How to Create the Telephone Vocal Effect (2 Tricks: Quick & Easy or Analog Technique, DIY!)

recording the telephone vocal effect for an AB testing

You’ve heard it before.  It’s a common effect used on vocals in pop music and has been around for many year.  I’m referring to the effect that makes the vocal sound like it’s coming through a telephone line.  Now there are a few techniques that you can do to achieve the telephone vocal effect.  I’ll discuss two of those options.

Telephone Vocal Effect Technique #1

(The digital and also easy way.)

If you need the effect and you need it quickly, then this is the quick trick for you.  If you prefer the warmth of analog and a bit of a challenge, scroll down to technique #2.

First, insert your favorite eq on the channel you want effected in this way.  Next, high pass the low frequencies to around 300-600Hz and Low pass the high frequencies above 4-7kHz.  This will now limit the frequency response, making the vocal thinner, more lo-fi, replicating how it would sound playing through a small telephone speaker.

Finally, add a few (2 or 3) narrow boosts (high Q value) in random frequencies from 600Hz to 4kHz. This will replicate some resonances and add even more character to the effect.

You should end up with something looking like this image below.

telephone vocal effect eq curve

Telephone Vocal Effect Technique #2

(The warm analog and professional way.)

This technique requires a bit more time and patience but will yield you the best and most realistic telephone effect that is literally possible.  I’m talking about using an actual analog telephone!  In this section we’ll be using a telephone to provide the effect naturally.

As an added bonus, this project can also be used to create a funky headphone (singular) as well!  Since we will be ripping out and rewiring an old phone anyways, we can also use the speaker side of the handset as a one-ear headphone.  I will go through the steps for wiring up both a telephone microphone as well as a headphone.

Start off by getting your hands on an old phone, you can find these bad boys at most Salvation Army’s, Goodwills or even in your grandma’s basement!

an old analog telephone for the purpose of creating telephone vocal effect

First, you’ll need to open her up and take a look inside.

inside of old telephone for vocal effect diy microphone and speaker

The inside of the phone casing is not of much use, the part we’ll be most concerned with is the phone’s handset.  What you’ll do is start by cutting the wires where the headset attaches to the base unit.  You’ll find four wires coming from that section.

Now unscrew the handset’s plastic enclosure over the speaker portion and also microphone portion.  You’ll see two different colored wires attached to the speaker, and two attached to the microphone as well.  These colors will tell you what wires you’ll need for hacking in a microphone input and even speaker output (if you feel so inclined!).  Each phone will have different colors, which is fine.

The important part is finding out which ones attach to which side of the phone, the speaker and the microphone.  In my phone, there were red and black wires going to the speaker side and two white wires going to the microphone side.

wires of handset from old phone for use in diy telephone studio effect

Now you’ll need to split one end of an XLR cable (for the microphone connection) and one end of a stereo 1/4″ cable (for the headphone connection).  For the microphone side, there will only be two wires usually, so you will leave out the ground on your split cable.  (Yes, this will be ungrounded, but that’s fine for this purpose.)  These phones have no reason to be in stereo so that’s why you’ll see only two wires here.  So you can connect these two wires to two wires which come from the XLR cable, pins 1 and 2, ignoring the ground wire shielding.  Then for the headphone setup, similarly you will ignore the ground and just connect the two wires to the two wires coming from your stereo 1/4″ cable, again, ignoring the ground shielding.  And that will do it for wiring!  Simply enough.

The last step is to stuff all the wiring back into some empty space in the phone housing and put it all back together.  You will now have an old school phone with two cables coming out the back of it that can now be plugged into your mic preamp for classic analog telephone mic vocals or whatever you dream up to record with the glory of lo-fi telephonics!  As an added bonus, you’ll also be able to plug in your 1/4″ to your headphone out and monitor through the phone.  The original intention for me was to have a fun DJ headphone setup for gigs, looking like I’m on the phone, lol, but also boding well to the one ear on the headphones and one ear to your mix.

The one pitfall I found with the headphone side of this DIY build is that the headphone volume is very quiet for a live setting.  In the studio, it’ll work just fine, but the volume can be very low, so if you’d like to use this in a live setting, I’d recommend adding a headphone amp to the signal, and you should be just fine.

Furthermore, I found the headphone side to be ultra uncomfortable for an extended period of time.  To curb this a bit, I took an actual headphone ear piece from a broken pair of headphones I had lying around and retro-fitted it to the phone handset.  It made for a much more comfortable feel and I love the look of it, because I want to accentuate the funk of this odd piece of gear.

retro fitting a pro headphone ear piece to an old phone handset for use as an actual listening headphone

Continuing on, I decided to jazz up the phone a little bit with some gold paint followed by a glossy clear coat, to give the new gear some extra uniqueness and funk because, why not?!

painting the phone gold

Heres the final product!  A dope lo-fi telephone vocal mic, and a singe ear headphone!

the final gold diy telephone vocal mic and headphone piece


Hear How it Sounds!

I figure the proof is in the pudding.  So I recorded each technique at the same time so you could hear the difference.  I realize what I love about the analog is that it has an extra harshness and breakup in the high frequencies.  If you need to re-create the effect, I would recommend adding some drive and distortion to the channel maybe a touch of compression as well.  I think that could get it much closer.  Either way, hear it for yourself below!

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