Ableton's Vocoder; a versatile powerhouse.

Posted by James Cullen on

Vocoders are typically used on vocals, right?

Sure, when we think of a Vocoder it's easy to mentally play Daft Punk in our minds, hearing that stereotypical vocoder sound that we're all so familiar with. But it turns out that you can do a lot more with the Vocoder in Ableton Live, applying it across a range of situations to create some really cool effects.

So, in this guide we're going to give a bit of an overview of Ableton's Vocoder, and some of the creative ways you can apply it in your music making.

So let's jump right in!


What is a Vocoder?

A Vocoder is traditionally an effect which allows you to reshape the harmonic structure of a sound, so that it ends up sounding similar to another sound. 

When you think of the classic 'talking robot' sound, that's created by using a vocoder.

Vocoders analyse the sound of a modulator signal, which is usually (but not always) a human voice. It's then split into many frequency bands, and the level of each of these is sent as a signal to a corresponding bandpass filter.

Then, a sound source called the carrier is sent through the bank of filters.

The level of each bandpass filter is automatically adjusted to that of the corresponding frequency in the modulator signal, which means the carrier signal is filtered so that the harmonic content that passes through it is similar to the original modulator signal.

Now, that all sounds pretty complex, and it is, so let's simplify it a little bit.

You're taking the sonic information from one piece of audio, and then adding the sonic characteristics of another piece of audio, and using the Vocoder to blend them together.

This is how a classic Vocoder effect is used; taking the information of a human voice and adding to it the characteristics from a synthesiser too. 

But this is far from the only way you can use a Vocoder to get some really cool effects, so let's dive into how you can use Ableton's Vocoder effect to add all sorts of creative experimentation to your music!


Getting creative.

One of the coolest things you can do with a Vocoder is use it on drums or rhythmic pieces.

If you have sample packs full of percussive loops, this can be a great way to use some of those loops in your music without it being obvious that it's a particular loop you've used. 

Some producers feel like using loops is cheating (I disagree), but this can help mitigate that feeling if you're just using the loop through a vocoder.

So, the first thing you need to do is find a cool loop that you like the rhyhmic qualities of, and drag it onto an audio track.

 When considering your rhythmic loop, it's important to remember that applying the vocoder will be using the amplitude, taking the peaks and troughs from that loop to create rhythmic patterns with a new sound.

So be sure to pick one with some exciting and interesting rhythms. As you can see in the image to the left, the loop I'm using has a nice mixture of peaks and troughs.


Once you've got a loop you're happy with, apply a Vocoder to the channel, with the Carrier set as Noise. This means that the Vocoder will replace the sound with noise, which can give a really cool modular sounding rhythmic tone. 

So what's cool here is we are using the Vocoder's internal noise generator to react to the amplitude of our drum signal.

We can then use the controls within the Vocoder to adjust the timbre of the sound.

So let's explore what these controls do.

 Vocoder's Controls

- When Noise is selected, there's an X/Y display shown below it. This allows you to adjust the character of the noise.

The horizontal axis adjusts downsampling, which means if you click and drag to the left, you will decrease the sample rate of the audio. 

The vertical axis adjusts the density of the noise, so dragging downwards decreases the density, while upwards increases it. Change the position of the node to adjust the sound to your liking.

- You can use the Unvoiced to adjust the volume of an additional noise generator, which is used to resynthesize the portions of the modulator signal which aren't usually pitched, which in a vocal would be f or s sounds. 

Essentially, this adds some nice high end characteristics to the sound.

Sens sets the sensitivity of the unvoiced detection algorithm, and you can adjust this to balance between 100% with the Unvoiced generator always on, while 0% means only the carrier signal is used.

The main interface in the middle of the Vocoder shows the individual bandpass filters, and clicking in this area allows you to attenuate the levels of each band.

