By Mario Nicastro
Ever since Jay-Z laid auto-tune to rest in 2009, talentless pop singers have been vying for a way to enhance their singing voices. These “artists” have searched high-and-low through studios, record shops and Guitar Centers to find some other way to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Luckily, one man had a plan. He sat alone on a stormy night with a long, plastic tube hanging from his mouth. As lightning cracked outside his window pane, he cracked the code.
On Oct. 7, 2016, Bruno Mars debuted at number five with the single “24K Magic.” Coming from his third album of the same name, the funky song was destined to be a radio hit. It combines electro-funk with modern beats to form a polished take on a sound popularized in the early ‘80s. When this track comes on, one cannot help but get down and groove it out. But before that catchy beat starts, the song’s hypnotic introduction puts you in a trance.
That digital voice heard in the very beginning is not auto-tune or some recording studio magic, it’s a talk box. The talk box allows a singer to sing through an instrument to create a computerized sound that is completely unique. The first talk box was developed in 1939, and has been an influencer in rock, funk and pop music since.
How does it work? Well, a plastic tube connects to the talk box device at the foot of the guitarist. This box plugs into the amplifier and the singer puts the tube in his or her mouth and begins to strum. As the song plays, the musician will mouth words and vocalize sounds with their vocal chords. This creates a whiny, high-pitched sound that resembles sounds and words from the singer.
The talk box has been used by a variety of artists including Rufus and Chaka Khan, Aerosmith and Pink Floyd. However, one of its most famous users was guitarist Peter Frampton. He was first introduced to its power in 1970 by Pete Drake, a music producer for George Harrison. Since then, Frampton has incorporated the talk box into many of his own tracks, most famously in his 1976 live double-album Frampton Comes Alive! Two of the three singles “Do You Feel Like We Do” and “Show Me the Way” saw heavy use of Frampton’s iconic talk box guitar sound. He wails behind the chorus in “Show Me the Way,” creating a twist of digital and human.
This mix of the computerized and the natural caught the ear of Ohio-native Roger Troutman in the late ‘70s. When funk and disco were the mainstream sounds at the time, Troutman and his brothers saw an opportunity. They formed the funk group Zapp and were signed by P-Funk legend George Clinton and Warner Brothers Music in 1979. In 1980, they released their debut album simply titled Zapp. Their style was one of the prime influences on Mars’ “24K Magic.”
The leading track on Zapp is “More Bounce to the Ounce,” which heavily features Roger’s iconic talk box sound. Instead of Frampton’s guitar talk box, Troutman uses a keyboard. His words are clear and distinct although he phoneticized his vocals in a deep, growling voice. The talk box works to complement the funk, not stand above it. As Troutman’s voice becomes an instrument, so does he. At concerts, audiences could barely make out the plastic tube in Troutman’s mouth. They just thought it was funk magic.
Roger and Zapp continued to work with the talk box throughout their careers. Eventually Troutman created entire choirs of his prerecorded voice in songs like “I Want To Be Your Man” and “I Only Have Eyes For You.” His style has been copied and borrowed by many artists and genres since. It has inspired many hip-hop artists like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg from G-Funk. Troutman also sings the hook in Tupac’s “California Love.”
Although Bruno Mars cannot single handedly change pop music with one song, I hope the talk box continues to be used in the mainstream. It is one of those things that has such a distinct sound and feel that can distinguish an entire song from another. As our lives and society continue to be more digitally ingrained, I would not be surprised if this was not the last time I heard the talk box on the radio. It serves to showcase how intertwined computers and people are in a unique musical way.