Review: Roland VP-03 Vocoder - EMusician

Review: Roland VP-03 Vocoder

A portable vocoder with vintage string and voice timbres
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When I heard Roland was doing a Boutique makeover of the legendary VP-330 Vocoder Plus, my heart began racing. The VP-330 was used by bands ranging from The Cars to Tangerine Dream, and despite never owning one, I could spot its sound a mile away.

Like the other Roland Boutique modules, the VP-03 Vocoder is an uncanny re-creation of its predecessor. The ten-band vocoder is identical in sound to the SVC-350, one of the most popular rackmount vocoders of all time, and is accompanied by two types of analog choirs and a string section. This may not seem like much, but as an integrated instrument, the VP-03’s quirky old-school architecture gives it a sound that is both lush and instantly recognizable.

The VP-03 Vocoder includes a step sequencer, chord memory, standard MIDI I/O, and USB connectivity.

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The module includes a pair of ribbon controllers, one of which offers traditional pitch bend, while the other gives you control over pitch shift, a parameter available on the VP-330.

The Boutique treatment also means that the VP-03 is extremely portable, with a sturdy metal chassis and the ability run on USB bus power or four AA batteries. And, of course, the instrument is compatible with the optional K-25 keyboard controller/dock. A mini gooseneck microphone and an extra pop screen are included with the VP-03.

The choir and string levels are freely mixable, with independent attack parameters and a shared release parameter that governs both. The release segment is part of what gives the VP-03 an identifiable sound. Unlike a traditional release that fades in a linear manner, the VP-03’s release has an almost exponential curve (or two distinct segments with a breakpoint between them). The effect is eerily similar to a reverb in a very cool way. The string section also has its own tone parameter, which functions more like a treble control than a filter.

Even by today’s standards, the analog choirs are a knockout. New Wave fans will recognize the male voices from countless ’80s tracks. When combined with the female voices, the result is evocative of the Mellotron choir—a neat trick for any era. The Ensemble effect is always on for the strings, but switchable for the choirs. It’s watery and warm, with plenty of animation that works well with the global vibrato and pitch-sweep feature that bends notes upward.

While the strings and voices may be the bigger draw for the vintage-synth crowd, the vocoder is going to blow away electronic and dance-music fans of all types. The only adjustable parameters are mic volume and a tone control, which adds a bit of dry signal through a highpass filter to emphasize consonants and plosives. But that’s fine with me, because the vocoder sounds spectacular. And ten bands is more than enough for intelligibility, positioning the VP-03 nicely for the current synthwave resurgence.

With all this vintage-style goodness going on, it’s easy to overlook the VP-03’s integrated step sequencer and chord memory features, which make it easy to comp string pads with one finger while you focus on soloing. As with the other Boutiques, programming the VP-03 is fairly easy once you get the hang of it.

As a whole, the VP-03’s vintage-sounding strings and choir are lush, while the vocoder really stands the test of time and will quickly find new converts. Roland took a chance in reissuing such a niche instrument, but unless I’m mistaken, it’s going to be hit. The VP-03 is an absolute must-have for both vocoder users and synth nerds.

STRENGTHS
Integrated 10-band vocoder. Flawless re-creation of Roland’s iconic choirs and strings. Microphone included. MIDI and audio over USB.

LIMITATIONS
Programming sequences and chord memories requires a trip to the manual.

$349
roland.com

Producer Francis Prève has been designing synthesizer presets professionally since 2000. Check out his new soundware company at symplesound.com.