Labor of Computer Love: Two Decades of Talkbox Attempts
…by Paranorm (Originally Published in 2000/2001 by grandroyal.com)
How the fuck do they make that sound? is the adult version of what I was thinking as an 8 year old in 1982 listening to More Bounce to the Ounce at my local skating rink. I can remember hearing that song and initially concluding that someone had a computer that was trained (programming? what’s that?) to sing. At that point, I still thought the Million Dollar Man was real so…go figure. The sound that this computer voice made was always in the back of my mind and surfaced often when the Transformers came out. I could always tell that the Transformers voice was different than the More Bounce to the Ounce voice, different than that this stuff is really fresh voice, and totally different than the it’s time voice, but for the most part they were all lumped together in my head as computer voices.
Around my Transformers stage, I saw a commercial for this headset that would supposedly make your voice sound like the Transformers voice. I had to have it or I would die so I asked my mom if I could get it for Christmas. My mom was good to me as always and on Christmas day, I opened up my headset and put it on with the intent of sounding like a Transformer and doing the More Bounce voice, but it didn’t sound anything like it. Damn. That day marked the first time I really tried to imitate Roger Troutman and was disappointed because I couldn’t do it. It was a feeling I would grow accustomed to over the next two decades.
After several years passed and my friends and I began to make music, I gave the computer voice another shot. I would try to send my voice through a Realistic reverb box using the headphones as the mic. From the back of the box I would take two RCA jack splitters and plug them into the outputs, run one side of the split RCA out to the amp, and send the other side back into the RCA inputs on the back of the reverb box. This would send the signal looping through the reverb box, and I could control the feedback with the input knob. By messing with the input level and the reverb knob in this mode, I could get my voice to sound computer-like, or digital, and the whole thing had some really interesting side effects, but basically I struck out again in my attempts to be Roger. My idea was simple and practical, but I could never get it to work right. Damn. By that time it was the end of 1988 and I still hadn’t figured how Roger did it.
In 1994 I got an Ensoniq ASR-10 and it had tons of different effects on it. I could sense that the computer voice was right around the corner. I approached it this time in an entirely different manner than before…instead of making the sounds in real time, I was going to use an intricate maze of stacked effects with the finished product being something similar to my childhood computer voices. I began by using the pitch shift to make my voice high like Nucleus did on Jam On It or like Sir Nose D’void of Funk on the Parliament records. I would drop my voice into the sampler and begin the long, arduous journey of applying effects and re-sampling again and again. Needless to say, that method only yielded muffled sounds and basically noise. During that time, when I was learning all the sampling tricks of the trade, I figured out that you could loop any sound super fast and it would come out kinda digital. If you combined a human voice with this looping digital sound, as long as they both changed notes at the same time and you mixed it right, you could create a makeshift computer voice simulation. Wow! I had been trying to duplicate Roger’s sound for over a decade, and was now only ten billion miles away. Damn.
The next year, I was record shopping and I came across a Roger 12 called I Play the Talk Box. My determination to get that sound was renewed yet again. I began to ask people if they knew what was up with the Talkbox and I eventually ran into a friend who told me that I needed a vocoder. He said, Yeah, I actually saw Roger once and he gets that sound by sticking this tube down his throat. What?! I was blown away. It’s not like I, or anyone I knew, had ever seen Zapp live or even any of their videos, so this was a complete shock to me.
Hot on the trail, I was more determined than ever to figure out what was going on with Roger, the computer voice, and this supposed tube down his throat. For inspiration, I pulled the insert out of The Many Facets of Roger and put it on my wall. By then, the internet was starting to pick up a little, and this being a computer voice I was seeking out you might think the computers led me to it, but as it turned out… the light didn’t shine until I wandered into the guitar store and asked some old rocker guy about the Talkbox. At that point, I had always thought the Talkbox was mostly a black thing, more associated with electronic hip hop than rock, but the rocker guy explained to me that it’s just a guitar effects pedal easily available at any guitar shop. I felt like the biggest idiot on the planet. Here it is, the middle of the ‘90s and my dumb ass was searching high and low for this secret that rock guys had known since the ‘70s. Actually, I can sum it up in one word super easy: Indiana.
Time warp to 2000. It had been a good 18 years since I fell in love with the computer sounds of Roger Troutman and I was still without a Talkbox even though I know all about them at this point. So there I was one day…drunk, bored, and watching an episode of BET’s Live from LA. The guests that night were the Gap Band, that woman from The S.O.S. Band, and a bunch of other funk stars. The time came for them to play a song, and of course they had to go and do a version of Computer Love… I think it was at that point that I lost it. I spent the rest of that night on the internet searching for Talkbox information, and I finally stumbled across a page that would change my life: instructions to build my own talkbox. (Here’s the official Hobby Squad how-to so you can use a larger amp and get some decent volume.) I casually thought to myself, Oh man, I can do this today. It was on.
