We’re a little behind on this, but it’s still pretty cool. Music journalist Dave Tompkins ’92 is author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks, a history of the vocodor published in April 2010 by Stop Smiling Books. The L.A. Times calls How to Wreck a Nice Beach — derived from the mis-hearing of the vocoderized phrase “how to recognize speech” — “one of the best music books ever written.”
What’s a vocodor? A synthesizer that makes human voices sound robotic. It traces back to World War II, when it was used as a cryptography device, and has been used by various musicians, ranging from the likes of classic rock’s Peter Frampton to rapper T-Pain. Tompkins appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition last spring and talked about the vocodor’s history. Listen to the interview here (or read the transcript here), and be sure to check out photos of the vocodor.
And if you want to take a listen to the work produced by the vocodor, view the following video. It’s of Michael Jonzun’s 1983 hit “Pack Jam”– the theme song for that year’s national championship Wolfpack men’s basketball team.
So how did Tompkins get interested in the vocodor? Here’s an excerpt from a Q&A with him with The L.A. Times:
Is there a first moment that you can trace your vocoder love back to?
Flat on my back on a bed of gumballs. Sort of. In seventh grade, I guzzled two cans of Busch beer and passed out in the neighbor’s yard. Was woken by Seville headlights pulling in later that night. The next day, I was confined to my room, sitting at a red desk with gumball dents on my back, listening to a Jonzun Crew tape, watching a swirl of dead leaves chase each other in the street like children. It was the sound of October decay.
Have you had many experiences using the vocoder, and are you any good with it?
If I end up buying this Vietnam unit that’s on eBay, I’d say my experience would be $800 lighter. My instinct is to be incoherent when using it. Drones, aspirants and assonance are more fun than hearing yourself talk. I like the unvoiced rasp, the unpleasant ones. And the thing was invented to improve communication.