Have you ever wondered what that strange robotic sound is on classic tracks such as, “Let’s Groove Tonight” by Earth Wind & Fire, “Intergalactic” by Beastie Boys or “Mr. Roboto” by Styx? That is the iconic sound of a vocoder. Vocoders have been an unsung staple in popular music for the past 50 years and counting.
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Brief History of the Vocoder
The vocoder was created in 1928 by Bell Labs. Initially, vocoders were made to send encrypted telecommunication messages during World War II. Siemens Studio for Electronic Music was the first music company to use vocoders as a creative tool in 1956. Robert Moog, the founder of the infamous Moog synthesizers, built the first solid-state vocoder. This inspired the likes of Alan Parsons, Phil Collins and Stevie Wonder to incorporate the vocoder on some of their tracks. Some modern day artists that continue to use the vocoder are Zedd, Maren Morris, Daft Punk and many other electronic artists.
What is a vocoder?
A vocoder synthesizes and filters the human voice signal to make it sound inhumane and ‘robotic’. Vocoder is an abbreviation for voice encoder. It’s a bit difficult to grasp the complexity of this technology, but here is the simplest explanation–you have two different signals: the analysis signal and the synthesis signal. A synth is typically used for the synthesis signal and vocals are typically used for the analysis signal. The vocal signal is sent directly into the synth signal and this fusion results in the unique and iconic tone of a vocoder.
Any ‘robot voice’ you hear in a song is probably created or influenced by a vocoder or vocoder VST. However, vocoders are not limited to vocals which you will learn shortly through reading this article.
Let’s dive in and look at some of the best vocoder VST plugins on the market right now!
Best Vocoder VST – XILS Vocoder 5000
As you begin your vocoder VST-buying journey, you need to be aware of this VST which stands head and shoulders above the rest. The XILS Vocoder 5000 plugin is known in the industry as one of the most versatile and powerful analog vocoder VST ever created.
This plugin is inspired by the legendary original EMS Vocoder 5000 hardware (XILS-lab’s flagship product), which is a very rare and expensive piece of equipment. The XILS Vocoder 5000 VST offers all of the bells and whistles of this hardware in a software version which gives you all of the quality for a fraction of the price.
This product’s quality and versatility makes it a no-brainer for sound engineers who want the best of the best. The XILS Vocoder 5000 gives you instant power with its wide range of incredible presets that are ready to go right out of the box. Its robust filtering and routing capabilities permit the two synth sections to each feature two oscillators, a noise oscillator, an ADSR envelope and two LFO’s. Furthermore, the oscillators include waveforms such as pulse, saw, pulse width, frequency modulation and more. Lastly, the matrix patch permits you to connect any band of the analysis and synthesis signals.
All in all, if you’re looking for a plugin to give you complete sonic control and gives you vocoder sounds that are out of this world, the XILS Vocoder 5000 should be number one on your list.
Most Versatile Vocoder Plugin – Izotope VocalSynth 2
Let’s face it: although a vocoder sounds awesome when used correctly, it is usually not the most popular or utilized effect in a song. If you’re looking for a plugin which has more than a high quality vocoder, then the Izotope VocalSynth 2 should be on your radar!
Not only does it have an incredible vocoder plugin, it also has four other vocal engines: talkbox, biovox, polyvox and compuvox. It also features wide array of stompbox effects such as chorus, distortion, ring modulation, filtration, stereo delay and more.
The Izotope VocalSynth 2 also has three modes of operation which offers maximum flexibility. These modes are: auto mode, sidechain mode and MIDI mode. Auto mode allows you to stack harmonies or octaves without a MIDI input, while the sidechain mode does not require any audio signal at all! And of course, the MIDI mode allows you nail the precise voicings you’re after with your MIDI input device. Lastly, the integration capabilities solidified VocalSynth 2’s spot as the most versatile vocoder plugin because it seamlessly connects with the rest of your Izotope software giving you a world of endless variety.
Best Vintage Vocoder – Arturia Vocoder V
One word to describe this plugin: Classic.
Arturia’s Vocoder V is patterned after the classic 16-band vocoder and goes above and beyond by including advanced modulation, synthesis and sampling capabilities. In addition, Vocoder V comes with a one-of-a-kind harmonic infused voice that will raise the eyebrows of anyone who appreciates quality sound engineering.
