I can't say I'm a huge fan of the part of the Behringer business model that seems to copy designs and intellectual property from other manufacturers, then rebuild said designs super cheaply in China. But on the other hand, not everybody can afford to buy fancy, handmade, boutique audio gear, so I have to commend them on making music gear affordable to a wider range of users. And just as we're going to press, Behringer (who also make the original DeepMind 12 synth) have hired Hiroaki Nishijima – one of the original designers of the Korg MS-20 – to lead the Behringer Synthesizer Innovation Center. The Vocoder VC340 is a clone of the classic Roland VP-330 paraphonic 10 band vocoder and string machine, a unit no longer manufactured that currently costs up to $4000 on the used market. The VC340 can currently be had for $599 and is the most affordable true analog vocoder that I'm aware of. Why didn't Roland do this first? Roland does have the Vocoder VP-03 ($349 MAP) which they say "accurately emulates the sound that made the original [VP-330 Vocoder Plus] so influential." But the Roland VP-03 is not analog, and it's not even really a vocoder, as it doesn't include separate carrier and modulator inputs. So, before Behringer could raise their prices on September 1, 2019, to adjust for the Trump administration's tariffs on Chinese imports, I bought a VC340.
Only time will tell if this unit holds up, but the VC340 seems very well built and solid, with full size switches and pots, and finished with nice wood end panels. This is a fully analog piece of gear with no recall and one control per function. A feature I really appreciate are the 37 semi-weighted full-size keys instead of the mini keys so many companies are now implementing on their affordable synthesizers. The VC340 also has an IEC power connector instead of relying on a wall wart, which is another plus. Another cool build feature is the brightly colored flat push button switches on the VC340, like what Roland used on their synths in the late '70s and early '80s. These switches came after the big organ-style rocker switches, and before membrane switches took over in the mid-'80s. Without slavishly recreating the Roland VP-330, the Behringer VC340 echoes the look and feel of the original instrument nicely, while updating it for current times. I will also note that this unit has got some heft to it. Though I didn't open it up, I can tell that this is not a box with a lot of empty space inside!
I won't get too deep into the instrument section of the VC340 except to say it uses analog technology to create paraphonic string and vocal sounds, playable via the keyboard. You can add a classic Roland-ish bucket brigade delay analog chorus sound and use the carrier input for the vocoder section – all true analog vocoders have both a carrier and a modulator input. The carrier is the audio signal that is modulated by the modulator. The carrier signal path has a series of band-pass filters, envelope generators, and VCAs; while the modulator path also offers band-pass filters, but adds envelope detectors that send control voltages to the carrier's envelope generators. I've written in detail about vocoders [Tape Op #106], so I won't rehash that content here. tapeop.com/reviews/gear/106/v-vocoder-5000-virtual-instruments/ While some Vocoders have no sound generation capabilities (the Moog/Bode 7702 vocoder for instance), most (like the Roland VP-330), do. The built in string and vocal sounds are the carrier input, and a microphone is usually the modulator input, while the keyboard controls the pitch of the carrier signal. In Vocoder mode with an external microphone plugged in, the VC340 behaves as expected and sounds awesome! In my tests with various vocoders over the past few years (including a vintage Moog/Bode 7702 unit), I've found that the quality of the mic really does make a difference on the modulator signal. A vintage Moog/Bode 7702 fed via a Neumann U 87 with a good outboard mic preamp sounded much better than a Shure SM58 plugged straight into the vocoder. Even though none of the microphone audio is audible, and it only becomes a control signal for the synth, in my experience it does make a difference.
Although I don't have a real Roland VP-330 to compare this to, I did A/B the VC340 with the Xils Lab V+ plug-in [Tape Op #106], which I've used for years and love the sound of – especially the strings. My first impression was that the VC340 seemed brighter, while not as full as I remember the plug-in to be, but when I carefully adjusted them to the exact same settings, I had a hard time telling them apart. If pressed, I'd say the VC340 had just a bit more depth, with a slightly richer and fuller bottom end.
The main reason I bought the VC340 was to use it as a signal processor – not just to mimic '80s synth pop vocal productions! I wanted to be able to use the external synth input to process any audio track through the vocoder, and the same with the modulator signal. I patched the two extra outputs of my UA Apollo Twin [#101] to the TRS mic input and the TS/Mono external synth input of the VC340, then experimented by running different tracks from a Pro Tools session through the vocoder. What happens when the drum kit vocodes the piano track? What about using a shaker track to vocode the acoustic guitar track? All super cool stuff – some results more musical than others – but in the end it's a powerful and unique treatment to use when tracking and mixing. In practice, both the levels into the mic and external synth inputs were touchy and easily overloaded, but this was easy to control when sending from a DAW.
There is nothing else on the market I'm aware of that offers true analog vocoding like this unit, though there are several digital versions with much less functionality – and of course there are plug-ins. The only other analog unit that I'm aware of that comes close to this is the Verbos Electronics Bark Filter Processor – a very cool Eurorack module – but it's $899 with only six vocoder-usable bands (unless you combined two units), and you don't get the great string sounds. In the end, I'm really excited about this instrument/processor, and hats off to Behringer for bringing this well built and affordable unit to market.