Behringer Beat: VC340 Review
Behringer re-creates another vintage keyboard, this one pairing analog vocal and string ensemble sounds with a vocoder.
The VC340 is one of the latest in Behringer’s successful line of classic synth reproductions. It derives from the VP-330 Vocoder Plus, a combination 10-band vocoder and paraphonic string synthesizer that Roland manufactured from 1979 to 1980. You’ve probably heard Roland’s instrument on Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack or on Laurie Anderson’s 1981 breakthrough track, “O Superman.”
Behringer’s designers made their instrument more compact and lightweight. The original VP-330 was a four-octave keyboard with very hefty wood-and-steel construction. By contrast, the VC340 has only three octaves of full-sized keys and substantial but very much stripped-down construction.
Because highly variable, fully polyphonic synthesizers had yet to appear in throughout most of the ’70’s, there was a good market for string synths—paraphonic keyboards that produced analog violin, viola, and string bass ensemble sounds. The original VP-330’s string sounds competed with those of instruments from Crumar, ARP, and many others. However, little else was on the market offering the VP-330’s human voice and vocoder abilities, as well.
A vocoder can take the dynamic tone of one sound, analyze it using a bank of filters, and superimpose it on another sound, usually played from the keyboard. A vocoder could theoretically process any sound in this way. You’ll usually get the best results from sounds full of high harmonics, like strings, because that have more overtones to filter. Consequently, the VP-330’s string section was well-suited to vocoding.
As on the original, you can split the VC340’s string sound to play from the keyboard’s lower or upper part or both. Each half lets you adjust its attack and overall tone, and the strings share their release time with the Human Voice section. The instrument is fully paraphonic and has an ensemble effect that’s permanently switched on. Vibrato applies to the entire instrument and has variable sliders for speed, delay, and depth.
The Human Voice sound is more flexible than the strings, with Male 8’ and 4’ assigned to the keyboard’s lower part and Male 8’ with Female 4’ assigned to the upper part, again with a variable attack control. The vocal sounds simply sing, “Aaaaaaaaaah.” There’s no variation for alternative vowel sounds, though you can switch on and off an ensemble effect. It’s an attractive texture, creating choirs almost as convincing as a Mellotron (the massively heavier alternative keyboard popular in the ’70’s), though not as lifelike as sampled vocal sounds.
The Behringer VC340 will see you through all sorts of musical applications in which you might want strings and choirs. But where does the vocoder come in? And what does it sound like when you adjust your microphone input level and tone, and start speaking as you play?
We all know the vocoder principle by now, but using it to good effect remains something of an art. Depending on how you speak or sing (though singing is usually pointless, since the instrument doesn’t analyze your voice’s pitch, only its tone), it’s possible to create vague, distantly voice-like effects or completely comprehensible electronic vocals. Play one deep note at a time, and you can create a terrific robot voice that’s completely intelligible. Kraftwerk fans may take note, though, the band used a much higher-quality vocoder specially commissioned for them in their early days.
You can layer all the VC340’s sounds, of course. You can have your vocoder voice, synthetic human voice, and strings all playing simultaneously for an extremely rich effect. Balance the levels of the mic, voice, and strings using sliders on the control panel’s left. You can also mix in some of your unprocessed voice, which helps make the vocoder sound more intelligible, if needed. It’s particularly helpful for sibilants (s and z sounds, for example), though it mustn’t be used in that way if you sing out of tune.
The VC340 has an input-level control for external audio (say, an analog synth drone or even a drum machine) and an independent headphone volume control. The control panel’s left side offers overall tuning and volume. An automatic pitch shift bends each new note slightly as it plays, if you like, or you can use it as a pitch bender in the down direction only. The octave up/down toggle switch also determines the keyboard’s split point.
All the features I’ve mentioned so far were on the original Roland VC330. The Behringer design brings the rear panel design up to date with XLR and quarter-inch microphone inputs, a headphone output, an external audio input, pitch and Vocoder Hold controller jacks (the latter maintains the vocoder’s current timbre), stereo audio outputs with a High/Medium/Low level control, MIDI In/Out/Thru, and a USB port for connection to a computer. Happily, the power connector means no fiddly external power supply.
Compared with other Behringer designs and instruments from other manufacturers, the Behringer VC340 vocoder and string ensemble keyboard is so specialized that you’ll probably want something more versatile to accompany it. Until recently, its closest competitor was Roland’s discontinued VP03, which squeezes most of the VP-330’s facilities into a very small desktop module without a keyboard. A more expensive competitor that’s still available is Waldorf’s four-octave STVC.
At just under $700 in the U.S., £469 in the U.K., and 500€ in Europe, the VC340 does cost a bit more than most Behringer instruments. However, it’s much less expensive than buying a used VP-330, which fetches prices in the region of £2000/$3,000. To make matters worse, owners of the original don’t consider them terribly reliable. Behringer has very accurately reproduced all the original’s capabilities while adding modern conveniences such as MIDI and USB connectivity at an attractive price. If you want its lush, distinctive sound, then the VC340 will certainly satisfy your desires.
U.S. Price: $698