*Billboard sat down with author Dave Tompkins about his long-in-the-works book that chronicles the history of the vocoder – tracing the sound synthesizing system’s journey from Bell Labs during WWII to today’s pop charts.
Titled “How to Wreck a Nice Beach,” the book was published in March by Stop Smiling Books/Melville House and ultimately explains how Winston Churchill was the original T-Pain.
Billboard: How did the vocoder go from being a government intelligence device that encrypted speech transmissions to being a staple of hip-hop?
Tompkins: The Germans were the ones who first used it for musical purposes. When the vocoder was invented, the people working on it had already envisioned it for entertainment purposes. In all the early Bell Labs tests, they clearly saw it had a place in music and film for sound effects. When it was commissioned by the military, it went underground for a while. But then the Germans started making weird robot records, and the hip-hop crowd discovered it. [See video below.] In the ’70s, it was very expensive — not something you could just go out and buy. But studios had them and artists could use them to record.
Billboard: It never really worked for the military and intelligence, did it? In the book, you mention that John F. Kennedy hated it.
Tompkins: A lot of people didn’t trust it. But it did work during World War II, in the sense that it was never compromised. The technology was very primitive and it wasn’t an easy thing to use; you had to synchronize turntables across the globe, but it still worked, which is kind of a feat. Despite this, a lot of people refused to use it. (General Douglas) MacArthur refused to use it, as did (General George) Patton. But (President) Eisenhower loved it, and (U.K. Prime Minister) Churchill was on it all the time.
Billboard: So Churchill was the T-Pain of his day?
Tompkins: He’s the original speech synthesizer. No one knows if any records of this still exist, though. I found a woman who said there were transcripts but not audio recordings, so you can’t sample Churchill on the vocoder. I did hear that Alan Turing, the chief British cryptanalyst, sampled Churchill’s voice and some of his speeches and ran them through the vocoder, but I never managed to confirm that.
Billboard: Now the vocoder seems to have reached saturation point, with the last Kanye West album and Jay-Z’s “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).” Will it go back underground and then become popular again, or is it really dead?
Tompkins: No, I think Auto-Tune, at least, will also be used correctly because it’s such an important pop tool. As far as the vocoder, I think people will also continue to use it. You can run your entire setup through it, and you can use it in ways where you don’t actually hear it at all. The vocoder is a dynamic thing — it can be used in ways that are not as intrusive or obvious.
Below, German group Kraftwerk’s 1981 single “Numbers” was one of the first to use a vocoder and went on to inspire Afrika Bambaataa’s groundbreaking hip hop single “Planet Rock.” Also, Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” inspired Trouble Funk’s go-go classic “Trouble Funk Express.”