Today, improved technology has resulted in much more powerfulvocoders than their disco/new wave-era counterparts ever hoped to be.Modern digital vocoding relies on the Fast Fourier Transform, and onlyrecently have consumer computers had the horsepower to accomplish thisanalysis in real time, enabling high-quality live vocoding. Priced at$299, Native Instruments' Vokator PC/Mac software is a quantum leapforward in this regard. Computer-based, real-time vocoding has beenaround for a while, but Vokator is an order of greater magnitude interms of quality and power, particularly for live use.
VOCODING AND PLENTY MORE
Vokator is more than just a vocoder: It includes a nice, virtual,subtractive analog synthesizer and a sample playback unit that includes“granular synthesis features.” It allows flexible signalrouting and mixing that's not seen in other vocoders. In Vokator,“A” is the microphone input and “B” is theother input that is traditionally used for a synth or guitar. The A*Bmode is the traditional vocoder setup, but a B*A mode is brought up bysimply pressing a button; no repatching is required. Mix mode allowsmixing and panning of A*B and B*A modes simultaneously, but severelytaxes the CPU. There is an A+B mode that simply passes both inputsun-vocoded to the final mixing stage, and dynamics and“spectral” processing can be applied to each inputdistinctly. Group mode simulates a traditional analog bandpass vocoderby combining user-specified frequency bands into envelope control foruser-specified bands in the other channel.
With Vokator's I/O, live vocoding with both signals providedexternally is a snap. On the other hand, input A can be driven by aninternal file-playback unit, which the GUI refers to as “tapeplayback.” Likewise, the B input can be fed with Vokator'sfull-featured onboard synth or sampler. The powerful synth hastremendously flexible modulation routing and continuously variablemodulation between its four available waveforms.
The signals can be routed directly to the outputs, providing a hardbypass of the vocoder engine. Otherwise, both A and B inputs can berouted through their own signal chain, consisting of dynamicsprocessing, delay, FFT and “spectral effects,” which isNI's proprietary special effects processing.
This processor offers some truly wild mathematical signal twisting,especially with programs named Jello Mold, Time Sponge, Foam, LimeTwist and Horse Tail. At this stage, the signal has not yet evenreached the vocoder, which is the next stop. After vocoding, there isanother compression stage. Finally, the output is visually representedby the amplitude vs. frequency Spectral Output display, which alsopresents the Breakpoint Editor. This allows drawing a curve thatvisually represents the vocoder's spectral output, essentially agraphic equalizer. Resynthesis via inverse FFT is the last stage priorto the final mix.
Vokator provides MIDI sync, so most parameters can be locked with anexternal sequencer, yielding some interesting results. Vokator alsoincludes a simple multiple-step, analog-style internal sequencer. Thesynth section includes chord memory (great for live vocoding) and anarpeggiator. You can morph from one synth patch to another, resultingin some astonishing effects with voice, percussion and otherinstruments. Nice features like these help put Vokator ahead of othercomputer vocoders.
OVERHEAD UNDER THE HOOD
Vokator has issues with computer overhead: It's a CPU hog. My G4/400couldn't handle it. Even after allocating over 700 MB of RAM toVokator, my Mac choked and sputtered. My 1.533GHz Athlon easily handledthe application. NI recommends a G4/733 with 512 MB of RAM for Macusers; for Windows, you'll want a Pentium III or 4; Celeron, Athlon orDuron running at 1.2 GHz or faster; and at least 256 MB of RAMoptimized for your computer. VST, MAS, Audio Units, DXi II, ASIO,Soundmanager and Core Audio interfaces are supported.
There are workarounds that will help with respect to the CPUchallenges. Spectral resolution used internally by Vokator isadjustable from 1,024 bands down to 512, 256 and 128. When livevocoding is desired, lower spectral resolution is probably aninescapable requirement to avoid choking the CPU. CPU clog can also bereduced by lowering the sampling rate, which ranges from 11 kHz to 48kHz.
Bottom line: Vokator emerges as the leader in host-based vocoding inthe industry. It's arguably the most advanced vocoder of any kindavailable today, especially at $299. Unfortunately, Vokator will beatyour CPU like a rented mule, but if your screaming speed machine canspare the clock cycles, Vokator will not disappoint.
Native Instruments, 323/467-5260, www.native-instruments.com.
John McJunkin is the principal of Avalon Audio Services inPhoenix.