Ever found that your own vocal skills are a little too human? I mean, we all need a unique selling point – I read that somewhere. Let’s call it a USP. And what can be more unique than not sounding like a human being? I know what you’re thinking… Bob Dylan has already cornered the market on that one. True, true. But haven’t you ever wanted to go one step further?
Alternatively, if you’re one of those people who (like myself) have stared in the face of a complete lack of singing ability and laughed (then cried… then sort of half laughed and cried) then the Rocktron Banshee talkbox is for you!
Talkboxes are nothing new. The first incarnations came in the form of bagpipe-looking devices that were made in the 50’s. These were little more than speakers in a bag with a tube attached. Similar ideas such as transducers that were strapped to a singers throat were also developed shortly after. But it wasn’t until the mid 70’s and early 80’s that talkboxes in their current guise were used in any meaningful way. The two stand out artists that popularised this strange device were Peter Frampton on his classic album ‘Peter Frampton Comes Alive’ and the undisputed king of the talkbox, Mr. Roger Troutman in his recordings with Zapp.
So, what then is a talkbox? Well, it’s actually a very simple device that produces a very unique sound. If you live in the USA you can put one together pretty easily and cheaply – those of us in places like Australia have a lot more trouble getting our hands on the parts. However, the way it works is like this:
1. A signal is sent to an amplifier.
2. The amplifier drives a compression/horn driver that has an operational frequency range of approx. 300Hz to 6000Hz (that is, a midrange driver).
3. A tube is fed from the throat of the compression driver (where the sound comes from) and directly into the mouth of the performer.
4. The performer uses their throat and mouth to modulate the sound much like they would if they were talking.
5. A microphone placed before the performer picks up the modulated sound emanating from the performers mouth.
In short, you can make the music played on your guitar or keyboard sound like it’s talking or singing.
Playing a talkbox well is actually very hard to do. You don’t actually make any noise yourself like you would if you were singing or talking, you simply manipulate the sound that is being played through the tube into your mouth. The only exception to this is with regards to ‘fricative’ and ‘sibilant’ sounds – like F, S, T, SH, TH, K etc. When you make these sounds in speech, you are not using the sound that is resonating in your vocal chords but rather creating the sounds by forcing air between your tongue, teeth, lips or at the back of your throat. Thus, when playing a talkbox (which in effect replaces your vibrating vocal chords) you will still need to add in these sibilant and fricative sounds. You can give this a shot right now and get an idea of how hard it can be. Try saying “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” but only expressing the fricative/sibilant sounds e.g “TH. Q…K B…. F..X J….D .V..TH. ..Z. D.G”. If you don’t put these sounds in, the talkbox doesn’t really sound like it’s talking. The art of playing well (and it really is an art) is to find a balance between the tone of the talkbox, the fricative sounds and the musical progressions.
Why not watch the legend Roger Troutman do this live. Please bear in mind the clarity of articulation he achieves is so very, very hard.
Anyway, back to this review.
The Rocktron Banshee 2 is a solid piece of kit. It’s designed as a steel-cased stompbox and aimed more at the guitarist market than the keyboardist – but works perfectly fine for keyboard signals. Inside the box there is an amplifier that drives a compression driver. The box has three knobs and 3 buttons on top. One button is your typical stompbox in/out switch. The other two buttons allow for the original signal to be simultaneously sent to a separate amplifier and also to send the signal through an effects loop prior to running it into the compression driver. The knobs are labeled ‘Gain’, ‘Tone’ and ‘Output’ and do exactly what they appear to do. The Gain increases the signal being input into the amplifier (allowing you to drive it into healthy levels of screaming distortion), the Tone is pretty much a gentle low-pass filter that controls the brightness of the amplified sound and the output increases the volume of the signal being sent up the tube. The tube plugs into the top of the box, directly above the compression driver, and is of a generous length to allow for pretty much all uses to which you might put the talkbox (and, if you’re like me, you probably just thought of some uses to which you should definately NOT put the talkbox).
Generally, a talkbox is a simple design and pretty hard to mess up. Rocktron have consequently produced a nice little device. However, it is not all sunshine and daffodils. There are some minor issues. Firstly, the way the tube connects to the box is a little lacking. The tube “plugs in” to a hole in the top of the box, but it could easily be knocked loose in the heat of live performance. That would be a disaster. If no sound comes up the tube, then the talkbox does not work. I would have much preferred a screw on type fitting. Secondly, the driver is pretty noisy. This is probably unavoidable. You see it in any talkbox to greater or lesser degrees and it stems from the fact that pushing a useful volume of sound up a tube into someone’s mouth requires significant amplification. The more you amplify a sound, the worse the signal to noise ratio becomes. Additionally, complex frequencies produce the best sounds – so you will want to use a sawtooth based synth patch and drive the gain (or run your guitar through a fuzz box of some sort). These factors will also increase noise. It’s not really a “fault” of the Roctron Banshee 2 but I have heard talkboxes that handle the noise issue better.
The talkbox is probably the most fun you can have with your mouth without being arrested but it really is a limited tool for a musician. You can vary the tone and the signal that is being fed into the device, but you can never escape that “talkboxy” sound. That said, if you like weird musical experiments then you’ll never be disappointed with a talkbox. And the Rocktron Banshee 2 is a fine example with which to begin.