Native Instruments Vokator

Aug 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By John McJunkin

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Virtual Vocoder/Processor/Synth/Sampler

Today, improved technology has resulted in much more powerful vocoders than their disco/new wave-era counterparts ever hoped to be. Modern digital vocoding relies on the Fast Fourier Transform, and only recently have consumer computers had the horsepower to accomplish this analysis in real time, enabling high-quality live vocoding. Priced at $299, Native Instruments' Vokator PC/Mac software is a quantum leap forward in this regard. Computer-based, real-time vocoding has been around for a while, but Vokator is an order of greater magnitude in terms of quality and power, particularly for live use.

VOCODING AND PLENTY MORE

Vokator is more than just a vocoder: It includes a nice, virtual, subtractive analog synthesizer and a sample playback unit that includes “granular synthesis features.” It allows flexible signal routing and mixing that's not seen in other vocoders. In Vokator, “A” is the microphone input and “B” is the other input that is traditionally used for a synth or guitar. The A*B mode is the traditional vocoder setup, but a B*A mode is brought up by simply pressing a button; no repatching is required. Mix mode allows mixing and panning of A*B and B*A modes simultaneously, but severely taxes the CPU. There is an A+B mode that simply passes both inputs un-vocoded to the final mixing stage, and dynamics and “spectral” processing can be applied to each input distinctly. Group mode simulates a traditional analog bandpass vocoder by combining user-specified frequency bands into envelope control for user-specified bands in the other channel.

With Vokator's I/O, live vocoding with both signals provided externally is a snap. On the other hand, input A can be driven by an internal file-playback unit, which the GUI refers to as “tape playback.” Likewise, the B input can be fed with Vokator's full-featured onboard synth or sampler. The powerful synth has tremendously flexible modulation routing and continuously variable modulation between its four available waveforms.

The signals can be routed directly to the outputs, providing a hard bypass of the vocoder engine. Otherwise, both A and B inputs can be routed through their own signal chain, consisting of dynamics processing, delay, FFT and “spectral effects,” which is NI's proprietary special effects processing.

This processor offers some truly wild mathematical signal twisting, especially with programs named Jello Mold, Time Sponge, Foam, Lime Twist and Horse Tail. At this stage, the signal has not yet even reached the vocoder, which is the next stop. After vocoding, there is another compression stage. Finally, the output is visually represented by the amplitude vs. frequency Spectral Output display, which also presents the Breakpoint Editor. This allows drawing a curve that visually represents the vocoder's spectral output, essentially a graphic equalizer. Resynthesis via inverse FFT is the last stage prior to the final mix.

Vokator provides MIDI sync, so most parameters can be locked with an external sequencer, yielding some interesting results. Vokator also includes a simple multiple-step, analog-style internal sequencer. The synth section includes chord memory (great for live vocoding) and an arpeggiator. You can morph from one synth patch to another, resulting in some astonishing effects with voice, percussion and other instruments. Nice features like these help put Vokator ahead of other computer vocoders.

OVERHEAD UNDER THE HOOD

Vokator has issues with computer overhead: It's a CPU hog. My G4/400 couldn't handle it. Even after allocating over 700 MB of RAM to Vokator, my Mac choked and sputtered. My 1.533GHz Athlon easily handled the application. NI recommends a G4/733 with 512 MB of RAM for Mac users; for Windows, you'll want a Pentium III or 4; Celeron, Athlon or Duron running at 1.2 GHz or faster; and at least 256 MB of RAM optimized for your computer. VST, MAS, Audio Units, DXi II, ASIO, Soundmanager and Core Audio interfaces are supported.

There are workarounds that will help with respect to the CPU challenges. Spectral resolution used internally by Vokator is adjustable from 1,024 bands down to 512, 256 and 128. When live vocoding is desired, lower spectral resolution is probably an inescapable requirement to avoid choking the CPU. CPU clog can also be reduced by lowering the sampling rate, which ranges from 11 kHz to 48 kHz.

Bottom line: Vokator emerges as the leader in host-based vocoding in the industry. It's arguably the most advanced vocoder of any kind available today, especially at $299. Unfortunately, Vokator will beat your CPU like a rented mule, but if your screaming speed machine can spare the clock cycles, Vokator will not disappoint.

Native Instruments, 323/467-5260, www.native-instruments.com.


John McJunkin is the principal of Avalon Audio Services in Phoenix.






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