How to Wreck a Nice Beach: the Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop by Dave Tompkins

The Wire's Hip-Hop contributor Dave Tompkins charts the history of the vocoder in a riveting saga of technology and culture, illuminating the work of some of music’s most provocative innovators.

Published by Stop Smiling Books, 2011 (346 pages; paperback)

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Synopsis:

The vocoder, invented by Bell Labs in 1928, once guarded phones from codebreakers during World War II; by the Vietnam War, it had been repurposed as a voice-altering tool for musicians and soon became the ubiquitous voice of popular music.

In How to Wreck a Nice Beach—from a mis-hearing of the vocoder-rendered phrase “how to recognize speech”— Dave Tompkins traces the history of electronic voices from Nazi research labs to Stalin’s gulags, from the 1939 World’s Fair to Hiroshima, from artificial larynges to Auto-Tune.

We see the vocoder brush up against FDR, JFK, Stanley Kubrick, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Kraftwerk, the Cylons, Henry Kissinger, and Winston Churchill, who boomed, when vocoderized on the morning before V-E Day, “We must go off!” And now vocoder technology is a cell phone standard, allowing a digital replica of your voice to sound human.

From T-Mobile to T-Pain, How to Wreck a Nice Beach is a riveting saga of technology and culture, illuminating the work of some of music’s most provocative innovators.