I began to gather up all the ingredients for my Talkbox pie. After looking around my room, I had all the pieces except the tube so it was off to the store with my friend, Mr. Dope America. The first stop, after that Japanese place on Vermont, was Rite-Aid. After declining the tubing from a kids super soaker, the water tubing to clean out a bedpan, and the tube from a clear jump rope, we headed to the spot that never lets you down….the $.99 store on Sunset Blvd. I walked in with a dream of the perfect Talkbox tube. I walked out with a faded dream and hula-hoop. Ok, so sometimes you have to improvise when times are hard and all the stores are closing.
When I got home, I cut the hula-hoop in half and tried to straighten it out to no avail. I quickly learned that the sound making items inside of a hula hoop are really crushed up pieces of scrap plastic that will spill all over your floor if you’re not careful. I hooked it all up (as described here) and Boom. There was sound, and I was ready to try my Talkbox. Like a jackass, I turned it up a little so I could get the full effect of my new unit. I placed the hula-hoop in my mouth, hit a key, and prepared to rock the computer voice… and I was punished. The density and inflexibility of the hula hoop plastic caused that one key to rattle all my teeth, my head, and my face to the point that I had a migraine headache. That shit didn’t work at all. I was still drunk, now depressed and with a splitting headache, and in the middle of my room with a shitty experiment gone bad. Roger had outsmarted me once again (even though, by this time, it was from the grave).
The next day, I got up, tossed that thing I tried to make the night before in the closet and pointed my browser to recycler.com. The ad read like it was written just for me, For Sale: A new (never used), still in the box, Heil Talkbox. The time had come for me to step up to the plate and enter the big leagues. I was 20 years late on a Talkbox, but God was finally giving me what I deserved.
I made arrangements with the seller, made the exchange, and finally: I had my hands on the real thing. I ran in the house and laid it out perfectly just like the diagram in the instructions… well, with one little exception: I was missing a stereo output on my amp. That’s ok, I thought, all I have to do is splice some speaker wire and run it into a quarter inch jack from the back of the speaker connected to the amp. So I did that. And it didn’t work. I tried everything I could and nothing worked. I just sat there with the tube in my mouth, pathetically mouthing the lyrics I wanted the computer voice to sing, pretending that the Talkbox was working. Then I remembered that Guitar Center would be open the next morning, so I just sat and stared at the wall with the tube hanging out of my mouth until I fell asleep and dreamt of singing computers, sadistic hula hoops, and Roger Troutman.
The next day, a rocker dude at the Guitar Center (who mysteriously looked a lot like the rocker dude who enlightened me on the Talkbox back in Indiana) sold me the cheapest amp with a speaker output I could find. I got home, hooked everything up, put my ear to the tube and finally heard the soothing sounds of some speaker hum coming through the tube. At last! I’d reached the promised land, and the entire scene in my bedroom turned surreal, like I was moving in slow motion. The tube was calling my name.
The first time I heard that computer voice come out of my mouth, I almost cried tears of joy. After I’d played with it a few, the phone calls began. I called everyone from The Tick to my mom and explained that I’d finally gotten a Talkbox. Whether they wanted to hear it or not I demonstrated the sound until they either hung up or became irate. I couldn’t get enough that first day. The Talkbox was all that I thought it was and more. It wasn’t simple to do, but it wasn’t difficult either. It just was… and it was all mine.
HOW TO BUILD A TALKBOX
a plastic bowl or trashcan about the same size of the speaker
something to poke a hole in that bowl or trashcan (screwdriver, knife)
some tape or a stack of Dilated Peoples stickers
flexible plastic tubing about a 1/2 an inch in diameter, long enough to go from the amp to your mouth. Surgical tubing works best.
connection wires for the amp, speaker, and instrument.
sound-dampening material like blankets, down jackets, whatever you’ve got.
Start with a clean workspace, like mine.
Pull the speaker out, and pick a bowl that closely matches the speaker size.
Fasten the bowl to the speaker using Duct tape or Dilated Peoples stickers. (peace to my man Rakaa Iriscience).
Poke a hole in the top of the bowl or trashcan big enough to hold your tube securely without crushing it. If you’re using a plastic mixing bowl like me, you can use a screwdriver to poke a hole and then a butter knife to widen it. Run the tube through; there shouldn’t be room for the tube to rattle around; if it does, close the seal around the edges of the hole as well as you can.
Connect the speaker and a keyboard or a guitar to the amp. Turn it all on.
