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Digital Subscriptions > MusicTech > Jul-18 > THE VOCODER HISTORY AND DEPLOYMENT


Few pieces of music technology have captured the imagination of the public quite like the vocoder. Dave Gale tracks its development and offers a few tricks of the trade…


Kraftwerk - the vocoder pioneers.
© Getty Images

Then interviewed some years ago, ex-BBC Radiophonic Workshop composer Peter Howell referenced that there were two musical happenings that would make the BBC switchboard light up like a Christmas tree. One was panpipes, while the other was the far more enticing usage of a vocoder. Portraying the sonic equivalent of the machines taking over, it’s little surprise that this wonderful instrument has been championed by everyone from Kraftwerk and Wendy Carlos, through to Herbie Hancock and Daft Punk.


It’s rather difficult to reconcile the invention of the early vocoders with what we consider to be mainstream as a musical instrument today. The Voder, or Voice Operation Demonstrator, was a hefty electrical device capable of imitating human speech electronically and was developed by Homer Dudley at the Bell Labs in the 1930s. First demonstrated at the World’s Fair in 1939, a trained operator performed a number of choice vocal phrases, complete with vocal inflection. Although it was notoriously difficult to operate, it was a hugely impressive technology for the time and was to become the forerunner to Dudley’s next invention: the vocoder.

During the Second World War, there was an increasing need to send communication signals over longer distances, but with a greater degree of security, so it is with the military in mind that the vocoder was conceived. The basic idea was to take human speech and disassemble it into a smaller number of bits, which could then in turn be sent over longer distances, via the narrow bandwidth of copper cables which lay across the Atlantic Ocean floor. With the patent for the vocoder granted in 1939, one of the pinnacles of this technology was the system codenamed SIGSALY. System stations were built around the globe, allowing world leaders to communicate securely over great distances, but ultimately the system was impractical, requiring a huge room to house it while, with a huge sense of irony, the emitted decoded voice sounded metallic and robotic – which is largely the view we have of vocoders today.

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About MusicTech

He’s the man who revolutionised modern film scores with a creative approach to music-making, sonic experimentation and sound utilisation that helps some of the biggest directors to tell their stories. This month we’re overwhelmingly honoured to speak to one of the greatest composers on the planet: Hans Zimmer. In our ten-page interview we talk to Hans about his recent work with Spitfire Audio – co-creating a remarkable assortment of production and studio tools – as well as his incredible career in soundtracking. Elsewhere this issue, Dave Gale takes us through the legacy of the vocoder, we report on this year’s Superbooth show in Berlin and speak to its progenitor Andreas Schneider about his views on modular synthesis and its integral place in the music technology world. We’ve also got our usual tutorials, tips and reviews. Enjoy the issue!