Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Perennial Vocoder

In 1928 a machine was invented at Bell Labs to mimic the human voice. The hope was that the invention would better transmit speech underwater —say, across the Atlantic. Seventeen years later, Truman and Churchill would use the technology to discuss the terms of German surrender over a secure line. In between, the device would sing "Barnacle Bill" at a 1936 celebration at Harvard and capture the imagination of a young Ray Bradbury, who first encountered it at the 1939 New York World's Fair. In the late 60's the vocoder was discovered by record producers. The Moody Blues used it for their hit Night In White Satin". When the '80s and rap became the vogue, the vocoder would become the main machine of electro hip-hop. All in all, not a bad career for a machine.


  1. This beautiful story of diversification reminds to the evolution of hydrozoa ( giving birth to polyps, see anemons, corals and jellyfish, as if sound was a kind of ocean. After all its life started to diffuse voices across the Atlantic.

    Nights in White Satin! What a great song. My heart was aching when I heard it for the first time

  2. As I understood it, the Moody Blues used an analog device, the Mellotron, on Nights In White Satin, not a vocoder....