August 16, 2011
Electro-Harmonix’s Stereo Talking Machine does an impressive job of getting those legendary talk-box tones and much more.
To say that the human voice is the most dynamic instrument of all is a cliché, but it’s also pretty hard to deny. As an instrument, it may be supreme—the inspiration for all instruments, in a way—and that’s why emulating its qualities can be so compelling in the right contexts. The Sonovox, developed in the 1940s, used modulation of the voice to shape the tones of audio signals. In the late 1970s, funk all-stars Zapp and Roger used the talk-box effect on keyboards to shape their distinctive groove. The most widely known use of the mouth as a guitar effect is from Peter Frampton’s array of hits featuring the Heil Talk Box. The effect has even infiltrated the domain of digital recording—the Antares THROAT VST effect plug in allows singers to change their voices in a manner similar to talk boxes.
Electro-Harmonix’s latest pedal, the Stereo Talking Machine, isn’t the first Mike Matthews-related affair to seek after those voice-like qualities—Matthews’ Soul Kiss effect from the early ’90s clipped onto your strap and had a wired mouthpiece controller for achieving wah-like sounds—but it does an impressive job of getting those legendary talk-box tones and much more. Like other recently introduced EHX pedals, this stompbox has modern features such as preset management and 24-bit/46 kHz digital conversion. It also has a fuzz circuit and a wealth of controls beyond what you see on the surface.
Open up and Say …
To grasp the basic premise behind a talk box, you need only understand one of the oldest and simplest instruments, the mouth harp: When you place it in your mouth and pluck its tiny metal reed, the resulting vibrations are altered by shifting the shapes formed by your lips—just as in speech. Low-pass filters, wah pedals, and talk boxes were all attempts at mimicking and mechanizing the mouth’s sound-filtering capabilities. When applied to a guitar tone, talkbox effects produce a range of vowel sounds and frequency peaks and valleys called formants that can be amazingly expressive.
The Talking Machine comes in a medium-sized case with Blend, Voice, Attack, Decay, Sensitivity, and Presets knobs along the top. It also has two footswitches for Preset and buffered Bypass, as well as a stereo output, an effects loop, and an expression-pedal input. The Talking Machine runs on a 9-volt DC adapter only and stores nine programmable presets, each indicated by an independent LED.
The Preset knob is the key to accessing auxiliary functions for each knob, including Volume, Fuzz Tone, Fuzz Gain, LFO Rate, and LFO Shape. EHX makes the wealth of controls and features fairly accessible, however.
Plugging in my Fender Strat and cycling through the presets, I quickly familiarized myself with the Talking Machine’s various voice types, which include OW-EE, AH, I-A, AH-OO, AH-I, EE-ER, and EE (yes, they are actually listed as such on the unit). There are also two additional filters: WAH simulates just what you’d think, and the other, BB, simulates the distinctively nasal EHX Bassballs pedal. As the names of these Voice types indicate, the envelope follower in the Talking Machine sweeps from one vocal formant to the next, producing a variety of natural vocal gestures.
Impressively, the Talking Machine’s filters did not leave the Strat’s tone sounding thin or harsh, even when I used the Blend knob to set the effect at 100-percent wet. The envelope filter detected each pick stroke accurately, and the Sensitivity knob lets you adjust the envelope follower to suit any attack or pickup level. The same control also enables changes in direction of the filter sweep from EE-ER to ER-EE.
One of the more notable aspects of the various Voices is that they all have different tonal colors. For instance, EE-ER has an overall dark and smooth/soft tone, while I-A sounds midrange-heavy and very resonant. The fact that EHX designed these formants to have such unique tonal palettes contributes significantly to the versatility of the Talking Machine. In addition, the Attack and Decay knobs facilitate detailed control over the speed at which the envelope ramps up and down. A short Attack and short Decay can produce a cartoony, bird-like chirp that’s great for funky hooks and lead lines. Slower settings can produce undulating filter sweeps perfect for creating a psychedelic backdrop with atmospheric chords. Plugging in an expression pedal allows complete manual control over the sweep direction and speed between formants. And if this weren’t enough flexibility, the Auxiliary controls—accessible by pressing the Presets knob—enable you to control the filter sweeps with a triangle or sawtooth LFO. A Fuzz circuit with Gain and Tone controls is also accessible via the Aux controls. While it’s not remarkable as a standalone fuzz, the effect is very midrange focused and useful in conjunction with the filters.
Electro-Harmonix has always aimed high when it comes to be the versatility and eccentricity of their products. In that sense, the Stereo Talking Machine is classically Electro-Harmonix. With a wide variety of voicings, multiple means of controlling envelope sweeping, preset storage, a distortion circuit, and sensitivity controls, it will be a hit with any musician who’s well versed in envelope filters. But given its musical versatility, it could also attract players otherwise on the fence about something as colorful as a talk-box effect. If you have little experience with envelope-filtering effects, a chat with the Stereo Talking Machine may yield a world of surprises.
you love the idea of getting versatile vowel sounds without having a plastic tube in your mouth.
all the knobs and multi-function controls are more daunting than a mouth tube.
Street $215 - Electro-Harmonix - ehx.com
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