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  • XILS-lab Launches Classic Keyboard Vocoder Emulation Plug-in

    By HC News |

    Following a year of intense instrument modelling deep inside XILS-lab’s ear-opening laboratories, the XILS V+ virtual instrument and effects plug-in has finally emerged, sounding nigh on indistinguishable from an instantly-recognisable keyboard vocoder classic much loved by both contemporary and acclaimed artists alike. But what keyboard vocoder are we talking about here exactly? And what’s a vocoder, anyway?




    By definition, a vocoder is a synthesizer that produces sounds from an analysis of speech input. Vocoders arguably had their musical heyday in the Seventies with the likes of British record-producing heavyweight Jeff Lynne’s symphonic rockers ELO making much use of them throughout several striking recordings — think smash hit ‘Mr Blue Sky’ and the Time album (featuring the Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus keyboard) — while German techno pop pioneers Kraftwerk crafted themselves an ongoing robotic vocoder-led career that’s still resonating throughout EDM’s many modern-day stylistic offshoots; French house music stalwarts Daft Punk became big vocoder fans with several memorable club-friendly hits to their eminently danceable name, par exemple. Historically speaking, the aforesaid Roland VP-330 Vocoder Plus is also musically immortalised on celluloid thanks to Greek synth wizard Vangelis’ memorable early-Eighties electronic scores to the Oscar-winning Chariots Of Fire and Ridley Scott’s sci-fi film noir classic, Bladerunner, both of which made much use of the instrument’s signature Strings — ‘emulating’ the sustained portion of orchestral strings — and Human Voice Ensemble ‘choir’ — remarkable and unique — sounds. Subsequently the long-since-discontinued VP-330 Vocoder Plus has become something of a sought-after classic itself... for those in the musical know. Yet finding a fully-functional, pristine example of this 30-plus-year-old temperamental hardware has become nigh on impossible. Which is exactly where XILS V+ comes into play, of course, thanks to XILS-lab’s labours.


    So how, technically, does that historic hardware produce those distinctive sounds? And, more to the point, how has XILS-lab been able to magically model them? First things first. Just like the real thing, XILS V+ is based on a Top Octave Divider oscillator — the hidden heart of almost all vintage string machines. Basically, back in the day, this clever concept enabled hardware designers to achieve 49 notes (or more) of polyphony without having to stabilise and tune 49 (or more) oscillators! Instead, a single square wave-generating so-called Top Octave oscillator designed to oscillate at very high specific frequencies is ‘divided’ to provide 12 standard tempered frequencies over four (or more) octaves that are then used to create the waveform for each individual note. All notes are kept in phase with no drift between octaves and only a single tuning circuit is needed for the complete keyboard range. This was quite a technological breakthrough by Seventies standards, but by its very nature there were some divisive downsides — no polyphonic attack stage to the sound which we take for granted today, for instance. Yet, thanks to today’s cleverer computer world, XILS V+ offers polyphonic attack (and also monophonic attack for the sake of authenticity).


    So, just like the real thing, XILS V+ features a 10-band VOCODER, Top Octave Divider-based STRINGS and HUMAN VOICES — or, indeed, sophisticated layering of any these three elements! It successfully captures the keyboard in question’s Top Octave Divider oscillator’s unique sound (that no sampling technology or other simple synthesis techniques can reproduce); the ensemble (chorus) circuitry, featuring a compander and no less than four bucket brigade delays; the voice and vocoder ‘vibratos’ (based on two more bucket brigade delays); the 14 filters involved in producing that heavenly Human Voice Ensemble sound; the three filters used for the Strings section; the 40 ‘vocoder’ filters; and sophisticated Attack, Release, and Glide circuitry. Visually, the main control panel section above the keyboard basically mirrors that found on its inspirational hardware predecessor so anyone familiar with the VP-330 Vocoder Plus will immediately feel right at home here — right down to the classic colourful rocker switches!


    But that’s not all: rather than simply producing a feature-by-feature emulation of the original hardware, XILS-lab has truly taken the opportunity to bring this Seventies-vintage keyboard vocoder concept kicking and screaming into the convenience of present-day DAW workflow with four additional panels boasting advanced settings: Mixer/ARP allows users to fine-tune the internal sound generators — from adjusting the relative level of the Male 8 and ML/FM 4 Human Voices to tweaking voice formants, the Top Octave Divider waveform, as well as the Strings filter shape — while a built-in arpeggiator is also provided; Vocoder allows users to adjust the analogue-like Pitch Tracking, the ATT (attack) and REL (release) of the ANALYZE algorithm, as well as FILTERS parameters; Effects provides three built-in effects (STEREO SPACE, based on XILS-lab’s now-well-known Stereo Dynamic Engine; a simple, but efficient REVERB; and an analogue-like resonant PHASER); and last, but by no means least, Modulations with over 14 sources and 24 destinations!


    So there you have it. If you’re lusting after those classic keyboard vocoder sounds — and more besides, perhaps, but could never afford or find a suitable hardware original, then your prayers have surely now been answered by XILS-lab. Load up multiple instances of XILS V+ into your favourite DAW. Play. Smile. After all, it’s even better than the real thing!

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