This plugin gives you the keys to unlock vintage-style vocal effects quickly, easily and enjoyably. For instance, choose the Jun-6 V synth which recreates the legendary 1980’s sound you’ll find on Billy Idol, Cyndi Lauper, John Foxx and Wham! tunes. Or, try the Emulator II V lo-fi sampler synth for an 8-bit vintage (and delightfully flawed) sound which can be heard from artists such as Nine Inch Nails, Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode.
Overall, if you’re looking for an old-school, vintage, no-nonsense vocoder VST, your search has come to an end with the Arturia Vocoder V.
Best Value Vocoder – Razor by Native Instruments
Out of all of the options so far, Razor by Native Instruments is the most cost-effective option. Just because it’s cheaper does NOT mean it has less quality. Native Instruments is one of the biggest brands in the VST space. Razor is yet another quality product Native Instruments has in their arsenal.
It may not have all of the bells and whistles of something like the XILS Vocoder 5000, but this plugin is simple to use, has an amazing modulation system and a powerful operating system. It features twin filters, two oscillators and three effect modules (dissonance, dynamics and stereo). Dissonance is your go-to panel for sci-fi FX, futuristic color or crazy dubstep tracks. In addition to chorus, reverb and unison effects, the dissonance panel can have the reverb ‘follow’ notes which prevents muddiness during fast runs.
The Dynamics section is ideal for complex, atmospheric tones and dialing in the compression and saturation. One of the coolest ways to utilize the vocoder setting is not by using vocal triggers, but various instruments! It’s very easy to use a drum loop as a trigger to give your track the unique sound it needs to stand out.
All in all, if you’re on a budget but don’t want to sacrifice the quality of the premium vocoder plugins, Native Instruments has your back with Razor.
Best Free Vocoder Plugin – TAL Vocoder
No money, no problem! Here’s your best option if you have no budget at all. The TAL vocoder has an 11-band vocoder engine which aims to emulate the classic early 80’s sound. The internal carrier synth gives you a wide range of effects to choose from including pulse, sync mode, noise, mono/poly and more. There is a decent selection of presets to choose from if you simply wish to plug and play as well. You can even fine-tune the shape of frequency waveforms and add harmonics to any carrier signal. To boot, this plugin is very low on CPU usage so it won’t roast your computer.
All in all, there’s nothing to lose from giving TAL Vocoder a test drive. It’s free and instantly accessible for you to download right now. This is especially valuable to beginners who are just starting out–it will give you the basic knowledge of vocoder VST so you know what to look for in your vocoder VST purchase. But who knows? Maybe TAL Vocoder will be all you need for your tracks!
Final Thoughts on the Best Vocoder Plugins
There's a lot of vocoder plugins out there, but in my view, these are the best. They're all fairly straightforward, and they make it easy to get incredible synthesized tones from your voice.
If I had to pick just one, I'd probably choose iZotope's, because it is so versatile, and really works in a lot of different situations. What do you think? What's your favorite vocoder plugin and why? Leave a comment below to share!
Vocoder Plugin FAQ
Here are some of the most common questions I see asked about vocoders.
Vocoder vs. Autotune
Although both tools are used to synthesize a vocal track (or some other instrumental track), they are two different beasts. Autotune is designed to correct the track’s pitch so it sounds more ‘in tune’ with the song. If a vocal track is slightly flat or sharp, autotune will ‘nudge’ the pitch in order to make it in tune with the rest of the track. When used at the extreme, though, you get those T-Pain style autotune effects.
On the contrary, the vocoder was designed for something different all together. A vocoder is an effect used to create a ‘robotic’ sound to a vocal track. The vocoder essentially replaces your vocal cords with a synthesizer and your mouth with a bandpass filter to apply the formants of the vocals.
Vocoder vs. Talkbox
While vocoders and autotune are two completely different categories, the talkbox is actually a type of vocoder. The talkbox is an effects unit that requires two inputs (usually guitar and vocals), whereas a vocoder only requires one. The talkbox was popularized by Peter Frampton where he used a long tube coming from the talkbox to modify the sound of the guitar, which was also plugged into the talk box. Frampton altered the sound of his guitar with his voice which gave his guitar a ‘wah-wah’ type of sound. This sounds slightly different than the robotic sound that vocoders offer.
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