How To Use A Vocoder In Ableton Live

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Vocoders make voices sound robotic, drums sound melodic, and everything else sound really hypnotic. Vocoders are used by almost every major electronic musician. So how do they work and how can you use them? Read on.

To follow this lesson you will need:

  1. Ableton Live Logo (small)Ableton Live (or any other VST Host if you are familiar with its audio routing features)
  2. Orange Vocoder VST Screenshot Orange Vocoder – An excellent VST vocoder. Click here to get Orange Vocoder. Alternatively, you can use a free VST vocoder from MDA-VST. Click here to get the free MDA Vocoder. A free Mac OS X Universal Binary vocoder is also available. Click here to download it.

Part 1: Vocoder Background

The use of vocoders is most easily recognized when you hear a robotic-sounding voice. Here are some short MP3 files created using a vocoder:

Vocoder Sample – Transformers

Vocoder Sample – Mr. Roboto

Here is the famous drum loop named the ‘Amen Break’ after it was processed by a vocoder:

Vocoder Sample – Amen Break

There are other ways to produce robot-like voices and singing drums, but the vocoder is by far the most common. For an in-depth look into the history and structure of the vocoder, click here to visit the Vocoder Wikipedia Article.

Part 2: Vocoder Basics

A modern vocoder combines two audio sources to produce a third “blended” sound. Usually, one of the input sounds is produced using a synthesizer while the other sound is recorded from a microphone. This is because a microphone-recorded sound almost always has lots of variety in it like volume and pitch changes. If you blend two sounds that have a lot of variety, the vocoded output will sound “bad”. In this case, sounding “bad” means that the original microphone-recorded input cannot be distinguished by the listener. However, a synthesizer can produce extremely regular, unvaried sounds. So, for this reason a synthesizer is a good choice to use with a vocoder.

The two audio inputs used in a vocoder are called a carrier and modulator. The carrier is your synthesizer sound and the modulator is the microphone-recorded input. A common vocoder problem is caused by routing your mic input to the carrier input and your synthesizer to the modulator input.

You should also know that certain carriers (i.e. synth sounds) work much better than others. Playing chords usually sounds better than single notes. Synth patches with a long sustain sound better than those that end quickly. Synth patches that hold consistent tones sound better than those that change volume or frequency.

Also, certain modulators work better than others. By far, the most common modulator is a vocal recording. Singing and speech sound great when vocoded. If you want to be able to clearly understand the vocoder’s output, try using vocals that are spoken or sung at a slow tempo. Drums and percussion instruments also work well as a modulator. Bass, woodwinds, guitars, etc. might benefit from vocoding. But, it takes a lot of experimentation to get it right.

That’s enough theory, now you’re ready to start playing!

Part 3: Modulator Signal Preparation

Setting up the carrier and modulator inputs requires some tricky audio routing. The vocoder expects the modulator input to be panned hard left and the carrier input to be panned hard right. Here is how you do that in Ableton Live.

Once you have installed Orange Vocoder, go ahead and start up Ableton Live. Once Live is loaded, go to Arrangement View and make sure there is just one audio track available. Rename this track modulator. (See the screenshot below.)

Vocoder Tutorial - Live Startup

This track will provide the audio for the modulator signal to the vocoder. Right-click on the link below and save it to your Desktop. The link is a short WAV file of man saying “thirty-one seconds”. Drag the WAV file from your Desktop into the track labeled modulator.

Speech Sample – Thirty One Seconds WAV

Now drag your loop marker to bar 2. Also, change your tempo to 165.00. (See the screenshot below.)

Vocoder Tutorial - Live Setup

Also, make sure that looping is still turned on. You can tell by looking for the lit-up cycle button. (The cycle button is shown above the words “Loop Marker” in the screenshot above).

When you press play, you should hear a man speaking “thirty one seconds” over and over until you press stop.

Good! Your modulator signal is prepared for vocoding. Now you need to setup the carrier signal.

Part 4: Carrier Signal Preparation

Remember that the carrier signal for a vocoder is usually provided by a synthesizer. For this tutorial you will be using a WAV file of a hard synth sound. Optionally, you could you use a VST synthesizer such as Synth1 to produce the carrier signal.

