Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Mechanical Vocal Effects for Fun & Profit

The man vs. machine dichotomy is one that has long fascinated us. Its influence touched all aspects of society, but it seemed to especially catch fire in the musical community. In Britain, worried orchestral musicians protested synths, afraid - correctly, perhaps - that these new fangled instruments would replace them. Similarly, the widespread popularity of drum machines had a lot of skilled drummers feeling a bit nervous. But the electronic musicians embraced it to the point where it wasn't enough to simply utilize the machines - they wanted to become machines. From the cold, alienated sound of early Gary Numan, to the mechanical rhythms of Kraftwerk, the artists expressed this merging of man and machine in different ways, but one of the most common ways was to make use of studio tricks to take the human voice and strip away its humanity.

So today, I thought we'd look at some of the techniques, past and present, that can be used for this purpose.

• Crush them bits
Part of making a voice sound more robotic is making it sound as if it is coming from a speaker instead of a mouth. There are a number of ways of doing this, but I think a combination of a bit-crusher and amp simulator does the job nicely. The bit-rate on your bit crusher isn't important, the key is to downsample the sound quite a bit. On Logic's BitCrusher, try somewhere around 14x for some nice aliasing and metallic artifacts. The amp simulator helps to make this basic sound sound as if it is coming from an old speaker. You don't want a full blown Marshall shred setting, obviously, just something with some presence. Here's what it sounds like:

• Keep it old school
In the early days of hip-hop, up and coming musicians recorded in very basic studios and had to make the most of very limited set-ups. It's no secret that Kraftwerk was a huge influence on the early hip-hop records, but few of the artists could afford an actual vocoder to produce those robotic vocals. What a few of them did instead, was to set up a delay unit to extremely short settings, resulting in a rattling, metallic effect. Yeah, it didn't sound the same, but if it was good enough for Afrika Bambaataa, I say it's good enough for you. This effect can be a little trickier to pull off with a lot of modern delay plug-ins, because most of them are so oriented towards syncing to your sequencer. We need something with REALLY short delay times. I chose Logic's Modulation Delay. Your feedback should be set fairly high, and you want to make sure the delay times aren't being modulated... we want them constant. The end result should sound like this:

• Vocoders
Probably the most obvious choice for this type of effect. Fortunately, software vocoders are abundant these days and many of them are even free. I'm not going to go into the depth of how to use a vocoder here - read your damn manual. But be sure to experiment with different carrier sources. Especially mess around with using noise or amelodic samples/audio sources for a carrier for some unusual effects. Here's an example of the 'classic' vocoder sound:

• Put a ring on it
Ring Modulation offers a fairly wide range of unusual sounds when applied to the voice. The sound designers on the Star Wars movies employ this effect quite a bit both for robotic voices or to simulate far off transmissions. Applying a ring mod effect to your vocal recording opens the door to digital shrieks, harsh bit-crush type effects, and oddly mechanical timbres, so be sure to mess around with the settings. Often even a small tweak can result in quite a different effect. Here's just one example of the type of effects possible:

• Smack my pitch up
Pitch correction/auto-tune effects don't have to be used for evil. Instead of using them to suck the life out of some faceless diva's wailing, you can use them to transform a human voice into an unfeeling automaton. This technique is a bit more subtle than the others, so it'll sound better if you combine it with some of the above techniques. The key here is to remove as much of the variation in the voice. Celemony's Melodyne is great for this in that you can not only quantize the pitch, but you can draw out pitch variations and drift to get eerily emotionless sounding vocal treatments. Here, I've combined it with some subtle flanging with a high feedback level:


papernoise said...

great tips as usual!

dcp84 said...

"Yeah, it didn't sound the same, but if it was good enough for Afrika Bambaataa, I say it's good enough for you."

Best. Quote. Ever.

Excellent post as always. Keep up the good work.

Robert said...

Time Stretching can also be used to robotic effect.

Unknown said...

nice post!
reminds me of this fantastic book i'm reading, on the history of the vocoder. I highly recommend "how to wreak a nice beach": http://www.amazon.com/How-Wreck-Nice-Beach-Vocoder/dp/1933633883

amazingly researched and fun to read!

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