Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How to Wreck a Nice Beach

The vocoder, invented by Bell Labs in 1928, once guarded phones from codebreakers during World War II. By the time of the Vietnam War, it had been repurposed as a voice-altering tool for musicians and soon became ubiquitous in popular music.

Music journalist Dave Tompkins just published a wondrously weird and readable history of the machine, called "How to Wreck a Nice Beach" which traces the history of electronic voices from Nazi research labs to Stalin’s gulags, from the 1939 World’s Fair to Hiroshima, from artificial larynges to Auto-Tune. The title of the book comes from a mis-hearing of the vocoder-rendered phrase "how to recognize speech." The obsessively detailed chronicle features the vocoder brushing up against historical heavyweights like FDR, JFK, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Kraftwerk, the Cylons, Henry Kissinger, Afrika Bambaataa and Winston Churchill. Riveting.

Tompkins will be in Seattle at the Experience Music Project on April 17, as part of the 2010 Pop Conference, in conversation with journalist Oliver Wang. More info on that event here. More about Tompkins' book here.

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