SoniVox Vocalizer 1 (Mac/Win) Review

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For as long as electronic musical instrument makers have been developing new products, you''ve repeatedly heard the phrase “limited only by your imagination.” In virtually every situation, though, it''s been an exaggerated claim. Nonetheless, new and previously unheard effects are entirely possible whenever someone invents a technique for achieving them. SoniVox Vocalizer is one of those rare plug-ins that actually lets you create effects you''ve never heard before. Only occasionally do I find something that lets me generate sounds that are genuinely unique, and Vocalizer is the latest. With Vocalizer, you can make any sound musical.

SoniVox calls Vocalizer an audio input–based synthesizer. It looks very much like an instrument plug-in, but it doesn''t quite work like one. You can''t simply add an instrument track to your DAW project and start playing. Nor do you use a microphone to modulate sounds that it generates, as you might with a vocoder plug-in. Rather than producing sounds on its own, Vocalizer processes external audio signals, operating like a complex gated filter.

When you hear Vocalizer in action, your first impression is that it sounds like a vocoder. Vocoders usually work by modulating synthesizer sounds when someone speaks or sings into a microphone. Effects that use human speech as a modulator are nothing new. The vocoder and the Heil Talk Box are the best-known examples in recent years, but as far back as the 1940s, a device called (ironically enough) the Sonovox was used in films to make it appear as if musical instruments, barnyard animals, and airplanes could talk. But Vocalizer takes a different approach to audio modulation, and it does much more. It resynthesizes an audio signal''s harmonics and lets you control those harmonics by playing a MIDI keyboard.

Vocalizer is a cross-platform plug-in that runs on VST, RTAS, and AU hosts. You insert it as you would any other effects plug-in on an audio track. Then you add a MIDI track and assign it to control Vocalizer. If you play the audio track without any MIDI data to control it, no signal passes through. The processed track comes to life only when you supply the MIDI notes that trigger events and control pitch.

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FIG. 1: SoniVox Vocalizer is a one-of-a-kind plug-in that lets you musically manipulate the harmonic structure of any audio source using a MIDI controller.

synth that has front-panel functions divided into sections and an 88-note onscreen keyboard with pitch-bend and modulation wheels (see Fig. 1). Look closely, though, and you''ll realize it''s missing some essential elements, such as oscillators and envelope generators. On the lower left is a filter section with its own LFO, and on the upper right are delay and chorus effects. Below the effects is a 4-band EQ providing fixed lowpass and highpass filters and two fully parametric bands you can tune to any audible frequency.

Above the controls are a stereo bar graph to monitor input level, a display that shows the current patch name, and a button to specify maximum polyphony— from four to 16 voices in one-voice increments. Three additional buttons let you load and save patches. All sections except the filter have blue onscreen LEDs you can click to disable that section and conserve computing power. You get sliders for audio input and output levels, and portamento that glides between MIDI notes. Portamento is monophonic, so when it''s engaged, you should avoid playing chords if you want predictable results. Where you''d expect to see the oscillator section are controls for two Harmonic Voices—the Primary Voice (PV) and the Secondary Voice—each with its own Volume slider. Unlike oscillators, though, Harmonic Voices produce no sound without an audio track to process. The Primary Voice''s Spread knob controls the concentration of odd and even harmonics, and the MIDI notes being played determine the fundamental frequencies at any given moment. Turning the knob clockwise increases even-harmonic intensity, and turning it counterclockwise increases odd-harmonic intensity. The center position allows the signal to pass without boosting or cutting harmonics. The Scale knob shifts the pitch of the harmonics by octaves relative to the fundamental, and the Position knob shifts their pitch within the selected octave range. If Scale is set to zero, however, the pitch is an octave lower than when it''s set for other ranges. All three knobs—Spread, Scale, and Position—are duplicated in a second row, which either reinforces or weakens the harmonics determined by the first row. Setting the Spread knobs for both rows at either extreme will quickly cause a feedback overload and could damage your monitors; SoniVox should warn users about this risk.

