Native Instruments' Vokator is a virtual vocoder and a bit more. It does traditional modulator-carrier vocoding, but it also offers alternative vocoding modes, patch morphing, and interesting effects. If robotic voices are your thing, or if you get a charge out of cross-pollinating drum loops and synth pads, then you're in for some fun.
Vokator comes from the same gene pool as Spektral Delay, and it offers some of the same sound-sculpting tools. In the Native Instruments tradition, it lets you use MIDI controllers to tweak almost everything in real time. Vokator features two built-in synthesizers, and its vocoder section is highly configurable (see Fig. 1).
Vokator operates as a standalone program or as a plug-in. It supports most Windows and Mac audio systems, including DirectSound, ASIO, Sound Manager, and CoreAudio. Plug-in support includes VST 2.0, DXi II, and Audio Units (RTAS support is forthcoming). Operating system support ranges from Windows 98 to XP and from Mac OS 9.2 to OS X 10.2. Vokator is a power-hungry instrument, so plan on having plenty of CPU cycles available for its consumption. One of my test beds was a Celeron/1 GHz notebook with 512 MB of RAM, and when processing one audio track through its internal synthesizer under Logic 5.5, Vokator choked repeatedly. (According to Native Instruments, a Pentium III's RAM cache is four times as large as a Celeron's and would result in much better performance.) A Mac G4/733 MHz running OS X fared better.
Like a traditional vocoder, Vokator allows you to modulate one audio source with another. The traditional roles of modulator and carrier, however, are much more complex in Vokator's signal flow. The program provides multiple choices for exactly what those sources will be, lets you choose how they interact, and then gives you various options for modulating and processing the output. You can use Input A to modulate Input B, or vice versa. Each can pass unaffected by the other, or you can blend them in different ways.
Input A can be either a live audio input or a file player (called Tape) that you might use to trigger spoken-word samples or drum loops. You can loop or trigger the file using MIDI input, and you can change the loop points with a couple of mouse clicks.
Before being processed by Input B, Input A passes through its own dynamics, delay, and spectral effects. The dynamics processor has a simple gate and a More function that acts as a look-ahead normalizer. The delay can sync to either Vokator's internal tempo or the host application's tempo. I can't easily describe the spectral effects — from Jello Mold to Lime Twist — but each offers a novel approach to sonic manipulation.
Input B can carry a live audio input or a signal from one of the two built-in synthesizers. It features the same type of dynamics, delay, and spectral processing as Input A.
Oscillator Synthesizer is a 2-oscillator analog-modeling synth with a multimode filter and an ADSR generator. The waveform's shape can be varied continuously from sine to triangle to pulse to noise, with independent control over symmetry. Frequency and ring modulation are offered as well. Wave Synthesizer is a granular sample-based type, offering independent control over the sample's speed and pitch. Wave Synthesizer supports WAV, AIFF, and SDII files and benefits from the same multimode filter and envelope generator as the analog-modeling synthesizer.
The synths also have an LFO, chorus, arpeggiator, and onscreen keyboard section. In addition to the obvious use of triggering notes with a mouse in lieu of a MIDI keyboard, the keyboard has 12 chord-memory presets that you can trigger with the mouse, MIDI, or one of the two built-in step sequencers. Both synthesizers feature preset morphing. You can load as many as five different patches as a “morph,” and then each parameter will slide gradually from one setting to the next in response to a slider that you can control with CC 1 (Mod Wheel; see Fig. 2).
PHASE THE MUSIC
Vokator uses phase vocoding, a resynthesis technique that employs Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) to reduce a sound to its essential frequency and phase information. You can choose to use 128, 256, 512, or 1,024 frequency bands, with the expected trade-off of smoother vocoding for higher CPU load. For a more traditional vocoder sound, bands can be grouped together, effectively reducing the resolution to 4, 8, 16, 20, 24, or 32 bands.
