“Check out the mad skills/Top secret technique, too hard for you to peep it and keep it”
— Ghostface Killah featuring Cappadonna & Raekwon
In the beginning, there was the word. The word was a voice. The voice had a speaker. And the speaker knew the magic words. Fast-forward thousands of years to a time when humans behave like robots and robots behave like humans. Nobody knows the magic words anymore. Computers don’t distinguish between messages of love or hatred. Microchips make music and war with indifferent equivalence. All word, every voice, is now code. It has been for years.
A voice sonically signifies an individual. When that individual’s voice is translated into code, digitized, the voice becomes malleable. Its fixed and ephemeral properties are made durable, permanent, and loosed from time at once. It then becomes possible to perceive the digital recording in microscopic ways. Digitization makes it easy to study, and so to impersonate the voice – to replicate its signifying power.
Echo’s secret voice – scattered today to every corner of the winds – drives Pan mad. The trickster Raven steals Crow’s voice for a song. Shamans recite incantations from within cavernous passages, separating the voice from a body. The Acousmatics blindly follow Pythagoras’s enshrouded voice. The schizophrenic patient convincingly hears imaginary voices – special words for safe ears. The ventriloquist conceals her own voice, diverting attention to an avatar instead. The voice thrower untethers his voice from spatial coordinates’ confines. Renowned voices supplant an impersonator’s own. The speechwriter churns practiced words through a politician’s voice. Phonographs reproduce the voices of the long-ago dead. A Bell Labs computer sings “Daisy Bell”. Ferris Bueller’s fake coughs and sneezes echo into a high school telephone booth receiver from a digital sampler called the “Emulator”.
Would the walls of Jericho have fallen to the sound of a synthesized trumpet?
The renowned talk show host David Letterman is taping his Late Night television show in the NBC broadcast studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City on 28 November 1989. His guests are Roseanne Barr and Phil Collins. It is bandleader Paul Shaffer’s 40th birthday, which Letterman celebrates with his signature acerbic affection. As Shaffer and The World’s Most Dangerous Band wind down after one of the commercial breaks, the camera cuts back to Letterman sitting at his desk. The music concludes, except for something sounding like a shrieking horn. Letterman cranes toward Shaffer:
“What was that?” he cries in disbelief. “I thought it was a saxophone, but you don’t have a saxophone over there!”
Shaffer grins. “A little sax.” He strikes the note again. “A little computerized sax.”
“It’s that miracle computer board, isn’t it?” deadpans Dave.
Novel technologies figured significantly into the early successes of Late Night With David Letterman, which aired on the NBC network from 1982 until its move to CBS in 1993. There was the Thrill Cam, a remote camera mounted to a track that swept like a rollercoaster above the audience and down toward the stage; there was the Monkey Cam, a miniature video pack attached to a roller skating monkey’s helmet; there was the self-explanatory Dave Cam, and its corresponding Guest Cam; there was a camera that inexplicably rotated 360 degrees over the course of an episode; and a vibrating camera aptly dubbed Vibra-Vision.
There was a series of cannons positioned behind Letterman’s desk, which alternately shot out smoke, confetti, ping-pong balls, and bubbles. For a while, there were “Prancing Fluids”, two garishly coloured and increasingly septic water fountains at the foot of the stage. There was the anthropomorphic Puma-206 Access Robotic Arm that assisted, sometimes begrudgingly, in selecting Letterman’s Top Ten list cue cards. And there was the 30 November 1988 episode in which Letterman’s guest, Steve Martin, hijacked the Top Ten console, typing into the machine: “Any pretty boy can host a show”, but “it’s technical jobs like running this machine that really require skill”.
When technologies went awry, Letterman would address the show’s off-screen director, Hal Gurnee, in a bantering inversion of the grave interchanges between Dave and the HAL 9000 of Stanley Kubrick’s futurist/dystopian film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Intermittently malfunctioning technics became integral to a number of Late Night’s running routines, and to its growing status as a postmodern iteration of the late-night talk show, something beyond the couch and desk. In the 1980s, comedy and technology bestowed upon each other unexpected kinds of cultural awareness, significance, and legitimacy.
Music and sound were imperative to Letterman; critics often described his show as one would a garage band, as having its own sound. Letterman might have been prompted by one of his influential TV predecessors, the comedian and former Tonight Show host Steve Allen, who sounded off literal bells and whistles any time his guests inadvertently uttered profanity, or otherwise did something provocative. When Letterman’s short lived morning programme, The David Letterman Show, was cancelled in 1980, the network’s technicians had already begun rigging the studio for Letterman’s replacement, a game show called Las Vegas Gambit. The process involved the installation of corny buzzers cued by buttons behind his desk, which Letterman delighted in exploiting for comedic effect until he went off the air. His new Late Night show would eventually involve a more elaborate music- and soundscape. The uncanny noise of breaking glass – whenever Letterman tossed a cue card through a window frame, or launched a pencil at the camera – became one of Late Night’s sonic calling cards. A community of technologies, media and people produced this simple gag. Let’s look at some of them.
Everyone knows Paul Shaffer. But it was Hope (née Howard) Vinitsky who was charged with generating the show’s iconic sound effects. Vinitsky was an NBC staffer and sound engineer at Late Night With David Letterman beginning with the show’s debut on 1 February 1982, and ending when she moved to the rival CBS network, and the morning game show The Price Is Right in 1990. I spoke with Hope Vinitsky via Skype on 22 March 2017.
