Smile When You Say Nasty Words

Dave Tompkins. Foto: presse.

At times a flamethrower would do. Perhaps a screwdriver. Or maybe a Westinghouse oven, though that was used to stabilize the super-crystals. The 805th US Signal Corp preferred a specialized machine when it came to permanently disfiguring its top secret vinyl. The device was entered into a Signal Corp log in North Africa as The Record Destruction Machine’, somewhere between ‘request to marry local French girl’ and ‘bubonic plague has broken out’.

The Record Destruction Machine would find itself in a wine cellar in Algiers, chewing up rare records produced by the Muzak Corporation and Bell Labs and distributed by the US Army Signal Corp in extremely limited, covert vocoder markets throughout the world, beginning with the Pentagon and ending in Tokyo and Berlin. Thermalized noise was the micro-est of subgenres.

This may have seemed a little offmessage at a time when Erwin Rommel was out in the desert somewhere, commanding a wall of noise and talking over a primitive laser beam with his throat jacked into a tank radio. But this wasn’t elevator music in the machine’s teeth. These 16-inch singles held the code key, the most sensitive dimension of a top secret phone scrambler used by Churchill and other windbags of war.

Called SIGGRUV, these ‘one-time’ records had to be playing while the vocoder was in use, which in 1942 was often. So a two-turntable system – also engineered by Bell Labs – was deployed. (There was a self-destruct mechanism in case the terminal was breached, a turntable meltdown activated by the last man out). Each record was played once, then chopped and shredded. Never repeated, always unsaid. If you played the SIGGRUV, you’d just hear active surf, tidal white noise.

The system was called Project X, or SIGSALY, named after nonsense, the compression of a tongue-twizzler concerning a child hustling conches on the boardwalk. The vocoder was its central component. Occupying an entire floor, these robot walls ran hot and high maintenance, seven-foot cabinets of synthetic voice, thrumming. The machine was the space. The vocoder disbanded conversation into sub frequencies and reconstructed it into a machine’s impression of human speech – stiff as a puppet’s chin and often denounced by its users. Intelligence as deformation. A misunderstanding from a machine that was once called a spectral decomposer. Or the Indestructible Speech Machine, if you want to get all Eisenhower about it.

The vocoder helped filter, add and subtract the SIGGRUV noise at both ends of the line, allowing brass jaws to determine the world’s fate in voices they barely recognized, dehumanized into digital pulses 20 milliseconds in length. Admiral Leahy said he heard robots. Eavesdroppers merely heard a buzz. As a device whose name had been struck from its own user’s manual during the war, the vocoder often spoke under conditions of anonymity. D-Day, Dresden, Hiroshima. The deliquesced pewter world.

The vocoder was invented by a man who kept bees and surfed. In 1928, Homer W Dudley just wanted to send our voices underwater, compressing telephonic bandwidth in the Trans Atlantic Cable. He was trying to save space while somehow imagining a vocoder basement in every home. Though Homer Dudley’s vision was speech compression – and clarifying human communication – his machine would make machines out of donkey brays, storm winds, church bells, oceanic roars, tap-dancing, birds and leaf piles. All tested at Bell Labs. Each having a ball on reality’s dime.

This wasn’t some automaton romance of technology. The vocoder’s conception came to Dudley when imagining his mouth to be a radio station, while suffering from colitis in a hospital bed. (He literally shat himself). He would later write of the speech mechanism: oral resonances, the mouth, laryngeal vibrations, the teeth. We were machines transmitting speech on carrier waves.

Though the vocoder may not have rehabilitated shellshocked mutes – as Dudley originally believed – it did manage to enter the dreams of the insane. In the late 1970s, a hospital in Bavaria commissioned the British synthesizer company EMS to provide vocoder recordings for patients as they slept, in particular ‘heavy cases of mental illness’. Talking water drops and winds were prescribed for subconscious autosuggestion and pat assurance. The machine was treatment.

In its ever-evolving shrinking state, the vocoder would feed the fantasies and nightmares of other machines while subsuming whatever noise was in its path, giving voices to planes, trains, automobahns, submarines, computers, synthesizers, Daft Punk, cell phones, and ultimately, ourselves. Or at least a decent wireless rendering of ourselves. (To misappropriate knee surgeon jargon, the vocoder ‘replicated intra-articular space’). From its inception, the phone gave the illusion of proximity, putting a voice – and more than a few crazy ideas – in people’s heads. Its functionary, the vocoder, would further distance the voice from the human body, creating more space. In 1939, the LA Times called thisartificial voice ‘the voice true’. During the Vietnam War, when covert ops were codenamed Urban Funk and the jungle was bombed with portable radios, NASA fed special test sentences to the vocoder: Smile when you say nasty words.

By the late 1970s, the axis of eavesdroppers was still Italy, Germany and Japan: Moroder, Kraftwerk, and Yellow Magic Orchestra. In 1983, the vocoder was the voice real – the main machine of hiphop and R&B – transforming the alienation of the African-American experience, the distant longing for better times, approximating machine to body, to dance out of constriction and compression. Trying to make space, if not a galactic void. Said ‘Fly Guy and the Unemployed’, a 12-inch nobody heard: ‘DC is into space/DC doesn’t care about the human race’. ‘Come with me to the land of stuff’, encouraged a man from Ohio named Sneak E. Another unheard unknown. A device that was intended to improve telecommunication for all was then restricted and redacted for military echelons, coveted by Stalin and officemaxed by the Stasi, only to be refreaked for hiphop, functioning against the machine’s intentions, trying to find a voice in a black hit of space. We ate those records alive.

By Dave Tompkins

Dave Tompkins

Dave Tompkins visited the  Only Connect festival, 7 June. For the programme, he wrote this text about the history of the vocoder.