Interestingly, the number of bands you select affects the latency of Vokator's output. That is not typical of plug-ins, which ordinarily require a fixed host buffer of sufficient size to allow time for processing. Vokator takes a different approach, increasing its own latency as necessary to crunch the numbers. Choosing fewer bands, grouping them, or choosing a lower sampling rate for Vokator's audio processing can buy you enough CPU cycles to reduce the latency. (For that matter, even hiding parts of the user interface helps free up system resources and improve performance.) Latency on my Celeron was far too high for critical real-time performance except when I ran Vokator in standalone mode; on the G4, it was manageable.
Fortunately, Vokator features a Live mode that reduces latency. It does, however, bump up the demand on CPU resources, so you'll probably use it primarily for live performance. Keep in mind that Vokator is just as useful for manipulating loops, ambience, and existing audio tracks as it is for on-the-fly vocoding, so even if you have a slower computer, you can still get a lot of mileage out of it.
Vokator's user interface is simple and straightforward, presenting a lot of information very efficiently, especially considering the number of variables over which you have control. You can select exactly which modules you want to see at any given time, but it takes well over a thousand pixels of screen height to show everything at once. Right-clicking (Control-clicking on a Mac) on almost any control enables a learn function that attaches the next MIDI controller received to that control.
You can load samples, presets, morph presets, or snapshots from cascading menus that appear when you click or right-click in the appropriate places. The menus are a nice alternative to dialog boxes, which might otherwise slow down the process of auditioning sounds and samples. The controls of the oscillators, filter, and envelope are presented in a square around the module's display; although it takes some getting used to, that arrangement is quite efficient.
The output display shows a real-time frequency analysis with a simple line over it (see Fig. 3). Control-click (right-click on a PC) on any point on the line, and you can create an EQ curve and adjust it in real time — it doesn't get any easier than that. Unfortunately, you can't assign MIDI controllers to the breakpoints, and you can't automate the adjustments.
TALK TO ME
Calling Vokator a vocoder is a lot like calling James Bond's Aston Martin a car. It's not an inaccurate description; it's merely an inadequate one. Vokator has so many excellent features that you may forget about making robotic voices entirely. I actually found using the program for manipulating drum loops and ambient pads more interesting than using it for traditional vocoding.
If you love to sweep filters, mangle vocals, grunge up drum tracks, and generally tweak things obsessively, then you're going to love Vokator. The possibilities for sonic manipulation are enormous. You can drag breakpoints in the output display, twist either input's spectral effects knobs, or morph between presets with your mod wheel. Mysterious ambiences, sci-fi creature voices, and dreamy soundscapes are a snap with Vokator's granular synthesis and configurable vocoding structure. You can achieve a tremendous range of effects, from clearly articulated words to utter mayhem, and you can also find a way to move smoothly between them.
Despite the many benefits Vokator offers, however, it does take quite a bit of tweaking to get a traditional talking-synthesizer vocoder sound. The analog synth doesn't sound especially fat, and although it is very malleable, all its sounds are rather similar. The granular sample-based synth is better suited for creatively mangling sound than for creating carrier waves that support articulate vocoding. If you have a sufficiently powerful computer, though, you can easily run your favorite soft synth through Input B's live feed to serve as a carrier.
Vokator combines an impressive arsenal of sound-sculpting tools with an accessible user interface. Native Instruments has included numerous presets, morphs, and samples to serve as examples and inspiration. The four-language (English, German, French, and Spanish) manual is useful and detailed, though the English translation leaves a little to be desired in spots. Clearly, a lot of imagination went into Vokator's design. It is tough to imagine what else you'd want in a software vocoder.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: G3/500 MHz (G4/733 MHz recommended); 128 MB RAM (512 MB RAM recommended); Mac OS 9.2 or OS X 10.2
PC: Pentium III/800 MHz (Pentium IV or Athlon/1.2 GHz recommended); 128 MB RAM (256 MB RAM recommended); Windows 98
FEATURES4.5EASE OF USE4.0DOCUMENTATION3.5VALUE4.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Flexible vocoder routing. Extensive modulation and processing possibilities. Support for many different audio engines and plug-in formats. Highly controllable. MIDI learn function. Preset morphing.
CONS: Can't fit all controls onscreen simultaneously. Heavy demands on CPU, especially RAM cache. Manual's English translation is spotty. Uninspired synthesis capabilities.