May 14, 2010

Dave Tompkins talks vocoder


In case you missed it yesterday morning, our man Dave Tompkins talked up the vocoder (and his new history of it, How to Wreck a Nice Beach) on NPR’s Morning Edition.  If you think you’re not familiar with the vocoder (what the heck it?! you might be asking yourself), well, think again. If you’ve turned on the radio in the past 40 years or so, you’ve heard the vocoder.  Its the robotic voice present in popular music from Neil Young to Kraftwerk to the Beastie Boys.

But its voice-changing ability wasn’t always used enhance a song or a beat.  The vocoder was invented by Bell Labs back in its heyday to compress sound in order to make transatlantic phone calls cheaper!  Soon the military decided that it would be more useful as a way to encode speech — and they classified the entire technology.  When it was declassified, however, musicians adopted it for their own purposes, and the rest is history.

For more on the vocoder, listen to Dave’s interview online and read an excerpt from the first chapter.  And in case you’re not convinced that you are already very familiar with the doings of the vocoder, check out the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” on YouTube.  Then you’ll know what I’m talking about.