Without the vocoder, would Roger Troutman still want to be your man? Would MSTRKRFT still have “Easy Love” for you, and would Air still want Kelly to watch the stars? Would California still know how to party? Maybe a better thing to think about is how much vocoders have given to electronic music for decades and how little you've given them in return. But don't worry; they don't have feelings … yet. However, you should feel good about one of the best sounding and most versatile vocoders you could hope for at a couple hundred bucks. Eiosis ELS Vocoder 1.2 from the little French company that could, formerly known as Eliosound, is capable of re-creating the sounds of almost any classic hardware vocoder, and piles on a healthy scoop of modern digital wizardry to take you even further.
Both may go in and out of vogue for a while, but the disco beat hasn't gone anywhere and neither have vocoders. Look at Justice, Hexstatic and Daft Punk for a few examples of hip artists carrying the torch for vocoding, which works by using two input signals — a modulator and a carrier — to create an output signal. Traditionally, the modulator has been a synth, guitar or white noise coupled with a vocal carrier to produce a machinelike voice, but either input can be any audio signal.
ELS Vocoder includes a 2-VCO virtual synth that acts as the default modulator, and the audio track that you assign the plug-in to in your DAW is the carrier. However, with version 1.2, Eiosis added a sidechain option that opens up the modulator to be an audio file or another instrument plug-in, effectively expanding ELS Vocoder's already exhaustive possibilities to infinity. A vocoder splits both input signals into frequency bands and then applies the levels of the modulator's frequency bands to the carrier's frequency bands to make it sound, for instance, like a synthesizer is talking with your voice. Generally, the more frequency bands, the more intelligible the vocal will be, and ELS Vocoder gives up with a generous 22 bands (adjustable to 20).
I installed ELS Vocoder on both an iMac 2 GHz G5 and a MacBook Pro 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo. Installation requires a Syncrosoft USB dongle, which you can buy from Eiosis online for $15 or reuse one you may have for a number of Steinberg, IK Multimedia or Arturia products. Although I share the common opinion that USB dongles are a pain in the coconuts (especially if have a portable studio with a laptop with limited ports), the system does allow you to easily move one license to different computers. After downloading the unlocked software on both machines, I could freely open the plug-in on either machine using the dongle. I tested ELS Vocoder as both an Audio Unit and VST plug-in; both went down without a hitch. However, the little guy is a bit of a CPU hog. Admittedly, the test iMac is at the bottom of Eiosis' software requirements, but using just one instance of ELS Vocoder on the vocal of a 10-track Ableton Live 6 session caused delayed reactions in the software interface, and the CPU meter was pumping above 50 percent. Everything was stable, though; ELS Vocoder was not prone to crashing during my tests.
ELS Vocoder's possibilities are truly endless, with adjustable level sliders for each of the 22 processing bands, six selectable waveforms per oscillator and full automation of the 128 adjustable parameters within a DAW, as well as many more features. The PDF manual breaks down the functions of the controls if you need to learn what's what, but you can get it cracking immediately with one of the more than 250 presets. Sorted in 18 categorized banks, the presets represent a huge range of results. When tested with vocals, many of the presets spit out very intelligible voices (such as Basic Robot Chord A and B), while others pretty much decimate the voice (Whistler, Komputer Breath). Either way, the presets are high caliber and can be considered immediately usable or good starting points more often than not. They also cover a lot of ground, from soft and pillowy to harsh and noisy, from funny to scary and from monotone to harmonic. Some, such as Motorbitch and a folder of “reverb” presets, leave the carrier signal fairly untouched but add some subtle ear candy, roughness around the edges and other effects.
Presets come with notes assigned on the 3-octave keyboard at the bottom of the GUI. Clicking on the arrow in the lower right-hand corner of the keyboard module (or any of the 12 modules) opens an advanced options box, which lets you set the keyboard to several modes: Poly, where as many as 16 notes can play at the same time; Mono, which plays only one note at a time with low note priority; and Uni2, Uni4 and Uni8, where you can play two, four or eight notes of the same pitch at once for thicker sounds. In Poly mode, you can Shift-click on keyboard notes to select more than one at a time, although oddly, the keyboard doesn't have Octave Up/Down buttons. Selected notes are saved in a preset.
After vocals, drums are easily the second-most common material to vocode. Appropriately, ELS Vocoder includes six banks with about 100 presets designed for drums. Presets such as DRM Computergames give you an instant Daft Punk feel, and DRM Dogger make the drums go woof. DRM Small Coder is one of many settings than can reduce a full beat to a thin rhythmic percussion track, which is good for duplicating the drum track and enhancing the dry beat with the vocoded party. DRM Geisercounter (sic) somehow turns your beat into a the sound of the radioactivity-measuring tool. The Drum Harmonies bank of 11 presets assigns the beat to a chord to make the result sound almost like an arpeggiated synth but with more complex timbres. Another bank, Drum Tweaking, has 14 subtle presets where the original beat is left largely intact but enhanced with rhythmically modulating sonic effects or chorded harmonics.
Even if you don't use the presets, checking them out can teach you some things and give you ideas for your own settings. Factory presets can't be overwritten, so you have to make a new one to save changes. It's easy to create presets by either clicking on the Dup (duplicate) button or simply changing the name, which will create a new preset of that name in the current bank. You can create new banks from the Bank menu. There are always two memory settings — A and B — so you can easily compare settings when tweaking around. Clicking on the arrow button between the A and B buttons copies the current settings to the other location.
The sonic variety possible with just the simple onboard synth really is impressive, and it's not hard to grasp the controls, even in the “advanced” boxes, where a lot of sound-shaping power hides. For the oscillators, you can set the waveform to Saw, Sine, Square, Triangle, Multipulse2 or Multipulse3; adjust the PWM (pulse width modulation) and set its source to LFO1, LFO2, Noise or the other oscillator; and also adjust the FM (frequency modulation) and set its source to LFO1, LFO2, Noise or the other oscillator.
The Formant Matrix — a 22-by-22 square patch bay — is also cool. It connects any of the 22 analysis bands to any of the 22 synthesis bands. A normal vocoder would connect those bands 1-to-1, 2-to-2, etc., but ELS Vocoder's matrix lets you add or subtract all routings you want.
It makes me a little sad that when intelligent machines can finally talk, their voices will sound much more realistic than a vocoder, but that doesn't stop me from loving these things. And if you want pseudo-robot voices, ELS Vocoder will give you as many high-quality and various-sounding voices you can dream up. It's good for so much more than that, as well. If you haven't ever vocoded your drum loops, you're cheating yourself, and don't stop at drums. I recommend throwing an ELS Vocoder on your master track and soloing single tracks all up and down your sessions, just to see how different things sound. You can literally enhance your mixes into something that will fool people into thinking you're a studio genius. And if you really are a studio genius and get a hold of this, the world better watch out.
For some custom audio clips of vocals and drums going through ELS Vocoder, go towww.remixmag.com.
ELS VOCODER > $279
Pros: Excellent sound quality and some of the most intelligible vocoded voices from a plug-in. 250+ wide-ranging presets. Literally infinite possibilities.
Cons: Processor intensive. Syncrosoft USB dongle required.
Mac: 2 GHz (single processor) or 1.2 GHz (dual processor); 512 MB RAM; OS 10.3.9 or later; VST or Audio Units host; Pro Tools 7 or later for RTAS; Syncrosoft USB key
PC: 2 GHz (single processor) or 1.2 GHz (dual processor); 512 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP; VST host or Pro Tools 7 or later for RTAS; Syncrosoft USB key