Vocoders and talk boxes are polarizing effects. And though they’ve spiced up more than a few massive hits, a lot of guitarists greet the very idea of a Vocoder with disdain—and that’s before you deal with the arcane and awkward technology that can come with using one.
But what if someone made a compact, musical, vocoder-style effect that didn’t require additional amplifiers for microphones or weird tubing that looks more at home in the emergency room? Enter the new Boss VO-1 Vocoder: a powerful talk box effect that covers traditional Vocoder touchstones anda few additional sounds—all in a tough Boss enclosure.
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While Boss managed to squeeze a pretty powerful synth engine into a small space, you still need a decent vocal microphone—which you can plug in via a side-mounted XLR input—to employ most of the VO-1’s functions. That step aside, you set up and use it the same as you would any guitar effect. It’s stupidly simple. Better still, you need not be a skilled singer to make the VO-1 work and sound cool. In fact, you can be downright lousy. Pitch shifts come from your guitar, not your voice. It takes some rhythmic coordination and melodic instinct to utilize the VO-1 in a musical way. Primarily, though, you just need to get a feel for the way that the pedal interacts with your guitar and your voice.
The VO-1’s layout is all business and easy to understand. It includes concentric volume and blend knobs to control the effect’s output and the mix of effected and dry signal. There’s also a tone knob to adjust the effect’s brightness, and a color knob that changes functions depending on the mode. The VO-1 also provides an effects loop and a switch on the back to adjust the microphone sensitivity.
Little Loquacious Powerhouse
Creative and patient tinkerers will be able to extract a lot of very interesting sounds from the VO-1’s four modes. Vintage mode sounds are akin to those of classic vocoders, and meld the vocal signal with the signal from a guitar, bass, or keyboard to cop the robotic noises mostly associated with classic funk, rock, and modern electro-funk records. The advanced mode is the most modern sounding of all of the VO-1’s effects, and gives the vocal signal much more clarity. For both the vintage and advanced modes, the color knob swings emphasis in the vocal from masculine tones to more feminine ones.
Talk box mode is an homage to the revered (and sometimes reviled) Heil Talk Box. It nails some of the original’s vibe, but lacks some of the deeper, swirling, and chewy sonic character. You can, however, add distortion with the color knob in this mode. To my mind, the minor shortcomings in sound authenticity seem like a small price to pay in exchange for avoiding the extra amps and tubing of the original. Choir is the one mode you can explore without a microphone in the mix. It adds an ambient chorus of synth-y tones that harmonize with your guitar signal, and it sounds huge mated to a delay or deep reverb.
The VO-1 is not particularly finicky about guitars or amps. It worked well with everything from humbucker-equipped Les Pauls into Marshalls to smaller tube combos mated with single-coil guitars. Players that typically run very distorted sounds may find the VO-1 difficult to use in the most expressive talking functions. High-gain tones predictably squash some more-rounded vocal contours. That said, the advanced setting and a high-gain amp yielded some of my favorite, most unpredictable, and downright scary vocal sounds.
Vocoders—even units as compact, self-contained, and powerful as the VO-1—are nichey, specialized tools. But cavalier experimentalists, players working in electronic or contemporary pop idioms, prog-rockers—or really anyone with a taste for the unusual—will find the VO-1 well worth the price. Especially given the small footprint, easy set-up, and durability.