The Talk Box lets you use your mouth to shape sounds, in real time, in crazy and creative ways. Here are tips on how to use the effect to amplify your own creative efforts.
Have you ever listened to classic tracks from artists like Aerosmith, Peter Frampton, Zapp and Roger, and Bon Jovi and wondered about that growly, organic-electronic wail — the ear-catching sound halfway between an electric guitar and a human voice?
If you have, then you’re familiar with the Talk Box, a powerful effect that lets you use your mouth to shape sounds, in real time, in crazy and creative ways. Here are a few tips from long-time Talk Box practitioner Julian Pollack on how to use the effect to amplify your own creative efforts.
Understand the mechanics
The Talk Box is straightforward in concept. Whether you’re playing guitar, keyboard, or something else, you plug your instrument into a pedal which sends amplified sound through a clear plastic tube. Place the end of the tube between your teeth so that the sound resonates into your mouth and takes on the characteristics of different vowels and consonants, words and phrases. Finally, the resulting sound is picked up by your vocal mic, just as if you were singing normally, with your own vocal cords. The result? Talking guitars, singing synthesizers, and a universe of strange sounds.
Pollack is an expert at the alchemy of synthesizers and Talk Box. Check out this video of him using the effect to lead his band J3PO.
Choose the right Talk Box
For Pollack, the Talk Box of choice is the vintage Electro-Harmonix Golden Throat, manufactured in the 1970s and 1980s and available, for a price, secondhand. Other more current options include the MXR M222 Talk Box, Dunlop HT-1 Heil Talk Box, and Rocktron Banshee 2.
“For people who are just getting interested, I would recommend the MXR,” says Pollack. “It’s great and I use it a lot on the road. The Golden Throat is great, too, but it’s heavy, and you have to bring a power amp to make it work.”
Different Talk Boxes will give your sound different flavors and nuances, so check out online videos and in-store demos to help you choose the right one for your music.
Try different instruments and settings
The Talk Box may be most often associated with electric guitar, but that’s far from the only instrument that can sing beautifully when paired with the effect.
“You can try plugging anything into a Talk Box,” says Pollack. “One place where it really shines is with a synthesizer, especially a monophonic sawtooth wave with the filter all the way open. That gives you a very bright, clean sound that sounds great through the Talk Box.”
Pollack cautions that the lower the frequency and darker the sound of your input, the harder it’s going to be to hear the sound coming out of your mouth, and the harder for you to enunciate understandable lyrics. “You can use any sound you want and use your mouth to create a basic wah wah effect,” says Pollack, “but the brighter and more sustained the sound, the more possibilities it gives you in performance. Sounds like the monophonic sawtooth wave are the closest to the sounds that our vocal cords actually produce when you’re singing normally.”
When it comes to choosing a good keyboard input for your Talk Box, Pollack points towards classic synths like the Yamaha DX 100 or Moog Model D. Countless other digital synths create similar sounds that can help you get started talking the talk.
When talk-boxing, Pollack recommends playing monophonically, only sounding one note at a time. The reason? “Lots of times, when you play chords of any sort, they can start to degrade the sound and distort,” he says. “Of course, you should experiment and see what works for you, but I’ve found that monophonic sounds really work the best with the Talk Box.”
Practice, practice, practice
“The Talk Box itself is no more complicated than a sixth grade science experiment,” says Pollack. “But effectively projecting the sound into your mouth and using your mouth to shape the sound exactly how you want it — that’s another story. Anybody can put a tube in their mouth and go ‘wah wah wah’ and it will sound cool in certain applications. Being able to sing using the Talk Box takes time and practice.”
If you want to emulate Pollack’s performance in the J3PO video, give yourself time to get used to not only dealing with a plastic tube stuck in your mouth, but learning how to speak or sing without using your vocal cords.
“It’s not the easiest thing to bite down on the tube, hold it in place, pronounce consonants, and shape vowels,” says Pollack. “When I’m teaching beginners, I have them whisper along with what they’re playing, while they play the notes they want on the keyboard. Once they’re used to that, I tell them to stop whispering. They’re usually good to go after that.”
Once you have the hang of it, it becomes second nature, but getting there can take months. “It took me a good half-a-year to get totally comfortable with it,” Pollack says.
Play with vibrato and modulation
If you’re using a keyboard as the sound source for your Talk Box, Pollack recommends you get familiar with your synth’s pitch-bending and modulation capabilities, usually controlled by a pair of wheels to the left of the lowest note of the keyboard.
“I always use the mod wheel for vibrato, especially with synth leads,” he says. “It adds nuance to what you’re singing. Sometimes it’s cool to not use it at all — you get a very direct sound — but when you use it tastefully, it can add a lot. Using the pitch wheel to add little bends is also cool. Anything that would sound good when you’re just playing a normal synth lead is going to sound good when you’re doing it through a Talk Box.”
Choose the right microphone
A key part of the equation when playing with a Talk Box is the microphone that picks up the cyber-punk hybrid sounds emanating from your mouth. When performing live, Pollack sticks with the workhorse Shure SM57, a classic mic known to shine with everything from vocals to guitar amps. In the studio, he prefers the Neumann U87, a pricier condenser microphone that he says can help bring out nice layers of nuance in the sound.
Remember that, in some cases, the sound coming out of your mouth will be powerful enough without additional amplification. “I never use a mic at home, because the sound coming out of the tube is loud enough as it is,” Pollack says, “just like if you were singing naturally.”
Don’t max out the volume
When it comes to the settings for your Talk Box, Pollack advises playing it safe. “Experiment and find out how loud your amp can go before your Talk Box starts distorting,” he says. “You want to stay below that point, because if you exceed it, the sound stiffens and starts sounding bad. If you’re starting to distort and you still want it to be loud, bring your cutoff filter down or turn the treble down,” he advises.
Going too loud can be bad not just for your sound, but for your health. “Having a heavily vibrating tube clamped in your mouth for long periods of time can hurt your teeth and your jaw,” says Pollack. “I’m not sure what the hearing damage ramifications are, but having sound blasting super loudly from inside your own mouth can’t be good for long periods of time. So keep the sound loud enough that it can be heard, but don’t overdo it.”
Do you use the Talk Box and have any expert tips to share? Tell us in the comments below.
Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.
Choosing a signature vocal mic for your studio
Four Unusual Keyboard Instruments That Can Inspire New Music
Going mobile: A look at music making apps
Virtual synths and the art of imperfection
Using MIDI Controllers On Stage