Now comes the somewhat difficult part if you are using an amp and a speaker that are fairly large. You need to dampen the noise coming out of the speaker so that it’s primarily directed through the tube. I placed the speaker in one of the larger mixing bowls, which did nothing. So I covered the whole speaker action with a bunch of blankets, which did more, but still not enough. The final touch was an old First Down jacket I found in my closet. If you have some other contraption to keep it quiet, cool; you just need to make sure the tubing and speaker wire don’t get stuck inside.
When sufficiently little sound is coming out from under the padding, set your compressor gate (if you have one) so that it won’t pick up any noise still coming out. Place the end of the tube in your mouth, hold a microphone up to it, make some noise on the keyboard or guitar, and form words with your mouth. Don’t vocalize, just make like Mister Ed. Sounds like a singing computer, don’t it? It’s not as easy as Roger made it sound, so practice with vowels first, then consonants. You’ll also notice that if you bite down on the tube, it modifies the sound. Play around with it. Do something new, and make us an Mp3. Seriously.
Download (192kbps) the MP3 Paranorm made with the talkbox he built!
TOP 20 DOPEST TALKBOX SONGS
1. Zapp and Roger – More Bounce to the Ounce – You know this song because it is a rollerskating classic. It brings back memories of asses shakin’ and those black speed skates that I never had because I was too broke. I hated being the kid who was always stuck with those stankin’ ass brown rentals, but when you don’t have a choice there’s nothing you can do. On a side note, Strictnine had the speed skates but he had a hole in the toe of his and you could see his toes because he didn’t wear any socks. Back to the matter at hand, More Bounce To The Ounce will always be one of the dopest talkbox songs ever because it bounces and brings that funk that no other song has ever been able to duplicate.
2. Zapp and Roger – Computer Love – Computerized to the fullest. This cut was so far ahead of its time that people still aren’t hip to it. Not only did it combine the Talkbox with computer terminology, but it threw in love to seal it all up. I’m waiting for the first big dot com advertising campaign to use this song. When they finally do, they’d better be prepared to write a big fat check to the Troutman family.
3. DJ Quik – Roger’s Groove – DJ Quik could very well be the musician to carry the talkbox torch into the future. He doesn’t play around when it comes to using the instrument to its fullest. Of course, he’s no Roger Troutman, but his talkbox usage is clean, clear, and it rides with the music well. Look out for Quik and the talkbox in the next couple of years…I’m sure he’s going to drop a few bombs on us soon.
4. Dre and Tupac (w/ Roger) – California Love – The talkbox on this was tight and Roger came off like a champ. He’s performing overdubs in the background, as well as the choruses, and basically making this song the hit that it was. Roger rules the talkbox and the planet earth.
5. Rufus feat. Chaka Khan – Tell Me Something Good – Chaka Khan is one of the greatest singers of our time. If you’re not familiar with her work, I would suggest that you go to Warner Brothers Records and jack them for her complete discography like I did the other day. As far as the talkbox on this song, It’s not much, but it’s a perfect compliment to Chaka and the background singing.
6. Blackstreet – Don’t Leave Me – Teddy Riley brings the heat on this joint. This song got me crazy amounts of love back in school, so biggup Teddy. As for his Talkbox work, his delivery is super crisp and clean. He is definitely in the running for the talkbox title inheritance. I would really like to see him and DJ Quick battle for the title.
7. Peter Frampton – Do You Feel Like We Do (Live) – He’s the original talkbox star and he does his thing very well. I can remember seeing his live album in my aunt’s bedroom when I was little and just looking at it for hours for no reason at all. In hindsight, I think I was just sensing the talkbox on that vinyl.
8. Eric Onasis feat. Def Squad, Xzibit, DJ Quik – Focus – The E double has brought the heat using the Talkbox (and vocoder) on many occasions. Even though this is the only Eric Sermon cut on my list, I would suggest listening to all of his records in depth if you get the chance to. He uses crazy samples and makes his own brand of funk that is often overlooked today. Real talent is what he has.
9. Eagles – Those Shoes – Hey…these guys stole the High Plains Drifter beat and made a song about shoes? The talkbox on this is decent in parts and it goes well with the feeling of the song. Throw this in the mix at your next party and I guarantee your old hippy neighbors will come out to play.
10. Shirley Murdock w/ Roger – Chocolate City – Standard Roger on this grooved-out, slow, soul filled funk cut. If you’re a rider, this song followed by ATL’s “Black Superman” would be a great way to launch a Sunday Crenshaw flossin’ session. Ride on playa.
11. Keith Sweat feat. Roger – Put Your Lovin’ Through the Test – To me, Keith Sweat always sounds like a singing frog. On this one Roger gets nice in a ballad type way, but Keith on the other hand, still sounds like a singing frog.
12. H-Town – Thin Line Between Love and Hate – Roger produced this remake of the classic hit and it turned out as well as a remake of a classic can. The song has a crisp electronic sound and those guys from H-Town were down with Luke and Roger…can’t be that bad…or can it?
