Long before T-Pain, Cher, and even Kraftwerk, there was more to talking like a robot than just sounding cool on record. The Vocoder, which, alongside the talk box and autotune, is one of the devices used by computer-crooners, was originally developed as a way of encrypting speech across long distances. It was built by Bell Laps engineer Homer Dudley across the the 1930s and debuted at the New York World’s Far in 1939—just in time for World War II. Soon after, it was incorporated in to the SIGSALY system, then the most state of the art means of encrypting allied communications.
Watch one of the earliest public demonstrations in this gem of a video.
Despite all the smiles, operating one of these vocoders (then called a voder) was difficult, serious business. It worked on the principle that a machine could emulate the human voice if it could manipulate the waveform of a noise source, just like vocal chords do with our breath breath. The operator had to learn how to use the machine’s oscillators and filters, controlled through a keypad, a level, and a foot pedal, in order to create words. It was crude technology compared to today’s vocoders, but the imperfect, vintage sound has a certain coolness of its own.
Maybe an adventurous artist could make their next album with it? Kanye, we’re looking in your direction.