Talkboxes and Vocoders Reviewed From BOSS and TC HELICON

Guitar effect signal processing has become more advanced in the past several years as DSP engines have allowed musicians to obtain more specialized, advanced effects that are easy-to-use and available in smaller form factors. Today we’ll look at two effects for guitarists and vocalists that enable classic talkbox effects as well as vocoder synthesizer sounds in convenient small stomp box-sized packages.

These two units from BOSS (the VO-1 Vocoder, $249 street) and TC HELICON (Talkbox Synth, $249.99 street) offer similar overall sonic features, but they each take different approaches with how they are used in a guitarist or vocalist’s system and also in how the talkbox and vocoding effects are processed and applied.

First some background on talkboxes and vocoders for those interested in how they work.

The Talkbox

While versions of the talkbox effect had been around in some form well before the effect became popularized by Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton in the 1970s, the modern form of the talkbox used by guitarists was invented by Bob Heil. Heil’s talkbox consisted of a mouthpiece that ran into a speaker driver. Both the speaker

Peter Frampton using a classic Heil Sound talkbox with plastic tube mouthpiece

driver and of course the guitar and main microphone all required amplification. The Heil talkbox itself uses a plastic tube that would exit the unit and run up to the microphone for the user to put into his mouth.

How the talkbox actually works is by the guitar signal itself splitting some of the signal into the driver box which contained a speaker, then that audio signal would travel up through the tube and exit into the mouth of the user. From that point the user vocalizes and moves his mouth and that overall signal gets picked up by the main microphone and goes out through the main PA.

The setup is somewhat complex to put together as well as being a little unhygienic when dealing with the plastic tube in one’s mouth. Still, the cool vocal effects in Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” solo or Peter Frampton’s work on “Do You Feel Like We Do?” are legendary.

The Vocoder

Vocoders in some forms of music can be dated back to the late 1940’s, but really got going in the 1970s and 1980’s. A vocoder is a vocal synthesizer effect that uses a voice as the trigger and a large synthesizer (analog back in the day) to set the pitch and oscillation frequencies. The combination gives that electronic voice effect that was popular in funk and dance music in the 1970s, to New Wave of the 80’s and can be heard in groups today like Daft Punk.

Enter the BOSS VO-1 Vocoder and TC HELICON Talkbox Synth

Both of these units are designed to be triggered by a guitar or bass and deliver both talkbox and vocoder synth effects in compact form with minimal setup required. While both units deliver the sounds of a talkbox and vocoder synth, they both work very differently in how they are setup and used for a given rig.

BOSS VO-1 Vocoder

The BOSS VO-1 Vocoder is the company’s first compact pedal talkbox and vocoder. It features four modes including: Vintage (classic vocoder effect), Advanced (an updated modern vocoder effect with additional clarity), Talk Box (produces the classic effect without the need for a plastic hose), and Choir (automatically adds voices matches to your playing and can be used without the microphone).

The connections are straight forward and the BOSS VO-1 goes directly into your guitar rig and features an input and output for your instrument and amp connection, an XLR microphone input, send/return jacks in case you want to loop in an additional unit to work with the VO-1 such as an overdrive, and a standard 9v DC jack. The backside of the VO-1 also includes a mic sensitivity switch, with the default for most mics suggested as low sensitivity. The VO-1 does not supply phantom power and is designed for use with dynamic mics.

Controls on the VO-1 include a Level/Blend to both adjust the overall volume as well as control the balance between the guitar/bass input sound and the effect. The Tone knob controls the brightness, a Color knob performs multiple functions (more on that in a moment), and the final knob switches between the four modes described above.

With straightforward controls and connections, the Color knob actually has different functions depending on what Mode you set. While in Vintage or Advanced Modes, turning the Color knob left provides a deeper, more masculine voice, while clockwise makes the effect sound more feminine.

When switching to Talk Box mode, the Color knob adjusts the amount of distortion for the effect sound. This can enable you to increase and provide a raspier character to the talk box just like the originals are known for.

And lastly, in Choir mode, the Color knob adjusts the overall character of the voices that are added. Experiment for the one you like best for your application.

The BOSS VO-1 is clearly marketed toward the guitarist or bassist who wants a self-contained special effect rig, rather than for a vocalist. Since there is no pass-thru XLR connection to get the effect into the PA, all signals go through your guitar or bass amp. A downside is during a live performance situation, if you also do backup singing, you will need a second mic setup for your straight, non-effected vocals.

The BOSS VO-1’s Classic and Advanced vocoder effects were a lot of fun to play with. Being able to change the voicing tone through the Color knob was a nice feature to add. I used the VO-1 in a live setting and was able to get good approximations of the vocoder effect of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” using my Strat and a clean signal with some compression.

Using the Talk Box setting presented a little more of a challenge as I experimented with the VO-1 in different positions pre-and-post distortion/gain as well as with the effect of the built-in distortion with the color knob. It takes some work, but I found the best results for the talk box effect was to make sure it runs after any distortion or overdrive pedal. If you use your amp’s distortion, you’ll definitely want to put the VO-1 through the effects loop. Running the VO-1 prior to distortion rather than post-distortion will thin out the sound and over-compress it.

