Want to add texture to your sounds? Ableton Live's Vocoder is the ultimate texture tool.
Keep reading to enhance your drum samples, synths, and basses.
The video above has audio examples. Listen for the differences in the kick, snare, and synthesizer.
Using Vocoder noise texture to enhance sounds
This tutorial will not encompass all the Vocoder device's features, like making vocals sound like a synthesizer.
Instead, we'll focus on the easiest way to enhance drum samples, synthesizers, and even basses:
Adding a layer of noise that follows the same envelope as the source audio and tracks its pitch.
Noise texture is soothing
And that works so well because noise is soothing. It's made of a cluster of neighboring frequencies.
So if you layer noise on top of a sound, it never sounds out of tune and even helps smoothen harsh sounds.
That's why you can almost always make high-pitched synthesizers sound better by using its noise oscillator.
Thickening drum and percussion samples
That's also why layering noise is my number one shortcut for thickening drum and percussion samples.
For example, I synthesized Tom drums with Serum and felt like they were hollow. They weren't hitting hard enough.
There was a gap in the mid-range that kept them from sounding punchy.
Then I turned on the Vocoder layer to add that robust body to the final product.
The same technique works wonders for snares.
And it's incredible to add top-end to dull sound samples, like some kick drums. It helps them cut through the mix.
You can also use a vocoder to smoothen out harsh cymbals or hi-hats.
Now you know when to use the Vocoder.
How to use the Vocoder controls
Mono vs. Stereo vs. L/R
The vocoder device can generate textures in Mono, Stereo, and L/R Mode. Here's how to choose the correct Mode (top-right):
- To place the Vocoder texture in the center of the stereo field, select Mono;
- To make the texture wide in the stereo field, select either Stereo or L/R mode. Stereo if the original sound is a Mono signal, and L/R if the original sound is a Stereo signal and you'd like to preserve that.
Narrow frequency band vs. Entire frequency spectrum
Do you want to add noise to a specific frequency band or the whole spectrum?
You can use the panel in the center to determine that.
First, choose the number of bands the Vocoder will split the signal into.
More bands mean a more defined sound.
Fewer bands mean blurrier or robotic.
Both ways sound awesome. It just depends on what kind of effect you want to achieve.
The yellow bars work like an internal equalizer. The graph displays low frequencies on the left side and high frequencies on the right side.
The pencil icon lets you cut or boost specific frequency bands from the effect signal.
The more bands you have, the more surgical you can get with Ableton Live's Vocoder.
And you can expand the effect range from 20 hertz to 18 kHz. Or you can narrow it down to a smaller range if that's what you need.
The "BW" button stands for bandwidth. It controls each EQ band's width.
- So if you set it at less than 100%, there will be gaps between one band and another.
- On the other hand, by setting it at a higher value than 100%, the bands will overlap.
Here's what the spectrum looks like at 100% bandwidth. I played a Synth going through the Vocoder.
It just looks like noise, right?
Now, this is what happens when you lower the bandwidth to 10%.
Experiment with the Vocoder bandwidth to come up with distinct effects.
I usually like how it sounds when I leave it alone at 100%.
Shaping the Vocoder texture's envelope
The Depth knob ensures the vocoder effect follows the original signal's Attack, Sustain, Decay, and Release.
The more you lower it, the more it ignores the original envelope.
At 0%, it sounds like the effect is at full Sustain, completely independent from the source.
At 200%, only the loudest peaks will trigger the Vocoder.
For texture layering, I like to keep this around 100%.
Maybe a little less for sustained instruments and a little more for percussive sounds.
Attack and Release
But the Vocoder also has Attack and Release controls to fine-tune the effect's duration.
Say you want this effect to feel as tight as possible, almost transparent, and blend in with the original signal.
In that case, keep the depth at 100% and the Attack and Release at low amounts.
If you increase the Attack, it takes longer for the Vocoder to trigger. It softens the initial transient.
If you increase the Release, the vocoder effect will last longer than the original signal.
Therefore the tail becomes more noticeable, almost like a Reverb.
In fact, you can use this to create a fake Reverb, for example, on a snare sample.
Next, there's a Gate control. It's helpful if you only want to apply the Vocoder to the loudest signals.
It allows you to bypass the quieter sounds, like Reverb tails in the original audio.
The more you increase this, the more you emphasize transients, almost isolating them.
In the example above, listen to the Vocoder transient layer on my snare track. It gets rid of the Decay and keeps only the Attack.
So this can work like a transient designer effect — but in a layering fashion.
Ableton Live's Vocoder as a transient shaper
Using the Vocoder as a transient shaper lets you control several EQ bands and fine-tune the effect.
You can split the frequency spectrum into 40 bands and pick the range you wish to reinforce transients.
It may not sound natural, but this effect has its place.
Vocoder Formant shifting
Here's another cool thing. The formant knob allows you to shift the pitch center of your texture, up or down. It's like tuning the noise.
Vocoder Enhance button
Now that you understand how Ableton Live's Vocoder works, it makes sense to show you the Enhance button.
The info view says it normalizes all the frequency bands and produces a brighter sound.
But I've tested it many times, and that's not always the case.
The sound does get more balanced, most times.
So make sure to listen to the differences in your scenario. Compare them, and figure out which one you prefer.
Vocoder Unvoiced knob
The Unvoiced knob emphasizes the percussiveness of your sound source. Sensitivity works like a threshold for this percussive effect.
For example: if you use this on a vocal, it makes the consonants more pronounced. Consequently, it becomes more intelligible.
The XY pad changes the character of the noise.
- Drag it to the left, and it decreases the sample rate.
- Drag it to the bottom, and it decreases the density of the noise.
This can sound really good on percussive sounds.
I've used this feature on my Toms to increase the knock — that initial hit.
Ableton Live's Vocoder alternative
There's another plugin I'd like to mention that does a similar job. But it has many different kinds of noise textures, from frying eggs to water sounds.
It was made by the same people who created VolumeShaper, my favorite tool to generate Side-chain and pumping effects.
If you like that kind of effect, make sure to read that post too.
For more music production classes and resources, visit my website.