The vocoder has had something of a checkered history. Early units, from a range of manufacturers, were initially (and correctly) seen as hugely creative devices and were employed to ground-breaking effect on a range of productions and film scores through the '70s and '80s. Later, the vocoder's star dipped a little, and they became more familiar as sound design and speech manipulation tools, helping to voice a thousand robots across a range of TV shows through the '80s in particular. However, more interesting uses of the vocoder reappeared more recently, in prominent productions by bands including Röyksopp, the Beastie Boys and, of course, Daft Punk. So credit XILS Lab with immaculate timing: their V+ plug-in's release coincides with the current wave of excitement surrounding Random Access Memories. Modeled on the Roland VP-330, V+ is a curious instrument, providing numerous technologies and sounds in one VST. XILS Lab are famed for bringing classic and quirky instruments back to life as plug-ins, so the leftfield credentials of this instrument make it a worthy candidate for an overhaul.
The GUI will be immediately familiar to anyone familiar with Roland's original. But as you'd hope and expect, it more than hints at the extended functionality XILS Lab have added themselves. This even extends to how it can be set up within your DAW. On one level, you can use it as a standard plug-in instrument, giving you access to the string and voice sounds directly. These are editable, albeit with the original unit's reduced parameter set on the right side of the mixer/arp page: the strings provide attack, tone, filter and ensemble dry/wet balance controls only (plus the latter's on/off rocker switch).
The string sound will be immediately familiar (think Jean Michel Jarre or Vangelis), as will the voices, which are controllable on the left. These are separated into three groups of male voices and one female via rocker switches, making it possible to introduce layers of sound much as you would with a drawbar organ. To add a richer sound still, you can enable an ensemble effect here, too. Further options above control relative volumes of each voice group alongside formant/resonance and formant shift sliders, all of which alter the character of the voices nicely. The secret of the sounds available lies in the "top octave divider oscillator," a master, square-wave-based high-frequency oscillator that can control up to 49 voices simultaneously.
The arpeggiator sits in the top-left corner, and it can cycle up or down through sustained notes or, in poly mode, repeatedly trigger held chords. Gate, swing and rate dials help you hone its performance, but the fun really starts when you blend the strings and voices with V+'s third layer of sound: the vocoder. Doing this might require you to change your approach, depending on how your DAW works. In Logic—where we tested V+—you have to set up a "MIDI-controlled instrument" that feeds a side-chain source into V+ as you play notes over MIDI; these are then blended with the input source to produce the vocoded result. Doing this brings the vocoder mix settings into play, and as with the strings and voices, these allow you to assign the vocoder signal to either the upper or lower register of the keyboard (or both). You can also add a similar, sound-thickening ensemble effect from the main mixer page. In the top-right corner, the dedicated vocoder button changes the upper section of the GUI's panel to provide further control with pitch tracking, filter and analyze sliders, which are further enhanced through "freeze" and "water" switches. Freeze takes a snapshot of the current input source to act as a more fixed tone, and water adds extra sonic resonance to produce a liquid-like effect.
There are two more orange rocker switches in the upper-right corner: FX and mod. Separate phaser, reverb and stereo space modules represent V+'s global effects, with on/off switches and a range of controls to tailor sounds to taste. Additionally, ensemble effects for each of the strings, voice and vocoder sections can be further tweaked here, with dry/wet sliders to allow for more subtle blends than the simple on/off on the main page. The modulation tab allows you to interrupt a range of parameters with movement and additional control. The LFO section provides a number of shapes (including random), and those familiar with the VP-330 will be delighted with the full ADSR envelope here. Roland's original was limited in this capacity, which reduced the sonic options dramatically. There are six sources/targets with both positive and negative/inverted settings possible.
All of this aside, if you're interested in V+ it's likely because of its vocoding potential. It won't disappoint. The sound is snappy and responsive, and it lacks the dynamic or curiously resonant inconsistencies that blight many vocoder plug-ins. There is enough sonic control to allow for Röyksopp-style chord-based beat loops, robot-voice treatments or even more experimental approaches. Combining dry and wet signals can be a delight, too. The synthesized strings and human voice sound engines might initially appear to be of less use, yet they both provide sounds you probably won't find elsewhere. Both tap into the nostalgic sound currently championed by Daft Punk, which should ensure V+ gains extra admirers. Of course, the genius of V+ is that all of these sound sources can be blended and modulated. So beyond their immediate controls, those prepared to do some digging under the hood will be rewarded. It's definitely a niche item, but it's certainly a pleasing oddity.