Pitch Imperfect

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Prairie Pop: April 2010 – Apparently, the naked human voice isn’t good enough. Whether we’re talking about studio gimmickery or vocal tricks not aided by technology–Appalachian yodeling and Tuvan throat singing come to mind–we’re often suckers for interesting oral freak-outs. Voice alteration gizmos soon began popping up in hit singles of the 1970s and 1980s–applying a robo-futuristic sheen to songs like Afrika Bambaata’s hip hop classic “Planet Rock,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s funk manifesto “Let’s Groove,” and the frontal lobe-blasting “O Superman,” by Laurie Anderson.

Even Neil Young got in on the action with his 1982 album Trans, which features such craptastic classics as “Transformer Man” and “Computer Love” (and just to be clear, for me, “craptastic” is a positive modifier). The most recent manifestation of this pop music trend is the ubiquitous use of Auto-Tune, which was originally designed to correct the pitch of singers like Ashlee Simpson, but when cranked up to eleven makes you sound like a singing machine, or T-Pain. Its first notable use was in Cher’s 1998 hit “Believe,” which is often mistaken for an earlier vocal synthesizer, the vocoder (more on that in a bit).

Auto-Tune has many uses, both good and ill–though many people believe for ill. It allowed rapper Kanye West to sing and has turned Katie Couric’s highly inflected reading of the news into catchy R&B songs (check out the Auto-Tune the News series on Youtube). Neko Case falls in the Auto-Tune-hater camp. In Pitchfork, she says, “I once asked a studio guy in Toronto, ‘How many people don’t use Auto-Tune?’ and he said, ‘You and Nelly Furtado are the only two people who’ve never used it in here.’” Even Jay-Z has called for Auto-Tune’s death after hearing it in a Wendy’s commercial.

People regularly use “vocoder” as a catchall word for a voice that sounds robotic, but the term actually refers to a very specific device. The vocoder is a voice synthesis system developed in the 1930s by the telephone industry as a way of compressing speech. That way, more calls could be squeezed into one line. Basically, the idea was to pare down the human voice to the smallest number of frequencies so that lots of chatter could fit through the line. It lingered in development hell for decades because, well, it made you sound like a robot–which kinda weirded people out, especially when they wanted to talk to their mom. This technology wouldn’t become widely known until it was put to use by pop musicians in the 1970s.

Thus far, the only comprehensive history of the vocoder is Dave Tomkins’ soon-to-be-published How To Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop. The book’s quirky title is a reference to Bell Lab technician Manfred Schoeder’s failed attempts to make this voice synthesizer sound comprehensible. The discouraged researcher noted that when the vocoder tried to say, “How to recognize speech,” it came out sounding like “how to wreck a nice beach.”

Tompkins, a well-known music critic, has obsessively worked on this book for years–not quite as long as Axl Rose crafted Chinese Democracy, he tells me, but close. (I’ve heard about “Tompkins’ vocoder book” since the beginning of the previous decade; some friends in Brooklyn lived above him and said he rarely emerged from his apartment while writing it.) Like that Guns ‘n’ Roses album, How To Wreck a Nice Beach is finally getting a proper release and is due to be published later this month. It’s a great book, filled with deep research, gonzo writing, and eye-popping illustrations.

Another device that frequently gets mistaken for a vocoder is the talkbox, popularized by Peter Frampton in songs like “Show Me the Way” and “Do You Feel Like We Do.” Roger Troutman made the talk box his signature sound on his records with Zapp & Roger and solo releases–lending a postmodern flavor to dancefloor numbers like “More Bounce to the Ounce” and a sprawling 10-minute version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

One of my favorites by Roger Troutman is an obscure cover of the 1960s garage rock song “Superman,” which R.E.M. later covered–with a much different vibe–on their Life’s Rich Pagaent album (which is how most people first heard the song). Beginning with three-part a capella talkboxed harmonies, Troutman’s solo version of “Superman” then gets down with a future-funk interpretation of the “We Will Rock You” beat. It’s totally bizarre, beautiful and brilliant. Then tragedy. In 1999 he was shot to death by his brother Larry, who killed himself afterwards with the murder weapon. Roger’s nephew Clet Troutman sang “Amazing Grace” through a talkbox at the funeral.

In How To Wreck a Nice Beach, Dave Tomkins sums up the vocoder’s ambiguous legacy, one that Bell Labs couldn’t possibly have conceived when the company began its development. “Auto-Tune, the pitch-correcting software popularized by the robotox of Cher and inflicted on the twenty-first century, is often misheard as a vocoder, giving the latter currency through a revival of misunderstanding,” Tompkins writes. “Not as a technology, but a meme. In other words, it was what it isn’t.”

As Iowa City’s resident RoboProfessor, I obviously approve of anything that androidifies the singing voice, though I promise never to use Auto-Tune. Well, perhaps at an academic conference presentation, but nowhere else.

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