Create a new audio track and rename it to carrier. This track will provide the audio for the carrier signal to the vocoder.

Right-click on the link below and save it to your Desktop. The link is a short WAV file of hard synth sound. Drag the WAV file from your Desktop into the track labeled carrier.

Hard Synth Carrier WAV

Now you are ready to setup the vocoder. If you are stuck, try referencing the screenshot below.

Vocoder Tutorial - After Adding the Modulator Track

Part 5: Vocoder Preparation

Now pressing play causes you to hear the hard synth sound playing on top of the “thirty one seconds” vocal sample. Naturally, you need to add the Orange Vocoder plugin before the two sounds will combine together. You can either add the vocoder to an audio track or a return track. For this tutorial, you will add the vocoder to an audio track.

Insert a new audio track and rename it to vocoder. On the left side of your Ableton Live window there is an icon shaped like a plug. This is the Plugin Device Browser. Click on the plug icon to open the Plugin Device Browser. Find the Orange Vocoder plugin in the list. Double-click on OrangeVocoder to add it to the track labeled vocoder.

You should see the Orange Vocoder window appear. There is only one change you need to make to Orange Vocoder. On the right side of the window, find the green button beside the words “Use Synth”. Inside Orange Vocoder, click off the “Use Synth” button. After that, you can close the Orange Vocoder window.

The “Use Synth” button inside Orange Vocoder provides an internal carrier signal. However, using your own carrier signal gives you a lot more control over how the final vocoded audio will sound. That is why this tutorial teaches you how to use your own carrier signal.

If you are stuck, try referencing the screenshot below for help.

Vocoder Tutorial - Orange Vocoder Settings

Part 6: Audio Routing

Now that the modulator signal, carrier signal, and vocoder are all prepared, the last step is to route the audio properly.

The vocoder only has one audio input. So how can you get both the carrier signal and the modulator signal into the vocoder? The trick is to send the carrier and modulator signal down the same stereo wire! Use the left channel for the modulator and the right channel for the carrier.

Ableton Live makes panning very easy. First, find the modulator track. Now look directly underneath the record enable icon. The box with the 0 in it is the panning for the modulator track. Click in the modulator’s panning box and type -50. This pans the modulator track hard left. Second, find the carrier track. Click in the carrier’s panning box and type 50. This pans the carrier track hard right.

Now the audio from the modulator and carrier both need to go to the vocoder. On the modulator track, find the monitoring buttons labeled “In”, “Auto”, and “Off”. Underneath those buttons you should see an Output drop-down box with the word “Master” in it. Click on the modulator’s Output box and select 3-vocoder. Now the audio from the modulator track is being bussed to the vocoder’s input. Next, find the carrier track. Click on the carrier’s Output box and select 3-vocoder. The audio from the carrier track is now also being bussed to the same vocoder input.

Since you want to hear what is being sent into the vocoder and processed, you need to turn on monitoring for the vocoder track. Find the vocoder track’s three monitoring buttons labeled “In”, “Auto”, and “Off”. Click on the vocoder track’s “In” monitoring button.

That’s it! When you press play you should hear the words “thirty-one seconds” vocoded with the hard synth sound. If you don’t, try referencing the screenshot below. Alternatively, click here to download the finished Ableton Live Arrangement using the Orange Vocoder. Or, click the following link to download the Ableton Live Arrangement for the mda Vocoder. Be sure to read the included instruction text file. Click here to download the Ableton Live Arrangement using the mda Vocoder.

Vocoder Tutorial - Routing Setup

Part 7: Conclusion

Vocoders allow for amazing sonic experimentation. Try changing the carrier signal to strings, brass, bass, a synth pad, or something wild. Also, definitely try plugging in a microphone and vocoding your own voice. The possibilities are endless!

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. If you have any questions or comments, please post a message on the SonicTransfer Forums. Click here to visit the SonicTransfer forums.

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Happy Producing!

Matt Sonic


SonicTransfer now has even more tips for using the Orange Vocoder. Click here to read More Orange Vocoder Tips.

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