You'll notice the Bands control, which allows you adjust the amount of filters that will be used. If you use more, it will result in a more accurate analysis of the modulator's frequency content, with fewer bands giving a more lo-fi sound. Bear in mind that the higher the amount of bands, the more it will tax your CPU.

The Range sliders allow you to adjust the frequency range over which the bandpass filters are going to be operating, so you can fine tune the frequencies your vocoder will be applying its effects onto.

For most sources, a large range works well, but you may want to adjust the edges if a sound becomes too bassy or the high end is too piercing. The BW control is the bandwidth for the filters, with lower percentages being a single frequency, and increasing this control increases the overlap between the filer bands. 

The Precise/Retro switch changes between two types of filter behaviour. In Precise mode, all filters have the same amount of gain and bandwidth. In Retro, bands become narrower and louder at higher frequencies.

Gate sets a threshold for the filterbank, so any bands whose levels are below the threshold will be silent. Level slider boosts or cuts the output of Vocoder.

Now, they're the more fine-tuning related controls, but the ones on the right hand panel can be where you can get even more adjustments to the overall timbre of the output of Vocoder.

 Depth sets how much of the modulator signal's amplitude envelope is applied to the carrier signal. At 0%, you won't be getting any of the modulator's envelope, while at the opposite end of 200%, only the high amplitude peaks will be used. At 100%, you get the 'classic' vocoding effect.

The Attack and Release controls are -as you'd expect- related to how fast of slow the Vocoder will respond to amplitude changes. Fast times will preserve the transients most, but it's worth being aware that this can cause distortion artefacts.

Using the Mono, Stereo and L/R controls, you can choose how the Vocoder treats the modulator and carrier signals. In Mono, both signals are treated as Mono, while in Stereo, you're using a mono modulator but processing the carrier in stereo. The L/R mode processes both signals as Stereo.

The Formant knob is one that can be used to change the sound in quite an obvious and sometimes drastic way; shift it up and down to adjust the frequencies of the carrier's filterbank. When you're using a voice as the modulator, the Formant control can change the apparent gender of the source.

Taking things further.

So that was an overview of the controls within Vocoder which will allow you to fine tune the overall timbre of the sound coming out of it. Applying it to a drum or percussion loop as we discussed above, and then using the controls adjust the timbre can create a wide range of interesting results.

But there's even more you can do.

Check out the image above.

I'm using the same percussion loop, but if you check out the routing in the Vocoder, I've got it set to External, which means instead of using the internal Noise generator as we did before, we will be replacing the sound of the percussion with another sound.

This works similarly to noise gating, in that you're triggering audio using the transients of another piece of audio. 

The beauty of this technique is that you can use any piece of audio you like. I've used a synth pad, which creates a really nice rhythmic bit of ambience using the tonality and harmony from the pad, but with the amplitudes from the percussion loop.

Another thing you can do with Vocoder is use it simply as an audio effect.

If you change the Carrier mode to Modulator, then it will allow you to use all of the controls we discussed above but just as an audio effect on the channel you load Vocoder onto. 

This can be really cool for layering sounds, especially drum loops; you can layer things up and use some of the interesting formant and filter shifting effects in Vocoder to change the timbre of an audio sample.


Vocoder is versatile and amazing.

The above uses for Ableton's Vocoder are only scratching the surface in terms of its functionality. The examples were specific, so even applying the techniques I mentioned up above across different contexts in your music will results in drastically different sounds.

That's one of the great things about this type of effect. Once you learn the theory behind applying it, you can create virtually infinite possibilities when using it in your music.

So hopefully you got something out of this guide, I've been really enjoying using Vocoder recently to add some unique timbres and sounds into my tracks, and now you can use the techniques too!


Thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts, and while you're here, be sure to check out our Ableton Project Templates, which you can download and dig into to see how a professionally produced track is put together. Our team of producers spans the globe, and they're working to recreate chart topping EDM tunes so you can download them and see the techniques which make a successful track. Check out our deals now!

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