when coupled with the Strings, emulates several well-known Mellotron tapes - eight-voice choir, 16-voice male and female choir, and 16-voice choir with strings. A minor disappointment is the inability of the VP to output the patches from either side of the split point separately via the stereo outputs (this would have made it possible to imitate the enormous dual manual Mellotron Mk 2s of the early '60s) but nobody seemed to mind - replacing the model 400s and Novatrons seemed quite satisfactory to everyone concerned. That's not to say that the Roland has no character of its own. It has, but the Mellotron was still big news in the 70s, and its imitation was the most obvious benefit provided by the Strings and Human Voice.
"For the first time choral voices were emanating from a keyboard that didn't weigh a hundredweight yet still had to be handled like a ming vase."
It's not easy to sample and loop pitch-modulated sounds but, surprisingly, the VP330 Strings and Human Voice sections sample extremely well - especially if multisampling is used to avoid munchkinisation. Roland's own sample library begins with disk L501-0005, which includes two excellent Strings and Human Voice samples. But you needn't settle for simple reproductions of the VP330. A good sampler will offer extensive enveloping and filtering options, allowing you to take the basic sound and develop it in ways that were impossible back in 1979. In fact, once you start sampling the VP, there's nothing (except limited memory) to stop you from spinning entire vocoded phrases to disk. The possibilities are legless (?).
Let's move on to the raison d'etre of the VP330 - the Vocoder section. This shares many features with the other sections: variable attack and release sliders, middle C split point, Upper and Lower on/off controls, Vibrato and Ensemble. There is also a pitch-shifter offering Manual and Auto modes. Manual is useful, Auto less so, unless you're into synths that make you go "hmmm". But whereas the Strings and Human Voice sections create their sounds by treating the internal oscillators with constant effects (filtering and ensemble), the Vocoder section enables you to modulate the oscillators with an infinitely variable source - the input from a microphone. Even greater flexibility is added by the External Synth input, which allows any sound source to be submitted to the vocoding process. This means that you can treat your favourite guitar riffs, piano sonatas, synthesiser voices - or even the music from your CD player.
Vocoders are probably best known for such ditties as 'Mr Blue Sky' and 'Sparky's Magic Piano'. Instantly recognisable as vocoders, these sounds have now become dated and dreary. Consequently, vocoding is usually dismissed as another boring 70s phenomenon. Yet vocoders can be used in many other ways. Replacing conventional backing vocals using a vocoder can be very rewarding, especially if you're recording on a limited budget and don't have access to a fully-equipped multitrack studio. You can play far more complex parts on the vocoder keyboard (including chords) than you can manage unassisted. And, if you want to get away from the natural sound of the human voice but retain recognisable words and phrases, you can create new textures using the External Synth capability of the VP330.
Double tracking lead vocals is another interesting application, especially when the VP is coupled to an external effects unit. The most common of these techniques works as follows: take a side-chain from the vocal channel off tape, compress it, delay it by a few hundred milliseconds, and then vocode it. Adding this (plus a bit of reverb) to the original signal results in a very expensive sound - similar to double tracking, but with a unique "thickening" effect.
"In the VP330, Roland managed to produce what is, for many users, still the smoothest and sweetest-sounding vocoder ever to have been built."
A third area of vocoder use that hasn't received the attention it deserves (although this may change with the arrival of the Wavestation A/D) is the creation of the unusual polyrhythmic and tonal effects generated when you pass non-vocal signals into both the External Synth and Microphone inputs. Since the VP330 mic input has both quarter-inch unbalanced and XLR balanced sockets, it will accept almost anything you care to send it. Vocoding these non-vocal signals using the internal oscillator bank suggests one range of options, but replacing the internal bank using External Synth places another, even wider, range of sounds at your disposal. Experimenting with rhythmic inputs, synthesised timbres, random or arpeggiated sounds, or even film and video soundtracks, can yield surprising results. And if you're looking for the next innovation in dance or electro-pop, vocoding Star Trek episodes with Pascal Gabriel's rhythm samples could be what you're looking for. Finally, for those of you into the occult, try vocoding a vocal with itself - the result is seriously weird.
