Best Talk Boxes for Guitar, Keyboard, Synthesizer, and More

Talk Box Jam Session

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Ah, the talk box. You can’t blame Peter Frampton. Somebody had to get their first and make the talk box their signature sound. It’s just like T-Pain with the auto-tune sound, or Daft Punk with their modulated robot thing. Any vocal effect is pretty much destined to fall in the hands of an artist searching for a way to make their sound immediately recognizable. You hear the talk box and your mind associates you straight to Mr. Frampton’s name. You can’t buy that kind of branding!

Jon Bon JoviDon’t worry, the talk box is not played out. I’d assume that for a while there, you couldn’t use it without being accused of imitating Mr Frampton. But Bon Jovi used it in a different-enough context for Livin’ on a Prayer that the talk box was able to ascend this limitation. And by the time Weezer released Beverly Hills in 2005, it wasn’t a lame move to throw a talk box solo in. In my opinion at least, but my defense of Beverly Hills as a legitimately great song is a totally different topic…

As they go, the talk box is a really cool vocal effect. It’s actually sort of a vocal effect and instrument effect put together. I couldn’t really say that about anything else- perhaps with the exception of the fabulous vocoder. Personally, I didn’t fully understand the talk box until recently. I went over to my high school buddy’s father’s house, and he showed me one he had homebuilt. I knew that the talk box involved some kind of tube in your mouth, and that the shape of your mouth defines the tone of the guitar (or whatever instrument you are warping.)

How the Talk Box Works

Talk Box LiveA talk box is actually such an ingenious invention, unlike any other I know of. It has an electronic sound, reminiscent of the wah pedal, but the technology involved totally predates that early analog circuitry. A small amp speaker in a closed container is the “box” and the pipe actually channels the sound out of the box, up to the performers mouth. Once the sound enters your mouth, it resonates and projects to your vocal mic. So essentially, the speaker acts like a diaphragm, and the pipe like a throat. The instrument you play is effectively being sung through you! Opening and closing your mouth in different ways changes the sound, just as you would create different vowel sounds with different mouth shapes. Incredibly creative and honestly quite weird!

And the wonderful thing about talk boxes is that, while you may associate them most strongly with guitar- they are really an open-ended format with loads of possibilities for expression. After all, anything that can be amplified or played through the speaker, can be talk-boxed. Read on for some of my recommendations!

Best Talk Box for Guitar

When you’re choosing a talk box for guitar, your decision comes down to your approach. Do you value a more plug-and-play, low-maintenance experience? Or are you willing to endure a headache in the name of superior tone?

MXR M222

MXR M222 Talk Box

If you fall into the first category, pick up the MXR M222. I’m always happy to recommend MXR pedals, as I’ve only personally had positive experiences with them, not to mention I see very little negative said about them. This brand absolutely should not be mixed up with MXL, which I have only had bad experiences with. (Maybe that’s what MXL had in mind when choosing the name!) MXR has been building high-quality and well-respected pedals for decades, and their recent foray into talk boxes is no exception.

The MXR M222 contains its own small amp and speaker. This means that relatively speaking, setup is a cinch. With more traditional talk box designs, you have to patch the box in between the amp and its own speaker. The self-contained amp means you actually don’t need a typical guitar amp at all. The compromise, though, is depth and control of tone. The M222 contains a 5W amp and small speaker- you can’t get the same level of tone out of it as you could by using your own amp. That said, it’s certainly got a pro-level sound, and will more than do the job, on stage or in the studio!

Heil

Dunlop HT1

At a similar price point, but for a different approach, try Dunlop’s Heil. This is the current incarnation of one of the classic models, used on many talk box hits. Players speak highly of the Heil, as being durable and well-made as well as sounding great. Just prepare for a more complex and high-maintenance setup- it has to be patched between your amp and speaker, which could be very tricky if you play with a combo amp. But as I mentioned before, this lends itself to much deeper and more satisfying tone.

