Electro-Harmonix Vocoder: Dedicated To Voice At Last?
"Don't they make guitar pedals?!," I thought to myself when I first got word of a new Electro-Harmonix Vocoder box coming home to roost in the The Modern Vocalist Journal test barn. While over the years a lot of EH pedals have likely been used for vocal effects in the name of experimentation it has only been within the last couple years that Electro-Harmonix have begun to develop a dedicated line of vocal effects processors including the v256 Vocoder, the Iron Lung, and Voice Box vocal synth processor. I say dedicated in that all 3 of these processors come with a built in mic pre-amp with XLR connections meaning you can actually plug a mic directly in without the necessity of an external mixer or separate pre-amp.
Electro-Harmonix: Company History
Electro-Harmonix got its start in the late 1960's when an R&B keyboard player named Mike Matthews had fi nally had enough of his salesman job at IBM and decided to focus on his music. Unfortunately the income stream as a musician wasn't going to cut the proverbial mustard to support both him and his wife so he set about working with an audio repair friend of his to manufacture and market a guitar fuzz pedal. At about the same time the demand for effects pedals was starting to pick up due to some cutting edge sounds featured on the latest albums by a few notable artists including Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. After some success distributing the pedal through a deal with the Guild Guitar Company, Matthews officially began developing and marketing new effects pedals including the Linear Power Booster and Big Muff under the name Electro-Harmonix.
Over the next 20 years he would continue to primarily focus on the stomp box effects model until the mid 1980's when Electro-Harmonix changed directions to primary produce vacuum tubes. This would continue until the mid 90's when demand and prices for the vintage EH effect boxes started to increase on the secondary market at which time a decision was made to start manufacturing reissue versions of the original effects pedals. They were so well received that in 2002 Electro-Harmonix decided to expand on the original lineup which in 2009 included the creation of the v256 Vocoder.
The Electro-Harmonix v256 Design And Durability: ANALOGUE? NO! OLD-SCHOOL? YES!
The v256 Vocoder comes out of the box looking very much like the vintage 70's EH line complete with naked die-cast case and retro orange decals. This is by design as EH specs their new gear to look like the old-school versions right down to the switchgear. It's actually a refreshing departure from the typically menu-driven feature packed vocal effects boxes currently on the market. You won't find any LCD screens here. In it's place is a clean well-marked layout with simple LED mode lights, sturdy foot switches, micro-toggle switches and smooth rotary knobs. Don't be fooled into thinking this puppy is all analogue however. Removing the 4 screws holding the back plate on reveals a modern micro-processor controlled device. That being said on the input side of things you will find balanced XLR mic input with a high/low mic gain mode as well as phantom power for condenser mics as well as instrument control input and midi control in. Output includes a dry instrument out and balanced wet effects XLR out.
Overall I have only two relatively small issues with the design. First is a +9v mini-power connector located in the rear which is affixed directly to the circuit board without any chassis reinforcement. While this is perfectly acceptable and not uncommon, it does raise some concern about long term durability. Considering most of the other connections and controls are chassis mounted it would have been nice to see one of the most used connection points also have more robust mounting. Secondly it would have been nice to see the 5 control knobs at the top of the device actually line up to their respective 12 0'clock positions in relation to the centered detents.
Electro-Harmonix v256: Features And Modes
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The Electro-Harmonix v256 comes out o f the box with a total of 7 different modes: Robo-vocoder mode, single, major, and minor drone modes as well as transposition, instrument control and reflex-tune. Each mode can then be custom tailored via the blend, bands, tones, gender bender, and pitch controls. As you dial these into your liking you can set each custom setting to one of the respective 9 available presets. As a rock guy I don't tend to venture too deep into the vocal effects category aside from the usual delay/reverb. Instead I prefer to focus on delivering a solid vocal performance and don't necessarily want to concern myself with switching effects. So when I first fired up the v256 the only thing going through my head was how to potentially find a way to incorporate this into my material. My test of the v256 used a Rode NTK tube condenser mic to the vocoder and then routed through a TC Helicon Voice Live for a bit of delay/reverb to an otherwise dry mix. Starting at the top with the Robo-Vox mode after about 30 seconds of tweaking I was instantly reminded of the song Mr. Roboto off the 1983 Styx album Kilroy was Here.
The next few modes consist of drone single note modes. With tweaks you can pretty much get as crazy and cartoonish as you want but in keeping with the theme of fitting these into my own material I focused primarily on the drone modes. With a little experimentation by primarily dialing down the blend and the gender bender controls in single drone mode, I was able to get some nice subtle undertone notes that gave the vocals a little extra kick on some simpler melody lines. Then bringing the gender bender back up to the 12 o'clock position the vocals took on a slick "doubled" effect. The other mode I found myself focusing more on was the minor drone mode. I took a song of mine with minor tonality feel and by adjusting the pitch and bands controls I was able to emulate a fairly convincing minor harmony tonality for a particular vocal line. Overall the real beauty of the v256 lies in it's simplicity of actually providing direct controls instead of menu's. This leads to worrying less about whether the mix is set at 38.5% or whatever and instead more on what it sounds like. That's not to say that you wouldn't necessarily want that type of finite control but sometimes the details and menu's can get in the way of creativity.
I didn't spend as much time with the last 3 modes however they could certainly prove useful. Transposition does pretty much as you would think. The pitch control knob will directly transpose the note sung up to +/-1 octave. Here's your Barry White or Alvin and the Chipmunks sound. Instrument control enables an instrument to control the pitch with the amount of control being tweakable via the Pitch knob. Finally, Reflex-tune has the capability of giving you that T-Pain sound but should you turn the Pitch knob fully counter-clockwise will also act as plain pitch correction. After a few quick adjustments, I managed to g et some very natural smooth sounding basic pitch correction that in my opinion sounded every bit as good as some of the more fully-featured vocal boxes.
WRAP UP: ORANGE BOX OF WONDERS
Don't get me wrong. The v256 is not going to take the place of the primary effects box in your signal chain. It's something that must be used tastefully. However for something just calling itself a vocoder the EH v256 packs a lot in there. From wild Robo sounds to fairly realistic harmonies to simple pitch correction this device will find a use in just about any genre. The lack of menu driven architecture that is commonplace on the vast majority of vocal effects boxes today makes it easy to start dialing in your sounds and getting good results right away. It inspires you to be creative and makes it easy to step outside the box however sane or crazy that may be.
Review by Travis North