Although these ideas have been discussed in a studio context, there's nothing to stop you trying them on stage. But be ready to face some unusual problems. The vocoder is not simply a keyboard - it has a microphone attached to it - so you're going to have to think about placement, feedback, and the dangers of extraneous sounds getting into it. If you're tempted to try live vocoding, use a good headset microphone in conjunction with a sensible monitor mix. In addition, a good limiter is almost essential to get professional-sounding results. Finally, it's a mistake to believe that you can simply speak your lyrics into a vocoder and the machine will sort everything else out for you. Vocoders are, after all, only sophisticated filters which enhance or suppress natural frequencies present in your voice, so you'll get far better results if you actually sing the intended part correctly.
Despite the power and transparency of its vocal processing abilities, it's not as a vocoder that the VP330 is best remembered. And, although very few people would claim that, in its Strings and Human Voice modes, it actually replaced the Mellotron (that happened later with the advent of samplers) it's in this role that you're most likely to hear one used. The Mellotron (and later, the Novatron) were the instruments of choice for a whole generation of players but they were notoriously unreliable. Given the choice of fighting with sticking tapes, burnt-out motors, and stuck keys, or simply plugging in the VP and playing, many bands opted for the latter - often ignoring its vocoding capabilities altogether. A notable example of this was Tony Banks of Genesis, who replaced his Mellotron with a VP for the Duke tour of 1980. In the studio Vangelis used one extensively on the See You Later LP, and made the Human Voice world famous with his Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire filmscore. See You Later also formed the basis for the soundtrack of Blade Runner, thus giving the instrument even wider exposure. Picking up almost any Tomita album will also give you a sizeable dose of VP330 choral sounds. Perhaps one of the few groups to use the full range of the VP's capabilities (both in the studio and on stage) was the Steve Hackett band; But even they dumped their Mellotron once they started using the VP330 for live work.
The vocoder is enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment. Whether this is because of the new and more affordable units now available, or whether these instruments have been released as a consequence of the revival in interest, is unclear. Either way, players now have a wider choice of instruments than ever before. The Boss SE50 offers basic facilities and retails for under £400 (and you get a digital effects unit thrown in for free), while the Wavestation A/D and current generation of EMS instruments give you better quality and more facilities for closer to £2000. Add to these choices the thriving secondhand market - hardly a month passes without a Music Technology Readers' Ad pleading for a used vocoder. On the rare occasions that you see a VP330 for sale the asking price will be in the region of £450. Compare this to the asking prices for the Korg VC10 (about £150) or the SVC350 (£250-£300) and you get some idea of just how highly rated the VP330 has remained. The reason for this is its quality; cheap vocoders can suffer from tracking and glitching problems, and the clarity of the output signal is often very poor. In the VP330, Roland managed to produce what is, for many users, still the smoothest and sweetest-sounding vocoder ever to have been built. Using ten frequency bands, plus a blue noise sibilant generator, it never fails to reproduce the signal, and maintains enough clarity for lyrics to be understood following treatment.
Nowadays it's possible to have the VP upgraded to accept MIDI. Kenton Electronics provide just such an upgrade for £160, and this sees MIDI In and Thru ports emerging (literally) from the woodwork. Imagine the fun you could have vocoding the output of, say, a sequenced D50 or DX7 (input via the External Synth port) while the keyboard part of the VP330 is itself sequenced. You can even add Strings or Human Voices above or below the Split Point, or in unison with the vocoded parts. And, although the VP doesn't sport trendy individual audio outputs, a mixer is included, which enables you to balance the outputs from the three sections. Creative or what?
If you're over 21 years old and you feel like a bit of private (or even public) vocoding, you could do worse than track down a VP330. Each of its three sections would have stood up as separate keyboard instruments when it was launched in 1979. Combined, they create a whole that is undoubtedly greater than the parts. And it's still considered by many to be the best there is.
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