Best Talk Box for Keyboard or Synth

Like I said above, talk boxes have untapped potential. Anything that can be amplified, can be sent to a talk box. The effect will be most satisfying and dramatic with overdriven or saturated sounds. Common instruments have fundamental frequencies in the 100-1000 Hz range, but talk boxes are most effective in the 1000-4000Hz range. After all, the talk box has a small speaker, and this is the frequency range used in speech comprehension anyway.

So, if you are playing synth, use a saturated tone like a saw patch for the best result. If you’re playing keyboards, go for a harmonically rich tone like organ, or run your keyboard tone through an overdrive pedal first to add overtones to your sound. It’s the overtones that you will be warping with the talk box!

Of the two talk boxes I covered above, the MXR M222 will be the far easier box to integrate. Many keyboard or synth players plug directly into the PA or use a combo amp, so the idea of patching into an amp (as the Heil requires) gets much more challenging.

Best Microphone for Talk Boxes

Choosing a microphone for your talk box performance is a highly overlooked aspect of the process. After all, the microphone is the final point that actually captures the performance. Whether you are recording or playing live, you’re leaving a crucial part of the equation out if you don’t consider your mic choice!

Shure SM58

Shure SM58 Mic

Many players, particularly for live performance, take the attitude that whatever vocal mic you are already using will do the job. And that’s true. The Shure SM58 is so legendary and ubiquitous, that there’s a better chance than not that it will be the venue or rehearsal studio’s default choice anyway. And it will do the job just fine, but it’s not the ultimate solution. SInce it’s a dynamic mic, it’s not very detailed or precise. Great for rock, but if you are hoping to capture more of the fine details of your mouth, there are better options.

Shure SM57

The Shure SM57, cousin to the SM58, is a popular choice as well. These two mics are inexpensive and indestructible and reliable. The SM57 is designed for instruments, and is popular on guitar cabs, whereas the SM58 is designed for vocals. So you could use the SM58 if you are hoping for a more vocal sound to your talk box, or the SM57 if you want a more guitar/instrumental sound.

Sennheiser e906

Sennheiser e906 Microphone

At a higher price point, the Sennheiser e906 is worthy of consideration. This mic is very popular on guitar cabs as well, and is also a dynamic mic. But it has a fuller, more aggressive and more detailed sound than the SM57. Considering the talk box is liable to thin out your tone, and can make it a bit harsh too, this mic is a great approach.

Shure Beta 87a

Shure Beta 87a

Another approach is to use a condenser mic. The Shure Beta 87a is a bit expensive, but it’s a (relatively) rare idea- a handheld vocal condenser mic. The sound is so much more detailed and crisp than any dynamic mic could hope to achieve, so if you want a really clear and precise sound for your talk box, check it out!

Best Amp for Talk Boxes

If you’re playing with a Heil talk box, or a similar design that requires a separate amp, you might consider getting a dedicated amp for the talk box. This could simplify setup, and also avoids the risk of accidentally blowing out your amp or talk box! Many people echo the sentiment that amp choice is not fussy for talk boxes- just make sure the power rating is right, and that you can overdrive the talk box a bit.

But most subtleties of the talk box are lost by the time the sound has gone from the instrument, to the amp, to the box, to your mouth, to the mic, to the PA… But one poster had had the opportunity to power their talk box with dozens of different house amps while touring. In their opinion, the ideal setup involves a high-quality amp rated about 3x the power rating of the talk box. Their favorite had been a Crown amp that was running about 1000W. But since this is such an open-ended task, you are also just as likely to have fun playing with something like the Orange Micro Terror.

Conclusion

The talk box has a unique sound, and playing with it is also a totally inimitable experience. So I don’t predict they are going anywhere. They will always pop up, an unexpected but welcome extra dimension to a song. And in my humble opinion, the talk box’s full potential is not even close to reached. So keep working and keep the joy of the music alive!