Talking effects have had prominent places in music, especially throughout the ’70s and beyond. What is, then, the difference between a talkbox vs vocoder?
Talkbox vs. Vocoder: Are They the Same Thing?
If you’ve never used one before, you’re probably wondering what the difference between a talkbox and vocoder is. The sound they create is similar, so it’s very common to conflate the two effects. A talkbox is not the same as a vocoder, as each operates on a different principle altogether. We’ll take some time to break down the two, highlighting the differences between talkbox and vocoding effects.
What Is a Talkbox?
A talkbox is an electromechanical device that uses the human voice to modulate the sound of an instrument (oftentimes the guitar) to create talking effects.
How Does a Talkbox Work?
A talkbox sends an amplified instrument signal through a driver located inside the device. The driver then sends this signal through a flexible plastic tube that a musician places inside their mouth, which requires being miked up. From here, the performer can speak or vocalize sounds into the tube while playing their instrument, and the mouth acts as a filter to alter that original incoming acoustic signal from the talkbox’s driver. The microphone picks up the modulated result of the signal path, ultimately turning instrument sounds into more vocal/talking sounds.
Musicians Who Used a Talkbox
Numerous performers made popular use of the talkbox effect, including Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh, Stevie Wonder, Bon Jovi (Richie Sambora), Pink Floyd (David Gilmour), Alice in Chains (Jerry Cantrell), Jeff Beck, and plenty of others.
What Is a Vocoder?
A vocoder is an electronic device that uses a series of filters to alter the human voice and make it sound more like an instrument (usually a synthesized type sound).
How Does a Vocoder Work?
The vocoder is a totally different beast than a talkbox. In fact, the foundation of the vocoder was laid by Homer Dudley at Bell Labs in 1938 to shrink the bandwidth required for transatlantic communication over copper wire.
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As an instrument, the vocoder requires a modulator signal and a carrier signal. The modulator in this case is the human voice, picked up by a microphone, and split into multiple frequency bands and sent to a bandpass filter. The carrier, in this case a synthesizer, allows you to alter the sound of the incoming modulator (voice) and create instrument-like effects. A vocoder is most often associated with the robotic vocal sound.
Vocoders take it a step further than talkboxes. For example, you could potentially play percussion or brass instruments as the input/modulator signal for some really unique sounds.
Musicians Who Used a Vocoder
You’ve heard the vocoder used by artists such as Kraftwerk, Beastie Boys, Daft Punk, Zedd, Wendy Carlos, and even metal legends Meshuggah. However, the vocoder is most frequently associated with electronic acts due to its highly synthesized sounding effect.
How to Decide Between a Talkbox and a Vocoder
Vocoders offer arguably more versatility than talkboxes. Just remember that a talkbox uses an instrument like the guitar to create talking effects, while a vocoder uses a synthesizer to “play” the human voice. Both offer incredibly unique sounds, even if they’ve gone relatively out of fashion over the years. In any case, choosing between a talkbox vs vocoder is a personal choice; if you have the opportunity, listen to some samples and research which options are out there for both. That will help you pinpoint which is the best for you!