As I covered in my overview on what is a vocoder, a vocoder is a special type of vocal processing which synthesizes a vocal with an instrument. The vocal triggers the instruments behavior like a gate opening and closing, and while that vocal is playing, you can use the instrument to play back the synthesized voice using the instrument. You can use this effect to achieve a number of different aesthetic results and to create some ear candy in your mix. Let’s talk how to use a vocoder in Ableton, though this process will apply to any DAW you use.
How to Use a Vocoder in Ableton
Like many DAWs, Ableton has a built in vocoder plugin. Let’s cover how to use a vocoder in Ableton, so open your live set with the vocal you want to process.
Step 1 – Drop Vocoder on Your Vocal Track
Drop Ableton Live’s stock vocoder on your vocal first.
If you want to blend this track in alongside a clean version of your vocal, you can duplicate your vocal and drop the vocoder plugin on that.
Note there’s a “Wet” knob, so technically you can just use that, but I prefer to keep my vocoded vocal on a separate track to further process it and keep my main vocal completely clean.
At this point, you can play the vocal as is and get some results by switching the “Carrier” menu between “Noise”, “Modulator”, and “Pitch Tracking”.
We’ll be using an external instrument, so set this to “External”. We’ll specify the “Audio From” track in a moment. Let’s set that up now.
Step 2 – Create an Instrument on a New Track With Midi
This instrument will be used as the “Carrier” and will dictate the behavior of the vocoder.
I recommend a saw wave to start with as this creates a classic vocoded sound you can do a lot with.
I just did a search in Ableton’s instrument bank and went with the Bright Saw Lead which works well for this:
Name this track something you can remember, like “Vocoder Trigger” or “Vocoder Carrier”.
Create a one to four bar melody which aligns with a point at which the vocal track is playing.
Try something simple at first in the key of your song, like one long note per beat or bar. We’ll use this to get a feel for the vocoder and adjust the vocoder’s settings.
Step 3 – Set Up Vocoder
Loop the section of the song you just created midi for when that vocal is playing, and solo the vocoder and instrument tracks.
Going back to our vocal, select the track you just set up and named as the “Audio From” track.
You should be hearing the vocal playing through the vocoder now.
From here there are a lot of options to adjust on the vocoder.
EQ – The window in the middle acts as an EQ/filter for the vocoded signal. You can leave all frequency points at the same volume or you can filter out lower and higher frequencies like I have shown here (as I prefer).
Bands – Switching this between 4 and 40 bands gives the vocoded signal more or less texture and detail.
Range – The range is essentially setting a high and low pass filter for the vocoder.
BW – BW is the bandwidth. Setting this at the lowest point significantly reduces the playable frequencies.
Gate – Sets up a threshold the level must meet to trigger the vocoder.
Level – Boost or attenuate the volume of the vocoded audio.
Depth – Determines how much of the modulator’s amplitude envelope is applied to the carrier’s signal. Generally you want to leave this where it’s at for the best results.
Attack – Determines how quickly the vocoder enforces volume changes from the vocal source. Setting this to the minimum of 1ms keeps the vocoder responsive.
Release – Determines how quickly the amplitude decays and resets. Similar to the attack, setting this too long will give you more of a blob of sound, ignoring the dynamics of the vocal itself. 150ms works well to keep it responsive.
Formant – This changes the timbre of the vocoder, kind of like a filter to thin or thicken the tone.
Dry/Wet – Just that, a dry/wet knob if you want to blend some dry vocal with the vocoded vocal. As I mentioned before, I prefer to keep my vocoded track on its own track to process it separately and blend it alongside the totally clean vocal.
Now that you’ve got your vocoded vocal, you can process it further, blend it alongside the main vocal or use it as the lead or just use it as a bit of ear candy now and then.