The Rocktron Banshee 2 is the gold standard of talkboxes.
Love ’em or hate ’em, vocals that are processed or Auto-Tuned
until it sounds like a machine is doing the singing are a staple of
funk, hip-hop, and electronic dance music. Before the vocoder
was in widespread use, and long before Auto-Tune existed,
artists like Roger Troutman and Peter Frampton were getting
this sound using a synth or guitar with a talkbox. Like the
vocoder, the talkbox is often mistaken for an effect that processes
your voice. On the contrary, it lets your voice be the processor.
Any sound boils down to two things: the frequency (pitch)
and amplitude (volume) of its fundamental tone and of each
harmonic. Then there’s the way each of these elements
changes over time—their envelopes, by a familiar name.
That so much changes at once is what makes human
speech so tricky to imitate. Vocoders tackle this by using
a number of envelope-following bandpass filters, which
your voice, the “modulator” signal, controls. The “carrier”
signal (e.g., your synth) gets filtered and comes out with
a harmonics-over-time profile that resembles your voice.
The more filters a vocoder has to divide up the frequency
spectrum, the closer the resemblance.
A talkbox achieves a similar result using far less electronic
plumbing. See, you are a synthesizer. Your vocal cords are
the oscillators, and your mouth is an incredibly flexible filter.
The talkbox lets you use that filter on external audio. In fact,
it’s just a tiny powered speaker that amplifies your synth. The
Rocktron Banshee, for example, uses a compression driver
similar to many tweeters, but with fuller range. A vinyl tube
fits snugly into the speaker recess. Put the other end in your
mouth, play your synth, mouth some words, and you get
syllables imposed on the sound. All the action happens in the
acoustic domain between your choppers.
Master talkboxer P-Thugg of Chromeo once told me, “The
talkbox is very physical and easier to personalize [than a
vocoder]. . . . If you don’t know how to use it, it’ll sound
like a wah-wah at best, but when you practice pronunciation, you
create another voice out of your own.” Here are some ways to find
Use a mic. Unlike a vocoder or an audio effect, a talkbox
doesn’t take your voice as an audio input. For practice, you can
hear the result without a mic, but for performance or recording,
you’ll need one to capture the results.
Given how you shape the sound of the vibrating bar with your mouth, the venerable jaw harp is really the world’s first talkbox.
Simple synth sounds are best. Start with patches
that are fairly bright and have an immediate attack. A monophonic
lead with no portamento gets that Auto-Tuned “T-Pain” sound.
Resist the urge to sing or speak. Playing your synth
is what provides the musical pitch. With a vocoder, you say words
into the mic to give the filters a control signal to work with. With a
talkbox, the shape of your mouth does all the work. Speaking only
adds your dry voice to the mix.
Exaggerate vowels. Pretend you’re mouthing at someone
who just learned to read lips but who also has bad eyesight. Long
“o” and “u” sounds are easy, but long “e” sounds stretched the
corners of my mouth into a Jack Skellington grin.
Consonants help. An exception to the “don’t speak” rule is
that saying an initial consonant into the mic often helps the synth’s
“voice” sound like the desired word. That’s because the human ear
identifies sounds mainly by their attacks.
*Stevie Wonder sings "Close to You" on the talkbox.
*Zapp and Roger Troutman's "More Bounce to the Ounce."