Hearing voices

Dave Tompkins chases the Vocoder in his book How To Wreck a Nice Beach
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  May 14, 2010

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Don’t be fooled by its textbook appearance — How To Wreck a Nice Beach (Melville House/Stop Smiling) is hardly a dry anthropological study of “The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop,” as the subtitle suggests. In his decade-long exploration of voice compression, veteran music journo (and seismic wordsmith) Dave Tompkins came to understand the intimate relationship between larynx-tweaking robot tech and the musicians, world leaders, engineers, and civilians who have employed and marveled over this curious space-age gadgetry since the 1920s. I asked Tompkins about his discoveries — many of which were in the Greater Boston area — and about phone interviews with subjects who mask their pitch like kidnappers and warn of UFO abduction threats.

What sort of Vocoder experience set in motion your devotion to telling this peculiar history?
When I was writing for Vibe around 1999, my editor had me doing some crazy shit — shit that never should have been in Vibe. One time, they had Kenny G call me at this pharmaceutical company that I was working at to talk about his sitting in with Barry White’s band. Another time, Michael Jonzun [of Boston’s legendary Jonzun Crew] called me up while he was on a Vocoder and said, “Pack Jam — look out! Hello, Dave — this is Michael Jonzun. Space is the place.” Then he told me that the cosmos were coming to claim me. I guess that got me thinking about the compression of human speech.

How did you begin to find out about the Vocoder’s use in World War II as a way to code sensitive communications?
Bell Labs [which was responsible for many early Vocoder developments] could afford to retain a full archive. One guy sent me a whole bunch of stuff, starting with a chapter on the role of the Vocoder in World War II, which Bell Labs called Project X. To me, when I figured out that they were using turntables and records, it really set everything off. Those documents were also the first I saw that mentioned Churchill using it.

Did you get the idea that Bell Labs had anything to hide?
There’s no information about the stuff that Bell Labs produced during the Cold War, so I got a lot of resistance there. But the World War II stuff was declassified in 1976, and I was also lucky enough to get some transcripts of John F. Kennedy [speaking through a Vocoder] from the British National Archives. It was all extremely hard, though — you can’t just plug in the word “Vocoder” to archives and databases, because it was always classified under a different name.

How much of your research led you to the greater Boston area?
One big thing was when I found out that the Bell Labs engineer [Ralph] Miller was in Concord. The Jonzuns are in Florida, but they’re from Boston, and of course there’s a lot of Harvard and MIT stuff. In one of the Cambridge T stations [Kendall Square], there’s a historical map tracing great moments at MIT, and there’s a picture of the Vocoder.

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