And then read Dave Tompkins’ book about the “machine that tears speech to pieces,” How to Wreck a Nice Beach.
Before you watch the below 10-minute documentary on the voice manipulation device the Vocoder, it’s a good idea to insert the sound into your consciousness. Thankfully, many brilliant tracks feature the instrument.
Laurie Anderson relied on the Vocoder for her mesmerizing 12-inch, “O Superman,” and tapped the Eventide H910 Harmonizer to further compress her voice. Released in 1975, the Eventide was among the first synthesizers to offer pitch shifting (±1 octave), delay and feedback regeneration. Used in unison with her Vocoder, Anderson crafted a wholly new voice-manipulated approach.
There’s the classic electro track “Jam On It,” by New York crew Newcleus. Founded by DJ and producer Ben “Cozmo D” Cenac, Newcleus earned national attention after “Jam On It” was used in the classic rap movie Beat Street during an extended break dance scene.
On his classic track “E=MC2,” J Dilla leans into the Vocoder’s synthesized tones, harnessing the effect to turn drawn-out vowels into robotic moans.
In 2010, the great culture writer, editor and interviewer Dave Tompkins published his buoyant, loving history of the electronic device. Called How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip Hop, it explores the instrument’s creation and enduring legacy. It was created by the U.S. military as a code-scrambling vehicle for global military communications but seeped over into the commercial realm in the 1970s, where musicians harnessed it’s unearthly character to surprise and engage listeners.
According to Tompkins’ book, among the Vocoder’s first uses was to direct the bombing campaigns of Allied forces during World War II. In a story about the then-new technology, the New York Times described it as a “machine that tears speech to pieces.” That weirdness is what drew another operative producer, Afrika Bambaata, to employ the instrument on the Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock.”
Writes Tompkins, “To a DJ like Bambaata, the Vocoder is ‘deep, crazy, supernatural bugged-out funk stuff,’ perhaps the only crypto-technology to serve the Pentagon and the roller rink. What guarded Winston Churchill’s phone against Teutonic math nerds would one day become the perky teabot that chimed in on Michael Jackson’s ‘P.Y.T.'”
The below video, produced by the New Yorker and featuring Tompkins, is a fantastic introduction to the Vocoder.