Ableton Live Tutorial: Talkbox Bass Sounds – Wobble Basslines w/ Your Voice (2Pac, Peter Frampton)

The talk box was originally made famous back in the 70s by artists like Peter Frampton and Zapp and Roger and later used in Tupac’s anthemic track “California Love,” and it is one of the most recognizable and unique effects in the guitarist’s arsenal. Dubspot blogger Computo shows us how to make a digital talk box with Ableton and some free plug-ins and comes up with some crazy wobbly vocalized bass sounds in the process…

Zapp and Roger, Peter Frampton and many other notable 70s artists created classic robotic-sounding vocal effects by using the infamous “Golden Voice” Talk Box from Electro Harmonix. Even today, the talk box effect has a sort of retro-futuristic atmosphere to it. Perhaps the best-known example of this sound is Roger Troutman’s famous robotic voice intro to Tupac Shakur’s hip hop classic “California Love”:

The physical design of this original talk box effect makes it most useful with higher-pitched amplified instruments such as guitars or synthesizers, it never worked that well for bass sounds.  However, by using contemporary music software technology, we can take this concept into a modern realm and use it to create some amazing bass growls and wobbles. If you have ever tried to make wobble bass sounds by automating an LFO or twisting a MIDI knob, using vocal modulation instead can open up a whole new way to control sound, so let’s take a look…

History of the Talk Box

The talk box has existed in some form since the early 1960s, though it was not until the 70s when the device matured to its current design. The first real Talk Box product was developed in 1973 by Robert Heil, widely known as a sound engineer in the 60s and in particular for running the sound at Woodstock.  Heil’s device was the first commercial product of its kind, made for large rock stages and used by Peter Frampton and Roger Troutman, among others.

The device itself consists of an enclosed high-frequency speaker through which the tone of the guitar (or other high-pitched instrument) is amplified.  A plastic tube is the only outlet for the sound produced by the encased speaker, and when the opposite end of the tube is placed in the mouth of the performer, the sound reverberates through his or her mouth, allowing the shape of the mouth to control and filter the tone of the guitar.  The sound produced by this combination of sources is then miked again so it can be amplified or recorded.  By combining the sound source (called the carrier signal) of the guitar, and the modulation source (referred to as the modulator signal) of the mouth, a new and unique sound is created.

Talk Boxes vs. Vocoders

This concept of using a modulator signal to change a carrier signal and produce a new sound is very similar to the theory behind the common vocoder. The frequencies of an incoming sound are broken up into a number of different frequency bands and then this frequency profile is combined with another sound to filter out only certain sections of the frequency range.

To create this effect in software, we will use the MDA Talkbox VST plug-in. This is part of a larger collection of free open-source VST plug-ins designed by Paul Kellett of the Smartelectronix team.  It is described on the MDA/Smartelectronix website as a “high resolution vocoder,” which automatically sets the frequency bands based on the incoming carrier signal to fit the range of the human voice.

In an email dialogue, Paul further described the vocoding theory involved in this Talkbox plug-in: “The MDA Talkbox plug-in basically works like a vocoder, but instead of a fixed bank of filters (like a graphic EQ) it uses Linear Predictive Coding (LPC) to make a filter that matches the spectrum of the voice signal–more like a parametric EQ but adjusted automatically.  The same sort of thing is used in mobile phones to encode your voice…”

Using the Talkbox effect on a bass tone will allow it be modulated by a vocal input, which can be used to create more expressive electronic bass sounds.  Using a good bass source, we can easily get the throaty, low- to mid-range sounds that are popular in current electronic music genres, like Dubstep, Electro and Trap.

Making the Talk Box Bass

Start by adding two audio tracks in Ableton as well as one MIDI track.  On one audio track, load an a cappella vocal audio file.  It could be singing or just talking, but some sort of unaccompanied voice track.  Pan this track fully to the left, and route the output of the vocal track to the other, empty audio track.