13. Peter Frampton – Show Me the Way (Live) – Frampton does it again. Not only does he have the biggest selling live record of all time, but he’s using a talkbox to spread his music…you’ve gotta love that. He’s supposed to have his own talkbox coming out soon, called the Framptone.
14. Kool Keith w/ Roger – Master of the Game – Kool Keith had me won over on “Sly We Fly” when he said “We fly the planes ourselves. Black Elvis rocks the mic with somewhat of a southern choppy style on this one while Roger belts out the chorus in praise of Keith, “The Master of the Game.”
15. Above The Law – Black Superman – It’s hard to tell if this is a talkbox or a vocoder. I want to believe it’s a talkbox and that it fits in this article, but if it’s not…it doesn’t really matter to me because I’m still going to put it on my list. If it’s a vocoder..it’s one of the finest vocoder gangsta hits ever made. If it’s a Talkbox, it’s time to make a new 2001 version of this song.
16. Johnny Gill feat. Roger – It’s Your Body – Standard R&B flave with Roger in the background helping out Johnny with his trusty talkbox. Put this on, dim the lights, and get down to it with your lady. Interesting Note: Roger says Computer Love on this and like every other song he ever made.
17. Aerosmith – Sweet Emotion – Steven Tyler has some big ass lips. He could probably swallow a Talkbox. This is a cut for the pool halls of America…and something that bikers everywhere can be proud of. God Bless America and Aerosmith with a talkbox.
18. Joe Walsh – Rocky Mountain Way – This song makes me feel like tossing back a little Henny and going for a drive in the country. Nothing wrong with a bumpin’ a bluesy, country, guitar cut like this every couple of years.
19. Nazareth – Hair of the Dog – Woah… “Now you’re messing with a son of a bitch” is the hook. This song is rocking and then some Guitar Center salesman comes in singing, or actually barking, on the talkbox.
20. Jeff Beck – She’s a Woman – This is a talkbox joint for your mom to smoke to in her station wagon. It’s super mellow with a twist of country funk added. Get ya flame on… Mom!
Honorable Mention. Beastie Boys – Something’s Got to Give (Live) – Ian remembered seeing some tube wrap all the way up Adrock’s mic stand on the 1998 tour, went through his whole video to find the song it was used on, made an audio file for this site, and then realized he already had an mp3 of it in the GR Radio database. The moral of the story is: Adrock used a talkbox to perform Something’s Got to Give live, and it sounded dope.
TOP 7 WORST TALKBOX SONGS
-1. Steely Dan – Haitian Divorce – This joint has some Caribbean flavor to it. The talkbox guy is pretty good, but he’s not really saying anything on this song. It’s more like he’s just using the talkbox as an effect..which is silly because it’s called a Talkbox… do some talking.
-2. Shaq – Playin’ on the Westside – The MVP wasn’t playing around when he threw some talkbox on the end of this one. The song is corny, but solid talkbox works no matter how weak the song may be. Plus, the thing that really matters is that he’s probably the dopest player we’ll see in our lifetimes outside of Jordan… and he’s down with the Talkbox. I never heard Jordan on a song with a Talkbox.
-3. Sounds of Blackness w/ Roger- Hold On – Throughout this song Roger sounds like he’s doing a slower version of Doo Wah Ditty in a bunch of places. No dissing this…it’s for the Lord. Well, hold up, it could’ve been a little doper in my opinion. My thoughts on Christian music are as follows: If you have the power of God behind you, you should be making the dopest music available to man, but 90% of the time, these acts are falling short when it comes to tight productions. I can’t figure it out.
-4. Stefan Raab – Hier Kommt Die Maus – I wish I could understand what the fuck they’re saying on this. I laugh every time I hear that corny talkbox during the chorus combined with the fact that it sounds like they are saying, “Here come de mouse.” This group reminds me of a German version of the Black Eyed Peas. Blah.
-5. Bon Jovi – Living on a Prayer – These guys suck the big nuts, but they did rock the talkbox on one of their biggest Mtv hits. I’m sure there are a couple of stoned out Bon Jovi fans out there who still space out to the lame ass Talkbox on this one. Zapp should’ve kicked these guys asses when this came out.
-6. Nastyboy Klick feat Roger – Down for Yours – Boo!!! Boo!!! Boo!!!! If Roger wasn’t on this track, this song could possibly be the wackest song ever recorded. The good thing about Roger is that he didn’t discriminate when it came to cameos. He always brought his A game to the studio even if the group that was paying him had not an ounce of talent.
-7. Alice in Chains – Man in the Box – This song is booty. Boo!!!! Heil, the maker of the Talkbox, should send someone to find these guys, revoke their talkbox, and punch them in the face for even thinking they were dope.