Tutorial: Make That Talking Synth Sound

February 16, 2013
Simulating the human voice is a time-honored tradition that has evolved with technology over the past 50 years. One could say that it all began with the earliest Doctor Who episodes, with their ring-modulated Dalek voices. Followed by the talkbox, a bit of hose attached to a speaker that allowed musicians like Peter Frampton and Roger Troutman of Zapp to use their mouths to reshape the sound of their instruments. And of course, there’s always the vocoder for classic robot voices.
Most recently, voice-like effects have returned to the mainstream, thanks in part to Native Instruments’ Massive, which includes a unique wavetable called “Modern Talking.” While Massive’s approach to vocal tricks first found fame in the electronic dance music world (mainly dubstep and electro), it has since become ubiquitous in everything from movie soundtracks to TV commercials.
The cool thing is that you can achieve a very similar effect using very simple tools found in every current DAW. The core process for this sound is a single oscillator sawtooth, with steep lowpass filtering and full resonance, followed by a bit-crusher. That's it. Really.

Step 1
Start with a single-oscillator sawtooth wave and add a lowpass filter, preferably in four-pole (24dB-per-octave roll-off) mode. Then add some automation to the filter cutoff frequency.

Step 2
Increase the resonance to maximum, right at the edge of self-oscillation. Now, listen again to the existing automation on the cutoff. At this point, there’s nothing interesting or new about this sound—that’s for sure.
Step 3
Now for the secret ingredient: Add a bit-crusher as an inline effect after the synth. Start at 50 percent and try different settings. Bingo! That's “the sound.”

imgWhile we used Ableton Live for this tutorial, pretty much every DAW includes the tools to create this effect. Here’s a screenshot of the same sound configured in Reason.   
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