Robot Rock

Robot Rock

Video may have killed the radio star, but the vocoder liberates her voice.


Earlier this year Israel unveiled its latest weapon, a device called the Thunder Generator. Designed for crowd control and developed by PDT Agro, a firm that manufactures sonic instruments for scaring birds from crops, the Thunder Generator projects a sonic boom so piercing that it may cause permanent injury or death to anyone within ten meters. The Thunder Generator does not emit music, but the aggressive pitch of its sonic disturbance has a lot in common with military uses of music—and I don’t mean the brassy marches of John Philip Sousa. During the 1989 invasion of Panama, US forces used an ear-splitting barrage of Led Zeppelin and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas to drive Manuel Noriega from his redoubt in the Vatican Embassy. Several years ago in Iraq, during the assault on Falluja, US Marines bombarded insurgents with, among other things, blasts of heavy metal.

What if the Thunder Generator’s booms were made into a beat? How would it sound on a record? Would it be funky? That the Thunder Generator would ever be used to make tail feathers shake is unlikely, but in the history of music there are many cases of invention and accident resulting in the genesis of new sounds. The theremin was the fruit of Soviet government research conducted in the 1920s on proximity sensors, instruments that could gauge the distance of objects without touching them. It was a scientific tool, and when it came to be used musically people thought only to manipulate it to approximate the human voice, or to play mostly classical tunes. Yet even an instrument as marginal as the theremin is known to most of us: it’s the sound of spook in horror movies, the trebly warble in "Good Vibrations."

Somehow more unlikely and yet more influential is the vocoder, whose history is told in Dave Tompkins’s fascinating debut book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Developed in the 1920s by Bell Labs as a device for cramming phone conversations into the transatlantic cable, the vocoder was eventually engineered into a tool for encoding and deciphering top-secret military communications. A "massive walk-in closet of cryptology," Tompkins writes, the vocoder divided the human voice into ten constituent frequencies before transmission. The frequencies were scrambled with the aid of a pair of turntables playing sixteen-inch custom-made albums of "thermal noise in reverse, a randomized shush, backwards masked inside out." At the receiving end those ten frequencies were recombined (using an identical set of vinyl records). The turntables had to be synched precisely to the messages. When the message had been decoded and played back through the curiously altered voice of the vocoder, both sets of records were destroyed. The vocoded sound was something resembling the human voice, but in the coding process strange noises crept in, and the sound became a kind of warped version of language.

You have heard the progeny of the vocoder, even if you don’t know what it is. It’s in the processed vocal chorus of Lady Gaga’s dance-pop and the surreptitious pitch correction done in-studio for the latest American Idol winner who can’t quite hit all those notes. Perhaps you’ve heard it in the steely processing on Kraftwerk’s "Autobahn," the spaced-out funk of Afrika Bambaataa’s "Planet Rock" or the buzzy low-rider anthem of Roger Troutman on Zapp’s "More Bounce to the Ounce." Surely you’ve heard the talk box in Peter Frampton’s many megahits and the songs of Jeff Beck and Stevie Wonder. If you haven’t, what the talk box does is broadcast the amplified sound of a guitar or synthesizer into the mouth through a tube clenched tight by the teeth. The musician molds the sound by lip-synching or varying the shape of the mouth and letting it wash over the mic.

The vocoder is stranger. It masks the human voice in a stratum of electronic sound, making it at times unrecognizable or indecipherable and at other times clear, cold and concise in ways the unadulterated human voice could never be. What interests Tompkins is not only the dissociation of vocal qualities from the human voice but also how human voices can speak through that dissociation, through a displacement that yields something more than voices can normally achieve. The title of Tompkins’s book—a vocoded transmutation of "how to recognize speech"—is a symbol of the generative and destructive capabilities of the device. Bambaataa calls the vocoder "deep crazy supernatural bugged out funk stuff." Many of the musicians who turn up in Tompkins’s book are equally reverent about the vocoder’s powers of distortion and transcendence. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Whether it’s the improvised nonsense syllables of scat, the vocal tics of doo-wop or the preponderance of slang and accent in the blues, country and rock, pop musicians have long been interested in reshaping the human voice. With the vocoder, we linger until human voices shake us, and we sound, but not like voices that are quite human any longer.

The Voder, as the vocoder was initially named, was showcased at the 1939 World’s Fair, but because of rapid advances in telephone technology it became a novelty item marketed to Hollywood studios, which used it to generate the helium voices of cartoons. Despite its shortcomings in accurately reproducing speech (during testing, Tompkins says, "a simple ‘yes’ was transmuted into the word ‘peanuts’ "), the Voder was a highly prized and classified piece of technology during World War II. Outfitted with advanced coding technology (Pulse Code Modulation, or PCM), the Voder was rechristened SIGSALY (an acronym that means nothing). SIGSALY units were set up in London, Washington, a wine cellar in Algiers and elsewhere across the European and Pacific theaters. Tompkins writes:

Installed across the globe from 1943 to 1946, these fifty-five-ton phone scramblers would be used for D-Day, the Allied invasion of Germany, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the "dismemberment of the surrender instrument"—allowing Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill and Eisenhower to discuss the world’s fate with voices they barely recognized, voices not human but polite artificial replicas of speech rendered from digital pulses 20 milliseconds in length.

Vocoder technology advanced after the war (its engineers still hoped to improve telecommunications abilities), and it was again adapted by Hollywood, especially to help voice robots and spacemen in sci-fi flicks. It also came under the scrutiny of a new generation of engineers, who sought to improve the mechanism but also wrestled with what it meant to perfect machine sounds into human speech. The concern was whether the vocoder, which treats any sound as though it were speech, makes a sound intelligible or merely distorts it. What is the power of human intelligibility, the meaning of the recordings of our voices, of our bodies against the technological remnants and divergences they produce? What is the value of sound against that of noise?