The Secondary Voice has a more direct effect on pitch. Using its Coarse and Fine Tune knobs, you can raise or lower the fundamental frequency by as much as an octave.

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FIG. 2: Dual left and right delays allow you to independently set their delay times and sync them to tempo by beat divisions.

The PV Filter affects only the Primary Voice. You can choose from five filter types: three lowpass, one highpass, and two disperse filters, which appear to be allpass filters that improve performance with pitched audio sources. Knobs control filter frequency, resonance, saturation, and velocity modulation depth. A dedicated LFO offers depth and rate controls. Because the LFO rate goes up to 20kHz, you could do some real damage applying frequency modulation with the LP-Synthy filter response. When I say damage, I mean that literally, so turn down the volume before you increase the LFO rate. Delay and chorus parameters are straightforward and comprehensive. The dual-tap panning delay has its own separate lowpass and highpass filters, so you could set up bandpass and bandreject responses, if you like. You can independently set the delays to sync to tempo in multiples of a beat, from 1/64 notes to whole notes (see Fig. 2). The chorus effect has its own delay settings, too. You adjust the onscreen knobs by clicking and dragging your mouse in a circular motion. Because I prefer dragging up and down to change parameter values, I wish you could toggle the knob response between circular and linear motion.

Using Vocalizer is not terribly complicated, but it''s difficult to predict how different settings will sound; it doesn''t help that documentation is somewhat incomplete. Other than a Quick Start Guide that explains how to install, authorize, and set up the plug-in within most popular DAWs, no manual is available. Instead, you get a series of video clips, and most of those simply duplicate the information in the Quick Start Guide. The longest clip (about seven minutes) demonstrates exactly what you can do with Vocalizer. It''s terrific for inspiring ideas, but only two brief clips tell you anything about how to use the controls. I can understand why Vocalizer is easier to explain visually than in text, but I still wanted some kind of reference manual to provide more details about certain functions—voice parameters and disperse filtering, in particular.

Vocalizer''s documentation is regrettably incomplete, and many concepts will leave you scratching your head. As it is, you''ll need to spend some time exploring and experimenting, which is probably the best approach to learning Vocalizer, anyway. Fortunately, SoniVox has pledged to update their online documentation by the time you read this.

Any audio works as source material, though voice and rhythm tracks usually yield the most immediately satisfying results (see Web Clip 1). Surprisingly, the best material for pitched music is unpitched audio such as white noise. In fact, the noisier the signal, the easier it is to turn unpitched recordings into melodies and harmonies (see Web Clip 2). That''s because white noise contains all frequencies, and Vocalizer filters out any frequencies it doesn''t need to play whatever pitches are left, in response to the MIDI notes you play.

One aspect of Vocalizer I especially enjoyed was being able to harmonize anything. You can control the pitch of any sound, whether it''s a runaway train or a singing bird, and create multiple harmonies in real time simply by playing them on a MIDI keyboard (see Web Clip 3). The plug-in comes with several folders full of factory patches organized according to their suggested uses. I got reasonably good results processing entire mixes with Vocalizer, but the greatest versatility came from processing whispered vocals. The most exciting aspect of the onscreen controls is that they all respond to DAW automation. That means you can tweak the knobs in real time and animate your sound in all kinds of ways.

Just think what you could do if Vocalizer had envelope generators. Envelopes would not only serve their traditional function of controlling filter frequency, but they could also be used as control sources for automating other parameters in ways that would repeat with every MIDI note you played.

I could quite easily imagine Vocalizer forming the basis for some future hit song, perhaps even catapulting the plug-in into public consciousness (like Auto-Tune). Until or unless that happens, you have the opportunity to make Vocalizer your own secret weapon. Watch SoniVox''s video demo and see if it gives you any bright ideas.

Former EM senior editor Geary Yelton is always looking for new ways to make noise.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Vocalizer product page.