When Roland's AIRA line was announced at NAMM last year, it was the buzz of the show, mainly for the new instruments inspired by the classic TR-808, TB-303 and SH-101. The VT-3 seemed a bit like the bastard child of the line. Of course, it was the one product I was the most interested in.
To cut to the chase, the VT-3 is a fun box for heavy-handed vocal processing. It sounds great, and it's very affordable. Everybody recording music with vocals should rush out and buy one. But, to get more critical, it's hard to really rave about the VT-3. For every aspect of it that shines, I can find another aspect to complain about.
Let's focus on the positive first. As I mentioned, it's affordable! And, it sounds great! Really. Although clearly designed more for live use, the VT-3 can be easily integrated into a studio setup. It only has one mic-level input channel — accessible via a Neutrik XLR/TRS Combo jack on the back or a powered computer-style 1/8'' mic jack on the front — which is not ideal for processing of already recorded tracks, but it can be made to work. The VT-3 can also connect to a host computer via USB, allowing you to not only send a backing track to the VT-3 for monitoring through the VT-3's analog outputs and headphone jack, but also route unprocessed and post-processed mic signals back to the computer. Unfortunately, you can't send a prerecorded vocal track via USB to the VT-3 for processing.
I had no problem getting a clean vocal track into the VT-3 via a line-level signal from Pro Tools to the VT-3's Combo jack. I turned the VT-3's input all the way down and also trimmed the output in Pro Tools. Once hooked up in this manner, it took me no time to realize that the VT-3 is very intuitive and easy to use — almost too easy and intuitive, perhaps. There are knobs and switches to adjust I/O levels and settings, and sliders for wet/dry mix and reverb. Beyond that, the VT-3 really only has three adjustable settings, and this simplicity is its greatest strength as well as weakness.
The main setting on the VT-3 is the Character knob, a rotary switch that chooses between five main transformation modes, some of which have submodes: Vocoder; Auto Pitch 1 and 2; Megaphone and Radio filter/distortion; Pad, Lead, and Bass synth; and Scatter. Once you've picked a mode, you have exactly two tweakable parameters for each mode — Pitch and Formant — which you adjust with sliders. Pitch, as expected, raises or lowers the pitch in semitones up or down an octave. Formant makes the vocal transformation lean toward feminine or masculine. Three Scene buttons allow you to store and recall all of the settings, and a Manual button reverts the internal settings to the actual physical positions of the sliders.
For a live situation, this unit could be amazing. In the studio, it's a bit cookie-cutter. It reminds me of the preset nature of Apple Logic Pro X — super easy to bring up a preset that sounds great, if not a bit clichéd, but a bit harder to really dial in a sound that's a bit more unique. For instance, Scatter, which is a glitching/breaking effect, sounds super cool but is way too random. The chances of it working within a song seem slim, and if it doesn't quite work, too bad, there's no real way to adjust it. The three synth modes all sound great; if they're the sounds you're looking for, you'll love them. The Radio and Megaphone presets work as advertised, and you can't really go wrong with them. And then we get to the money shots — Auto Pitch and Vocoder. Do they work? Yes, as long as you have a good in-tune signal being sent to them, they sound awesome. Can you control them if they're not quite right? No, except for the Formant control. I liked the Auto Pitch modes for what they are — getting that somewhat already dated "auto-tuned" vocal effect without having to delve into the complexities of abusing a pitch-correction plug-in.
The Vocoder mode is why I wanted to hear this unit. I have fond memories of using a real analog Moog vocoder (it sounded amazing), and we've all heard Kraftwerk records. Does the VT-3 emulate this? Sound-wise yes, but only in a very limited way: a vocoder monophonically tracking a single pitched voice. There's no way to feed the VT-3 an external carrier signal, like you can with a traditional vocoder instrument, so you really have to sing on-pitch, and you can't transform your voice into a chord or use your voice to modulate external sounds. Version 1.1 of the VT-3 firmware does allow for MIDI-over-USB control of pitch from the host computer, but this scheme only duplicates the already existing pitch slider on the VT-3. (To be honest, I was not able to test MIDI control from my Pro Tools rig, and I really wish the unit included a standard five-pin DIN jack to connect a MIDI keyboard directly.)
So far, this reads like a mixed review, but before you give up on the VT-3, can I remind you that it's super cheap and it sounds great? To reiterate, if the effect it produces is what you are looking for, you will not be disappointed. And it's fairly easy to hook up in a studio/recording situation. While the VT-3 achieves a certain amount of success trying to emulate some classic vocal effects not easily found in other units, especially at its price point, it's maybe best to think of it as the successor to the cult classic VT-1 box that Roland made in the '90s, which was used to great success by Air and The Knife. And like its predecessor, the VT-3 even has a Robot pushbutton that overrides the current settings and gives you the instant sound of a monotonic robot.
In conclusion, if you think of this box as a replacement for a true vocoder or some of the other processors it emulates, you'll be disappointed. If you think of it as a fun and portable voice changer for under $200, you will be blown away. Bottom line? I bought the VT-3 because it's great sounding, easy to use, and affordable. Will I stop looking for a good vocoder on eBay? Uhh... no, I won't.