Scientists and rappers alike approach the vocoder as something other than a mere piece of technology or a secure way of transmitting sensitive speech over great distances. It is an instrument through which the human spirit can communicate a new kind of sonic language; Tompkins says that using it is no different from exploiting the advantages and quirks of the saxophone or the violin. He introduces us to the music of the vocoder via "Pack Jam," a minor hit by the Jonzun Crew, a quartet in powdered wigs whose vocoded raps set Miami on fire in the summer of 1983. Michael Jonzun and his onetime keyboardist, Bill Sebastian, designed a hybrid synthesizer/vocoder called the Outer Visual Communicator, or OVC, a sixteen-foot hexagonal plexiglass monster Sebastian built at MIT. (Jonzun and Sebastian would go on to develop data-compression technology for satellite use.)

For Jonzun the vocoder doesn’t delimit the human voice (as Auto-Tune, in large part, does) but instead liberates it from the bonds of technology:

When somebody plays Pac-Man, you’re playing a game where everything you do is structured according to somebody else’s rules. With the OVC, you create your own environments with your own rules. The OVC is creating an experience rather than playing a game…. There’s a fundamental cultural conflict between the two attitudes. It’s mind control. Of all the things you could do with your life that they could focus you on something that has such a limited set of possibilities. You’re just moving a cursor up, down, left or right. In a maze. Squares are artificial.

Jonzun’s notion that a giant blinking electronic super-synthesizer/vocoder is the antithesis of the artificial is difficult to parse. What is certain is that the OVC was used in Sun Ra concerts and is currently disintegrating in the backyard of Sebastian’s Cape Cod home.

Tompkins covers all the bases: Whodini, Man Parrish (who started out on a vocoder once used by ELO), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Fearless Four, Bambaataa and LA’s notorious "freak parties" with the Egyptian Lover, Uncle Jamm and a very young Ice-T all vibing to the vocoder. There is an interlude about the young Tompkins listening to underground hip-hop in North Carolina.

One of Tompkins’s more stirring stories is about Rik Davis, a Vietnam vet who, with his friend Juan Atkins as Cybotron, defined the sound of Detroit techno. Davis was a poor, nerdy square peg who says he enlisted with the Marines at 17 as much to escape the ghetto as "to sail the Seven Seas with Captain Sinbad." He landed in serious combat: "We did ops that don’t exist. Ops that weren’t allowed to exist." Davis returned from the war a hippie in fatigues; he was the "black kid asking for Tangerine Dream" at record shops, a misfit carrying a heavy psychological load. Inspired by the Italian prog-rock musicians Goblin, who specialized in soundtracks for horror films like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, he and Atkins began to construct spooky soundscapes drenched in synths and accompanied by throbbing, insistent beats, which Tompkins suggests are rooted in Davis’s memories of the whoosh and chop of helicopter blades. One night Atkins found Davis guarding a recording session with an assault rifle. The chorus to one of the group’s first tracks is "I don’t want to kill you but I have to." Weapons of war turned into dance jams, and they are indeed funky.

Afrika Bambaataa is one of several wacked-out Virgils who guide Tompkins by the hand through the underworlds of pop music, where the vocoder washes in and out of genres, on and off the radio, in and out of dance clubs. There are moments when Tompkins’s guides are unsure of his devotion to the vocoder or simply fail to understand why anyone would take an interest in it. At the end of the book Tompkins is tagging along with Rammellzee, a true eccentric who collaborated with Jean-Michel Basquiat on the seminal ten-minute early hip-hop tune "Beat Bop." At first Rammellzee is guarded and defensive, and threatens to throw Tompkins from a roof, but he ultimately warms to the writer and divulges the sonic secrets of the vocoder. By far the most fascinating character in the book, Rammellzee offers an endless patter of maxims that meld mathematics, conspiracy theory and freaky meditations: "The integer is a nation by itself. The function leads you on into the future, without it you have no control." "Never listen to poets who are astrophysicists. You may not like what you find."

Readers interested in the technical aspects of the vocoder may feel shortchanged by Tompkins’s account of the device, and especially its later incarnations as different types of portable synthesizers. When Tompkins describes the engineering behind the machine, he can sound more baffling than Rammellzee. Still, Tompkins’s book achieves what the best music writing does—it opens doors, tears off tarps and digs in the dirt to reveal the stunning variety and potential in popular music. Those expecting the straight story about the music may be put off by Tompkins’s poetics. In explaining the song "Ode to Perfume" by Holger Czukay of Can, Tompkins gets downright expressionistic:

Effluvia, such a pretty word for drop-dead noxious. Vocoders and noses go together like code and cold. When a human impersonates a vocoder, the nose shrugs and we become hypochondriacs. The ears tell the brain that the voice has caught a cold and the brain goes along with it, the gullible kid brother.

Is it live, or is it thermal noise in reverse?

Listening to music made with vocoders and talk boxes while reading How to Wreck a Nice Beach helps to make Tompkins’s mad-professor style more legible and to reveal the incredibly strange, unsettling and amazing ways artists have used the gadget. For a piece of equipment so heavily derided for never quite being able to do what it was supposed to do—transmit the human voice through the wire—it is heartening to know how many human voices found that they could only speak, or spoke best, through the vocoder, even if sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference between "yes" and "peanut."

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