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‘How to Wreck a Nice Beach’

Dave Tompkins traces the story of the vocoder

Aug. 3, 2010
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In How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks (Stop Smiling Books), Dave Tompkins traces the fascinating history of this device from its use in guarding a secure phone line for Roosevelt and Churchill through Neil Young speaking to you, unprotected, and into musical technology where we think we hear each other naturally—but do not. The book’s importance is related to its scientific and historic content, detailed and amazing, but it is in relation to the musical sounds that we believe are recorded or performed that How to Wreck a Nice Beach endows the subject with vast, insightful significance.

The original 1928 vocoder divided the human voice into “its constituent frequencies, spread across ten channels, and transmitted them through band pass filters.” When received, “this information would be synthesized into an electronic impression of human speech.” Reception was “a machine’s idea of the voice as imagined by phonetic engineers.” It was not speech, “but a ‘spectral description of it.’” It may not be music, either, Tompkins ventures, but rather a sonic skeleton of it, designed by tone-deaf psychoacoustic engineers.

When musicians de-engineered the mal-engineered vocoder and turned it into a postmodern musical instrument, things got really interesting. Neil Young’s label, Geffen Records, sued him for using the vocoder to make his 1983 album, Trans.

Shown the equipment by Kai Krause, a free-lance vocoder consultant, Young seemed disinterested in learning how to use the Sennheiser VSM-201 (the first “Entertainment Vocoder”). As Krause reports: “It wasn’t possible to get him…to listen to the how-to and why… In the end, I had to give it up and let go… About a year later, I heard Trans and suddenly knew where it all had gone.” Young was sued by Geffen for “not being himself.” The artist used the VSM-201 to make a record that, according to Young, was all about his desire “to sing through a voice that no one could recognize and it wouldn’t be judged as me.” Trans is about the “suppression of emotion,” Tompkins writes. According to Mojo critic David Fricke, “You either loved it or hated it or ran for your life.”

Most ran for their lives, including Nils Lofgren, who was on the European tour in support of Trans and who was forced by Young to wear 5-pound ankle weights because, when he played, he was moving around too much; this tour “culminated with Neil Young trying to strangle his bass player.” In the hands of a genius, the vocoder resulted in near madness. In the grip of a music industry divorced from meaningful creative expression, it would produce the pabulum of total sanity.


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