Careful use of the blend and level is also important when using the Talk Box setting. In live situations, you’ll need to spend some time with these settings including the Color control, or else the VO-1 can feedback because the microphone is essentially facing toward your cabinet(s). I found running the microphone slightly off to a 45 degree angle away from the cabinet helped. But obviously, the more volume you use, the more you’ll have to watch your settings. I experimented with both the industry standard Shure SM-58 microphone as well as an Audix OM-6 which offers better feedback rejection. Definitely recommend the Audix for this application or a similar microphone for best results.

Once dialed in, the Talk Box setting does a good job and it’s great to get away from the tube, additional driver box, and other equipment that would normally be needed to setup. It certainly is not 100% as dramatic or dynamic as a real talkbox, but the ability to have everything self-contained in your own guitar rig I think is worth the tradeoff unless you’re playing talkbox-oriented tunes all evening. I ran it in a live situation with the band and I played Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” with good results. And obviously being able to switch into a vocoder mode for other material (we play Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”) is fantastic.

For the guitarist that wants a fully self-contained vocoder or talkbox solution, the BOSS VO-1 can be a little particular when setting it up, but is never the less a fun, useful, and convenient tool.

Street price is $249. Visit the official BOSS website for more info.

TC HELICON Talk Box Synth

TC HELICON is well known for its excellent vocal-processing units. In fact, that’s the major difference between the TC HELICON Talkbox Synth and the BOSS VO-1. While the BOSS VO-1 is targeted at instrumentalists, TC HELICON’s solution is clearly positioned for vocalists who are also guitarists/bassists.

The Talkbox Synth features eight sound effects via its Style control, ranging from Classic (talkbox), Modern (vocoder), Classic+ which unmutes the instrument and blends both talkbox and instrument, and Modern+ which vocodes and again unmutes the instrument. The four Synth sounds will mute the instrument and provide a range in tones and voicing through the PA system you run it through. Synth 1 provides two synth voices that are slightly detuned for a chorus-like effect, Synth 2 is a single fat, square wave analog synth tone that sounds saturated and distorted, Synth 3 is a voice that provides an octave down effect to provide a bassy chorused effect, and Synth 4 which is a unison voice that adds a fifth above to produce a classic synth sound.

The Talkbox Synth, beyond the Style control, includes a pitch correction control which can be used during bypass-only as a pitch correct feature, a reverb control (can be used with or without the effect), a Tone button which has various functions, input and output jacks for your guitar, and XLR Mic in and out jacks to run into your PA system. A Micro USB connector is also on the backside to interface this directly into a computer for software udpates. A separate on/off switch enables you to keep the Talkbox Synth connected and the unit is powered by either 4 AA batteries or a separate power supply offered by TC HELICON. Although the batteries will run for 2-3 hours according to representatives from TC, I highly recommend purchasing the specific TC HELICON power supply. Note that with its requirements of 300mA current, the Talkbox Synth cannot run off a standard 9v power supply or Voodoo Labs power.

The TC HELICON Talkbox Synth, unlike the BOSS VO-1, runs best at the very front of your signal chain. It also incorporates auto gain in its circuitry which will automatically adjust the gain setting that is appropriate for your microphone. This eliminates the need for any manual adjustments when going between different synth voices.

However, if you want to raise or lower individual style levels for different instruments, you can do that while hold the Tone button and turning the Correction knob. The Tone button itself also enables programming of the unit to work in Momentary mode (effect only on while keeping the footswitch pressed) or standard latching style which turns the effect on or off each time you press the footswitch.

The Tone button by itself has its own functionality as well. When pushed it engages a preset combination of adaptive eq, compression, de-essing and noise gate. To me, these features sound great, but if you’re a purist, you are welcome to disable and turn them off.

Phantom power is also offered in case you wish to use the effect with a high-quality condenser microphone for recording purposes, with a dynamic mic obviously being the better choice for live use.

The TC HELICON Talkbox Synth is positioned as providing studio-quality sounds for talkbox and vocal tone polishing effects and it delivered. The talkbox and vocoder effects sounded excellent, with my favorite talkbox effect being on Style setting 3 (Classic +) which enabled my guitar signal to still run through my amp while the talkbox voicing and its classic raspiness exited the PA speakers.

Because the signal exits a PA, feedback issues were not a problem and the Talkbox Synth was not as particular in settings. I simply set the volume I wanted on my mixer channel and I could toggle between clean vocal singing, with or without additional processing, and then whichever effected talkbox or vocoding signal I want. The fact that the Talkbox Synth auto sets the levels according to the microphone and setting you use was a huge bonus in getting up to speed and using it quickly with no fuss.

When using the Talkbox Synth, the pitch itself is determined by the notes or chords you are playing with your instrument. The tracking was excellent. When off, I appreciated the fact that, as a not-so-great backup singer, I could dial in a little bit of pitch correction when the effect was bypassed. I’m keeping that a secret to my bandmates however. And Reverb control too? Yes please!

The TC HELICON Talkbox synth is definitely made for the live-performing musician. Whether you play in a cover band as I do, or just want new creative tools at your disposal, the TC HELICON Talkbox Synth opens up numerous voices and effects to explore, produces them beautifully, and does it all in a nice, easy-to-use and compact unit.

Street price is $249.99. Visit TC HELICON’s website for more information.