Hello! This blog is going to go through a brief history of the vocoder, how it’s been used and how to create the effect yourself using Ableton.
So what is a vocoder? A vocoder (Voice Operated reCOrDER) is a device that was invented in 1939 by US physicist Homer Dudley as a way to transmit voice over long distances without using too much data. The device essentially deconstructed the signal coming in, converting it to a graphical representation of the frequency content over time and resynthesised it based on this decoded information. Below is a video demonstrating an early version of this machine.
This device was also widely used some years later during WWII to transmit secure conversations between politicians and countries. A few years after the end of WWII, a German physicist and experimental acoustician named Werner Meyer-Eppler recognised that the vocoder could be used for electronic music after a visit from Homer Dudley in 1948. This encounter would later inspire Meyer-Eppler’s future writings on the topic, eventually going on to publish a book that promoted the use of machines in electronic music. During his time at the University of Bonn, Meyer-Eppler’s works inspired one of his students, Karlheinz Stockhausen to create one of the earliest pieces of electronic music that utilised the vocoders capabilities. The project was labelled “Elektronische Musik 1952-1960” and was a collection of various works that featured many aspects of synthesis, one being the vocoder.
Although it may just sound like a bunch of random noises that plays for over an hour, the piece inspired a lot of different composers of the time to experiment with synthesis and vocoders especially. Many years later, American engineer Robert Moog and composer Wendy Carlos took heavy inspiration after studying Dudley’s original vocoder and used a few synthesiser modules to create a vocoder of their own. This vocoder amongst other moog synthesisers, was used in the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”. Below is a clip that shows how this vocoder was used.
Years after the release of this soundtrack, a company from London called EMS (Electronic Music Studios) produced the world’s first commercially available vocoding machine. The EMS 5000 was used to create some of the first successful vocoded music, having been used by artists such as Stevie Wonder, Kraftwerk and Stockhausen. One of the most notable of these is a track from Kraftwerk called “The Robots”.
A year after EMS produced the EMS 5000, they released a refined, smaller version of this called the EMS 2000. In the same year Sennheiser also released their own vocoder called the VMS 201 which also gained popularity with German group Kraftwerk.
Following the release of these devices, the use of vocoders in electronic music started to gain popularity and as a result, other companies decided to jump on the vocoder train and produce their own models. The most famous of these was the Korg VC-10, which was used by artists such as Roger Waters, Tangerine Dream and Electric Light Orchestra.
Fast forward to the present day and vocoders have very much moved from a physical instrument to a digital effect that can easily be utilised. There are many companies that have produced digital vocoders. Apple’s Logic, Image Line’s FL Studio and Propellerhead’s Reason all come with stock vocoders. Ableton also has a built in vocoder that I will be using to demonstrate this effect.
The way that the vocoder in Ableton works is, it takes information from an audio source (modulator) and uses this to shape another sound (carrier). For this demonstration, I’m just going to use a short bit from a vocal clip. Without any effects it sounds like this.
Before we can use the vocoder effect, we need to create a sound that will be used as the carrier. For this, I just used a default instance of operator and changed the waveform to a saw wave.
After this I created a short chord progression that will be used to effect the vocal. It sounds like this.
After all of this is done, we can go ahead and place a vocoder onto the vocal track.
The first thing that we want to do is tell the vocoder what input its going to be used to effect the vocal. To do this, we simply go to the left hand side of the vocoder where the carrier section is located. Just below where it is labelled “Carrier” there is a drop down box that lets you select what type of carrier input you want to use. There are 4 options to choose from and each have slightly different uses. The first of these options is Noise, which essentially emulates the same sound as the very first vocoder. It takes information from the vocal and uses this to shape a noise oscillator. The third option is Modulator, which uses the capabilities of the vocoder to effect the sound (bandwidth, frequency range, depth etc). The fourth option is Pitch Tracking, which uses a set high and low frequency, as well as a defined oscillator type to effect the sound. However the option that we are looking for (that I conveniently skipped) is the second option in the list which is External. This option allows us to use external audio to effect the vocal. After selecting this option, another drop down box appears labelled “Audio From”. To activate the vocoder we have to choose our source audio, which for me is the operator layer that I have named “Carrier” for ease of use.
After selecting your carrier track, the only thing left to do is to mute your carrier track. We want to do this so the carrier is only running into the vocoder rather than playing its original audio over the top of the vocoder.
Pressing play, you should be able to hear that you have achieved a basic vocoder effect! You can also tweak some of the other parameters, like the band amount, frequency range, band width, gate, depth, attack, release and formant to get a slightly different sound. Each of these will change how the vocoder sounds so try experimenting with these options.
These are the parameters that I ended up using and it produced the following result.
120 Years of Electronic Music. (2018). The ‘Voder’ & ‘Vocoder’ Homer Dudley, USA,1940. [online] Available at: http://120years.net/the-voder-vocoderhomer-dudleyusa1940/ [Accessed 12 Apr. 2018].
Documentation.apple.com. (2018). Logic Studio Instruments. [online] Available at: https://documentation.apple.com/en/logicstudio/instruments/index.html#chapter=10%26section=10%26tasks=true [Accessed 12 Apr. 2018].
Vargo, I. (2018). A Brief History of the Vocoder. [online] Pro Audio Files. Available at: https://theproaudiofiles.com/history-of-the-vocoder/ [Accessed 12 Apr. 2018].
Karlheinz Stockhausen – Elektronische Musik 1952-1960. (2018). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=264HLeQIUv4&w=560&h=315 [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].
Sennheiser VSM 201. (2018). [image] Available at: http://medias.audiofanzine.com/images/normal/sennheiser-vsm-201-vocoder-261432.jpg %5BAccessed 21 Apr. 2018].
The Voder – Homer Dudley (Bell Labs) 1939. (2018). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hyI_dM5cGo&w=560&h=315 [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].
Vintage Synth Explorer (2018). Electronic Music Studios (EMS) Vocoder 2000. [image] Available at: http://www.vintagesynth.com/sites/default/files/2017-05/emsvocoder2000.jpg %5BAccessed 21 Apr. 2018].
Vintage Synth Explorer (2018). Korg VC-10 Vocoder. [image] Available at: http://www.vintagesynth.com/sites/default/files/2017-05/korg_vc10.jpg %5BAccessed 21 Apr. 2018].