On the MIDI track, add the Massive VST plug-in and pan it all the way to the right. Route the output from the Massive MIDI track to the empty audio track, just like the vocal audio track.  Start with a new preset in Massive and set the Pitch on OSC1 to -24.  Sequence a couple of MIDI notes in a clip around Middle C (C3) on the Massive track and loop them to keep the sound going, one long note over one or two measures will work.  This simple bass tone patch will allow us to hear the effect that the Talkbox will have on the sound.

Now, on the empty audio track to which you have routed the outputs of the other two tracks, drag in the MDA Talkbox plug-in. It should set up automatically at this point, with the Carrier set to the right input. Make sure the “Dry” is turned down to 0, and the “Wet” is at 100 percent. Now set the Monitor setting on this audio track to In, so that the incoming signals from the other two tracks comes into the effect. Now your setup in Ableton should look like this:

Now press play and listen to the incoming vocal audio change the tonality of the bass sound you are playing back.  Turn the “Wet” down, and listen to the clean bass sound, compared to the effected sounds.  You can also change the preset in Massive to see how the output of the Talkbox changes.  Also try switching the MDA Talkbox “Carrier” slider to the left input, and you can hear the signals switch places, with the bass acting as the modulator of the voice.

Of course, if you use a live microphone signal coming in instead of a looped audio file as the carrier, you can create these effects with your mouth in real time. To do this simply plug in a mic and set the input appropriately on the first audio track in Ableton, then set its Monitor setting to In. Now your live incoming audio will serve as the carrier. Just be careful not to turn your monitors up too loud (or use headphones) if you do this so that you don’t accidentally create a feedback loop…

Talk Box Comes Alive!

Now let’s look at how to take this technique to the next level.  One quick way is to loop a section of the carrier vocal audio file inside of Ableton.  Try setting a one-beat loop in the clip view in Ableton.  Then, try dragging the loop across the audio file, to find an expressive section of the track.  Adding an audio chopping plug-in to the signal path of your modulator such as Ableton’s own Beat Repeat or The Finger from Native Instruments will help create even more active, rapidly-changing bass sound.

The plug-in designer himself also has some suggestions about how to get the classic Talk Box effect with the MDA plug-in:

“To sound like a real talk box it makes a big difference if you use the right sort of carrier signal (guitar or a bright monosynth) and usually some EQ to boost the high-mids and remove all the lows.  The same as with a vocoder, you’ll get much better results if you can sing into it live and hear the result than applying it as an effect to an existing recording, so you can adapt the way you sing (though it sounds pretty stupid to anyone else listening!)”

Taking this concept to an extreme, a well-practiced singer could not only effect the bass sound with his voice (as modulator), but even trigger the bass sound itself using an audio-to-MIDI pitch tracking plug-in such as Native Instruments’ The Mouth. (Among other things it can be used for, The Mouth has an added ability to analyze the incoming audio signal, converting single notes into MIDI data.)  This MIDI note information can then be sent to the Massive plug-in (or any other MIDI instrument) to trigger notes, while at the same time, the vocal signal is also being used to control the modulator on the Talk Box plugin.  This technique could be very useful for live beatboxers and singers, though it does take quite a bit of practice to be able to control both the Carrier and the Modulator together.

Dubspot contributor Computo is a half-human/half-machine electronic music producer and DJ, focusing on bass music of all varieties. He currently works for Native Instruments in Los Angeles as West Coast product specialist and trainer for Maschine and Komplete, and recently contributed programming to the Maschine expansion pack Raw Voltage. His YouTube tutorial on creating wobble bass with Massive has been viewed over 800,000 times.

Additional References

You can download the MDA plug-ins mentioned in this article from here:

Read more about Roger Troutman’s Custom “Golden Throat” Talkbox here:

Here are some more classic music videos using the Talk Box effect:

Peter Frampton – “Do You Feel Like I Do” (1976)

Zapp and Roger – “More Bounce to the Ounce” (1980)

Rusko – My Mouth (2010)

And another video for the DIY crowd explaining how to build your own talk box:

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