Last week I received a Behringer VC340 that I ordered a few months back. This is a recreation of a classic synthesizer, the Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus, which was made in 1979 and 1980. Although the production of this synthesizer was short, it, along with the rackmount version, the SVC-350, is found all over music of the early 80s, including artists as far apart as Vangelis and Laurie Anderson.
The VC330, like the original VP-330, instead of being a general synthesizer is divided into three main parts: a string synthesizer, a “human voice” synthesizer and a vocoder.
The string synthesizer is just what it sounds like, a synthesized string ensemble sound that uses simple analog technology of the day. String synths were very popular in the late 70s and the Roland version can be heard on a lot of music by a wide variety of artists. It offers a simple tone (brightness) control, attack (how quickly the sound starts) and release (how quickly the sound fades after you take your hands from the keys).
There are two basic “voice” sounds, an octave apart, which can be combined so both are heard. By itself the voice sounds a little cheesy, even when both of them are playing at once, but there is an ensemble effect that can be turned on. This uses the same bucket-brigade chorus that is always on the string sound and does greatly enhance the sound. Attack can also be changed and the release is tied to the same control as the string ensemble release. There is also a “vibrato” section (LFO) with controls for rate, depth (how much vibrato effect) and delay before the vibrato starts. The same vibrato is used on the vocoder section.
The string ensemble and voice/choir sound can be combined, which Vangelis is famous for.
The final section is a vocoder. Super simply described, this can allow you to talk through your synthesizer. It is not to be confused with “Talkbox”, which was also popular in the 1970s. The Talkbox is a pure physical device that literally pipes sound into the user’s mouth who can control the sound. See this Stevie Wonder video for a great demonstration. Some people may also remember Peter Frampton and his talking guitar.
A vocoder can sound similar, but it is pure electronics. Simplified – The incoming signal, say a word from a microphone, is “analyzed” at specific frequencies. These frequencies can then be changed to match on a synthesizer sound. Got it? Well, it doesn’t matter how it works, just know that a player can use their voice (or anything else) to shape the synth sound.
The vocoder on the VP-330, though relatively simple and offering few controls other than tone (brightness), the same ensemble effect as the other sounds and the same “vibrato” as the voice synthesizer, had a great sound and was used by many artists in many genres of music. In fact, it became a bit of cliché, particularly the “robot” talk sounds, particularly in dance music.
The vocoder can also be mixed in with the other two sounds.
So that was then, what about the Behringer VC340?
First, and most importantly, they did a great job recreating the sound. It sounds great, and can recreate “that” sound that was so hot back in the day. The trick is that they tried to recreate the same circuits, not a digital emulation, so the sound has the same quirks and “flaws”.
The instrument itself is compact, having a three-octave keyboard, though there is an octave switch so there are four octave easily accessible. It also uses the same strange (to me) “pitch shift” control as the original. This can easily be set an octave lower, giving it five useful octaves. If you need to play more than three octaves at once, it does have a MIDI input and a USB for MIDI. The keyboard itself is fine, about what you’d expect in this price range and better than some.
There is a key split, so different sounds can be used on either side of the split, which isn’t quite as useful in a three-octave keyboard, but is nice for live performance.
I tried to find a limit in the number of “voices” I could play at once, and couldn’t. I thought it was four per split zone, but I was playing 8-note cluster chords within one key-zone and didn’t notice any drop-outs. However, it is paraphonic instead of polyphonic. With this instrument that means that if, for instance, you set the strings to slowly swell in, it will do great when you play block chords, lifting your hands between – you will always get that swell. If you play a chord and keep the keys pressed, but change one note, that note will change instantly, not start over again, so no swell. With the attack of the “human voices” set at fast, there is a “ha” at the beginning. But if you have notes pressed and play another note, you won’t hear it (the “ha” is all volume, not an actual change in timbre). This was true for the original as well.
To me the most exciting difference with the original is that Behringer added an input for an external synthesizer. That means you can plug any instrument in and “make it talk”.
As you might guess, the vocoder section is the greatest fun. Sure, it is cool to have “that” sound with the strings, but I could spend all day playing with just the vocoder.
The Behringer VC340 is, in ways, very limited in what it can do, but it does what it does very well. The sounds are a bit dated, but can be used to great effect both to get that classic sound and to add a new (if old) color to modern music. And, of course, you can do “modern” things to the sound to make it up to date. To some ectent the vocoder is limited by your imagination. The VC340 is relatively inexpensive, though there are low end polyphonic totally programmable synthesizers in the same price range. I recommend it, but only if you have a good use for it. To me the vocoder makes it totally worth the price and the rest is just frosting on the old-school analog synth cake.
Over the weekend I recorded a “demo”, a piece of music to demonstrate how the VC340 sounds in different contexts. All of the sounds use the VC340, but a few also use an external synth being “processed” by the VC340’s vocoder. I used a Behringer Model D, a small clone of the Moog Minimoog (the B. Model D is often referred to as the “Boog”). You can hear the “Boog” sound near the beginning on the bass (not the string bass), on the “percussion” (didn’t work as well as I’d wished), the whispering or noisy voice saying “I find myself at a loss for words” and a lead sound in the second section. There are four sections to this piece with transitions between. I used a little analog delay as I was playing and a little reverb in the mix down – I’m looking for musical uses of the sounds, not the pure sounds themselves – you can find that elsewhere.
Oh yeah, the title is a joke – so many people don’t know what to do or say when confronted with a vocoder. “Test, test – this is a vocoder!” Yeah, right… If they’re creative they may do silly robot voices, “we are the robots!”. So the title “(I Find Myself) At a Loss for Words” is a joke. I also wrote a little love song using that phrase. The last section of this music is me singing that song through the vocoder.
I hope you enjoy (and make it to the end ;)):
(I Find Myself) At a Loss for Words
I find myself
At a loss for words
When I see
I find myself
Troubled once more
Because I don’t
Know what to do
I find myself
Thinking of you
When I am
I find myself
Writing this song
But it’s out of
Oh, how I wish
My tongue would Fly!
So you’d know how
But I can’t
To allow my broken heart
I find myself
At a loss for words
Because I love