My My Hey Hey: Using Harmonica as a Vocoder Device

You don’t have to have awesome cutting-edge gear to make interesting sounds. Nor do you have to settle with calling up some preset from a tone bank or soundcard. Sometimes common everyday acoustic instruments can help you approximate a sound/texture that you’re after; and for many musicians, soundmakers and writers, coming up with stuff is half of the fun.

Back when I was making the transition from recording-only, sound collage maker guy to futurist space-folk performer, I was looking for a way to maximize the sounds I could make with the smallest ammount of extra gear to lug along to coffeehouses. In addition to the core elements of guitar, slide and voice, I settled on two items: my two-second Digitech delay/looper and a harmonica.

I tracked down some Hohners and one of those neckholder contraptions at the big music store downtown at Mass Ave and Newbury St, and set about the task of learning to play them while strumming the guitar. I’d messed around with kazoos and wooden flutes and harmonicas before in my recording exploits, but usually just as non-melodic sonic ephemera put through guitar effects units, and never while trying to simultaneously play the guitar.

After I got the hang of it, I started incorporating my noisemaking era’s techniques of vowel-shaping, talking and adding undertones by humming notes through the harp that were different from the notes I was playing on it. The harmonica was transformed into a kind of poorman’s acoustic vocoder/talkbox and it immediately got used in one of my sci-fi folk numbers called ‘Visited A Farm’, opening and closing the retro-future tale like a robot narrator trying to speak.

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