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July 14, 2010

Book: A thorough examination of the Vocoder

How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop
By Dave Tompkins. Melville House/Stop Smiling Publishing; 335 pgs., $35.

This dubious machine’s double life is a lot more interesting than you ever thought. From secret WWII message transmission to hip-hop’s robot voice, there’s more to the story than most people realize. No, I am not going to tell you to go grab this book simply because of the tsunami of auto-tuned pop songs clogging the radio, but I encourage you to read it so you can better understand the impact technology and programming have on our everyday life — how the world changes because of a tiny thing like this, something that gives “a machine’s idea of the voice as imagined by phonetic engineers, not speech, but a spectral description of it.”

That description drives the point home more than any historical information found in the book. When it comes to technology, especially one as pervasive as the Vocoder, one must keep a certain mental hygiene about it to grasp its implications. This is an electronic description of speech, the description being determined by the phonetic engineers who designed the thing. When technology has perceptual elements (as in its programming and what it does/does not pick up), it is important to know exactly what they are (one simple tone for each syllable), because that sort of representation literally affects our reality and is perceived most often as the thing, like a person’s voice, rather than an engineer’s interpretation of it. Pretty neat really, but also a little bit scary.

Do you remember the rationale for high school research projects? Namely, the idea that when you pick one topic and explore it fully, you get that fun macrocosm through the microcosm effect where certain large patterns of the world you never expected to find reveal themselves. Well, this book is one of those experiences, prepackaged and ready to let you in on governmental, technological, historical and perceptual insights all through the intensive study of the Vocoder. It may be something that only appeals to audiophiles, or at least those obsessed with information in general (like myself), but really, this book should attract a broader audience. Written in a clear and precise language with a style more akin to a cultural theory book than a simple history, it hits every angle you expect and acts as an amazing foil for this author’s personal knowledge and interesting ideas.

For example, in defense of the Vocoder early on in the book, Tompkins offers up this piece of wisdom I have always found to hold true: “What’s more human than wanting to be something else altogether?” He uses this to explore the Vocoder as an entity in itself, and thereby what power it holds as a medium over the message — something vitally important to keep in mind when living in a world with a plethora of programs, websites and technologies for communication.

With extensive interviews from the likes of Afrika Bambaataa, “How to Wreck a Nice Beach” does not skimp on the music end of the spectrum and provides an even-handed analysis, pulling back the curtain on this WWII device that has come to such prominence as a tool for entertainment, especially in the pop music realm. Draw any paranoid conclusions you want, but don’t skip this book: It’s a mega pill of strange information and mule-choking insights that brings the Vocoder to the front of the courtroom for a thorough examination and slight boxing around the ears. 

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Analog vocoders typically

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