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The secret history of the vocoder

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The room contains two turntables and a microphone. Hulking consoles line the walls, covered in dials and gauges and blinking lights, like the bridge of vintage TV spaceship. The whole scene suggests the fusion of a hip-hop recording studio and The Jetsons.

This could be a suitable description of the recording studio of electro-funk pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, but this tableau has its beginnings—like the Internet—in the military-industrial complex. Called SIGSALY, it was a system used by Allied cryptographers to secure high-level conversations. Anyone trying to eavesdrop on General Douglas MacArthur heard only a buzzing noise, which led the early technology to be nicknamed after the popular radio program The Green Hornet.

The device behind SIGSALY was the vocoder, which was invented by Bell Labs scientist Homer Dudley in 1928. Essentially, the vocoder broke down human speech into frequency fragments that were transmitted through different channels, which could be reassembled into a facsimile of speech only by another machine to which it was directly calibrated. The generation of speech outside of the human larynx would prove to have wide-ranging cultural ramifications outside of the military, especially in the world of music, which found in the technology a new robotic voice.

North Carolina expat Dave Tompkins is a rap journalist and vocoder expert whose knowledge verges on the fanatical. His first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach (a vocoder's mangled rendition of the phrase "how to recognize speech") is an info-laden and vigorous tour through the chaotic lifespan of voice synthesis. Along the way, it also sweeps up the vocoder's proliferating descendent technologies: the keyboard-controlled Voder, introduced at the 1939 World Fair; the Sonovox, or "talkbox," popularized by Peter Frampton; and Auto-Tune, popularized by T-Pain and currently featured in every R&B song on the radio.

Tompkins' research goes deep; he thrives on the interesting factoid. For just one example, I was fascinated to discover that during World War II, the Signal Corps employed the Muzak corporation to produce albums of random frequencies, which served as the transmitted code's cipher so that each disc had to be destroyed after one use. The vibe of intrigue and paranoia in the sections on military application is thrilling. (The government turntables were equipped with self-destruct mechanisms in case of facility breach; that's straight out of Get Smart.)

But the sections on the hard tech and history of the vocoder aren't always well served by Tompkins' prose style, which is slangy and nonlinear, like a hip-hop Lester Bangs. The huge amount of granular detail deployed can feel intimidating and undigested, and the emphasis on rhetorical flourish over analysis makes it tough to see the big picture. While the funky medium and garbled message are subject-appropriate, readers looking for an intelligible account of how the technology evolved and why it matters will have to do some heavy lifting. But the book's snappy design, with tons of interesting sidebars and full-page color plates, helps offset the wooly bits.

Elsewhere, Tompkins' Bangs-ian verve works great. He's fantastic when discussing the sui generis personalities who introduced the vocoder to popular culture, from Jonzun Crew to Styx, Kraftwerk to Zapp. He especially loves the proto-hip-hop side of things, commonly called "electro," a blend of funk of futuristic tropes that was huge in breaking the vocoder into the mainstream. He wisely lets these vocoder pioneers talk at length, and their charisma leaps off the pages. These are people who dress up in elaborate sci-fi costumes, construct elaborate conspiracy theories and new age techno-philosophies, and somehow work the words "freak" and/ or "funk" into every sentence, in novel, improvised ways. We learn that freaks like to freak to freak music, the freakier the better. Tompkins' prose is perfect for freakiness.

The popularity of voice synthesis technology in entertainment seems driven by two things. One, we all love to hear human voices rendered strangely—who hasn't sung into in a window fan? And two, whenever technology that smothers human imperfection arises, creative people step forward and find ways to restore chaos. The vocoder attempted to eradicate the personal from the voice, while Auto-Tune attempts to regularize pitch. Both are commonly used by the creative community, in "incorrect" ways, to produce fabulously emotive and individual effects. Even as our technology closes in on perfection, we still dream of the ghost in the machine and how to set it loose in the freakiest, funkiest, most bugged way imaginable. How to Wreck a Nice Beach, despite its occasional self-indulgences, is the best—all right, the only—popular resource on the subject available.

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