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How did they do the Cher vocal?

If there is one thing that got alot of people talking it was the Cher vocal. It was the effect that has always been copied even to today. Daft Punk created "One More Time" and then there was the Gummi Bear song. Both utilise this "cher effect". So how is it actually done?

Well, put basically it is done through a vocoder. Vocoders are extremly talented little effects.

Before we go into the Cher vocal, I just want to give a couple of tips.

  • A good soft synth/ VST Vocoder (that is also free) comes from MDA. It can be found on my Best VST plug-ins page. It doesn't look like much, but it is a great start.
  • Vocals are always being vocodered, but why not basslines, drumsbeats etc? Experiment with different sound sources and see which one sounds cool. You will find that beats go well, and you can get some real cool sounding back beats just by throwing one through a vocoder.

Anyway, lets move onto the Cher vocal effect. The whole smash track was created by two London-based producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling, in their own studio.

Here are the producers speaking to the writers of SoundOnSound music magazine.

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Everyone who hears 'Believe' immediately comments on the vocals, which are unusual, to say the least. Mark says that for him, this was the most nerve-racking part of the project, because he wasn't sure what Cher would say when she heard what he'd done to her voice. For those who've been wondering, yes -- it's basically down to vocoding and filtering. I have created a free resource about filtering which can be found here: Cher vocal filtering tips.

Mark: "It all began with a Korg VC10, which is a very rare, very groovy-looking analogue vocoder from the '70s, with a built-in synth, a little keyboard and a microphone stuck on top", he enthuses.

"Anyway, the Korg VC10 looks bizarre, but it's great to use if you want to get vocoder effects up and running straight away. You just play the keyboard to provide a vocoder carrier signal, sing into the microphone to produce the modulator signal, and off you go. The only drawback is the synth -- you can't do anything to change the sound, so the effects you can produce are rather limited.

"I played around with the vocals and realised that the vocoder effect could work, but not with the Korg -- the results just weren't clear enough. So instead, I used a Digitech Talker -- a reasonably new piece of kit that looks like an old guitar foot pedal, which I suspect is what it was originally designed for [see review in SOS April '98]. You plug your mic straight into it, and it gives you a vocoder-like effect, but with clarity; it almost sounds like you've got the original voice coming out the other end. I used a tone from the Nord Rack as a carrier signal and sequenced the notes the Nord was playing from Cubase to follow Cher's vocal melody. That gave the vocals that 'stepped' quality that you can hear prominently throughout the track -- but only when I shifted the the Nord's notes back a bit. For some reason, if you track the vocal melody exactly, with the same notes and timing, you hardly get get any audible vocoded effect. But I was messing about with the Nord melody sequence in Cubase and shifted all the notes back a fraction with respect to the vocal. Then you really started to hear it, although even then it was a bit hit-and-miss -- I had to experiment with the timing of each of the notes in the Nord melody sequence to get the best effect. You couldn't hear an effect on all the vocals by any means -- and on others it made the words completely impossible to understand!

"In the end, we only used vocoded sections where they had the most striking effect, but didn't make the lyrics unintelligible. To do that, I had to keep the vocoded bits very short. So for example, when Cher sang 'Do you believe in life after love?', I think I only cut the processed vocals into the phrase on just the syllables 'belie-' from 'believe' and 'lo-' from 'love' -- but that was enough to make the whole phrase sound really arresting. I made sure throughout that the last word of each vocal phrase was unprocessed, because again, I found it sounded too bubbly and hard to understand when it was vocoded."

Mark spent time alone in the studio painstakingly processing Cher's vocals in this way, and by the following morning, he was convinced he didn't have the nerve to play her what he'd done. "It was a bit radical," he laughs. "Basically, it was the destruction of her voice, so I was really nervous about playing it to her! In the end, I just thought it sounded so good, I had to at least let her hear it -- so I hit Play. She was fantastic -- she just said 'it sounds great!', so the effect stayed. I was amazed by her reaction, and so excited, because I knew it was good."

Although the vocoder effect was Mark's idea, the other obvious vocal effect in 'Believe' is the 'telephoney' quality of Cher's vocal throughout. This idea came from the lady herself -- she'd identified something similar on a Roachford record and asked Mark if he could reproduce it.

He explains, "Roachford uses a restricted bandwidth, and filters the vocals heavily so that the top and bottom ends are wound off and the whole vocal is slightly distorted. It took a while to work out exactly what it was that Cher liked about this particular Roachford song, but in the end we realised it was the 'telephoney' sound. I used the filter section on my Drawmer DS404 gate on the vocal before it went into the Talker to get that effect."

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When it comes down to it, the producers have mainly experimented with effects, and this is where some super results actually come from. Remember that great effects doesn't automatically mean expensive. There are many free effect making plug ins that are just saturating the Internet, and some of these can be super obscure and therefore super cool.

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