Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The History of the Vocoder

How to Wreck a Nice Beach
The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop

The Machine Speaks

Dave Tompkins

The history of the vocoder: how popular music hijacked the Pentagon's speech scrambling weapon

This is the story of how a military device became the robot voice of hip-hop and pop music. Though the vocoder, invented by Bell Labs in 1928, was designed to guard phones from eavesdroppers, it expanded beyond its original purpose and has since become widely used as a voice-altering tool for musicians. It has served both the Pentagon and the roller rink, a double agent of pop and espionage.

In How to Wreck a Nice Beach—from a mis-hearing of the vocoder-rendered phrase "how to recognize speech"—music journalist Dave Tompkins traces the history of electronic voices from Nazi research labs to Stalin's gulags, from the 1939 World's Fair to Hiroshima, from Manhattan nightclubs to the Muppets.

The result is an amazing chronicle of postwar music and culture, filled with unexpected and surprising encounters. We see the vocoder brush up against FDR, Solzhenitsyn, Stanley Kubrick, Stevie Wonder, JFK, Eisenhower, Neil Young, Kanye West, the Cylons, Walt Disney, Henry Kissinger, and Winston Churchill, who boomed, when vocoderized on V-E Day, "We must go off!" And now the device is a cell phone standard, allowing your voice to sound human.

From T-Mobile to T-Pain, How to Wreck a Nice Beach is a riveting saga of technology and culture, illuminating the work of some of music's most provocative innovators.

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