During her NBC tenure, Vinitsky told me, the sound effects on Letterman’s Late Night broadcast were triggered using cumbersome Fidelipac National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) cartridges, otherwise known simply as ‘carts’: endless-loop cassette magazines similar in design to the eight-track tapes that propelled the mid-1960s car-stereo boom. A product of the postwar analogue tape industry, NAB cartridges had been standard in radio and television sound since their widespread popularization in 1962 by the famous American entrepreneur and huckster, Earl ‘Madman’ Muntz. As a pioneer in budget television manufacturing during the 1950s, Muntz garnered a reputation for making a sport of conservation. He would snip out transistors and components until his TVs stopped working altogether, replacing only the parts that were absolutely necessary to make them function again. With his colourful public persona – Muntz often did his own radio and television commercials, and was among the first of the mass-communication era’s fast-talking pitchmen – he had the honor of entering into the technician’s lexicon: cutting every possible corner came to be known as ‘Muntzing’.
Muntz’s carts were the preferred format for sound effects on television in the early 1980s: they could quickly be loaded, cued, played and replayed. As they would have been in standard broadcast studios around the country, multiple NAB cart readers were stacked up backstage in the Late Night sound studios. Vinitsky would watch the show on a video monitor, triggering Letterman’s various sound effects in real time. The breaking glass bit evolved over the show’s run, as Letterman regularly attempted to trick Vinitsky’s reflexes, momentarily hesitating, or pretending to throw the pencil. Vinitsky, too, would cue up other indiscriminate sounds – braying elephants, car crashes, Big Ben tolling – to crack up the host. And these unanticipated glitches became essential to the blague’s success.
Vinitsky was a member of the NABET, the trade union that represented broadcast engineers and technicians in the US. Paul Shaffer belonged to the American Federation of Musicians. Although these separate unions mandated minimal overlap in musical and technical duties, an onslaught of cutting-edge inventions was bringing traditionally distinct creative and technical jobs closer together, and blurring the lines that separated their respective skills. Digital samplers, especially those with piano-style keyboards, had primarily been conceived of as musical instruments, not tools for the audio technician. But that was rapidly changing. In the early 1980s, NBC’s sound engineers, including Vinitsky, effectively became test subjects for new digital music technologies.
Manufacturers were keen to get their products into the hands of professional audio technicians, in hopes that they might become the industry’s newest indispensable technology. For instance, Letterman’s contemporary, the NBC sketch-comedy series Saturday Night Live, was given an early model Synclavier workstation to produce its sound effects. During Letterman’s fifth season, the sound quality of NBC broadcasts improved again as the network converted to stereo sound. Dolby Laboratories, too, lobbied to use Late Night as a platform to demonstrate its broadcast Surround Sound system. Vinitsky recalls receiving prototype devices from 360 Systems, Advanced Music Systems, and Eventide – well-known manufacturers of broadcast sound equipment – as well as Akai samplers and Casio keyboards in the late 1980s.
Although NAB cartridges would remain the principle sound-effects media at Late Night until Vinitsky’s departure, samplers slowly began to see use in late night television sound work into the 1990s, to trigger sound effects, and also to ‘sweeten’ an audience’s approval. Laughter and applause were thrown into the mix of sounds that audio technicians could control with increasing precision.
Whenever Letterman would make a phone call from his talk-show desk — to some random stranger, from some random telephone book, in some random town, or to Meg Parsont in the building across the street — he would request “a little dialling music” from Paul. Shaffer, on cue, would improvise a melody that covered up the awkwardness of waiting for a phone to be answered on live television. But ‘dialling’ was the job, in a larger sense, of sound and music on Letterman’s show. Dialling-up sounds on various devices became one of the marks of distinction for Letterman’s iconic brand of comedy. On the 6 January 1989 episode of Late Night, Shaffer was tasked to handle the show’s Top Ten for the first time, with a list of his favourite synthesizer effects. The number one slot that night went to the absurd sound of a taxiing jumbo jet running over a monkey – something produced by a combination of synthesizer patches and samples.
Doubtless, Shaffer’s visibility and centrality to the band went a long way to selling the idea of synthesizers and other digital instruments to amateur musicians, especially those with goofy and nebbish tendencies. And the less public, less glamorous job of sound effects shifted, too, as digital technologies gradually replaced analogue ones, like Muntz’s NAB cartridges, and ever fewer machines were effectively necessary to produce a wider array of sounds.
A significant shift occurred when synthesizers went from making abstract electronic bleeps to emulating the distinctive timbral qualities of acoustic instruments. The word ‘synthesizer’, in addition to signifying the synthesis of two or more elements, also implies rendering the natural world synthetic. The ability not just to create bizarre and otherworldly frequencies, but to command an entire orchestra of simulated instruments with one machine, indicated the slow decline of diverse sorts of musical skill, and further entrenched the claviocentric worldview of Western music into new technological infrastructures.
This extract was taken from Chapter Four: “Synthesizer, Sampler, Mixmaster, Spy”. Mad Skills: MIDI And Music Technology In The 20th Century by Ryan Alexander Diduck is published by Repeater Books on 15 March.