The Vocoder: From Speech-Scrambling To Robot Rock The device famous for making human voices sound robotic did not originate in the recording studio. As music journalist Dave Tompkins writes in How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop, it began as a speech-encoding machine during World War II. Read an excerpt from Tompkins' book about the vocoder and its unexpected history here.

The Vocoder: From Speech-Scrambling To Robot Rock

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If you've listened to pop music in the past 40 years, you've heard more than a few songs with a robotic sound. You might have even wondered how that effect was created. Well, it didn't happen in a music studio - it all began at the phone company.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking through vocoder) This is the Voice of Power. I make it possible for you to have electric light and radio and television. I am both your servant and your master, so beware of how you use me.

NEARY: That otherworldly voice was recorded in the 1920s by Bell Labs, the research division of AT&T. That strange sound was made by speaking into one of their newest inventions, a vocoder. Originally developed to reduce the cost of long-distance, the vocoder has had many uses over the years.

Dave Tompkins has written a new book about the device, "How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop."

He says the vocoder played a significant role in the Second World War.

Mr. DAVE TOMPKINS (Author, "How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop"): Churchill and FDR's conversations were being intercepted by German intelligence and deciphered in real time. Pearl Harbor really cemented that idea because of the warning, the Japanese ultimatum could not be transmitted by phone because the phones could not be trusted, they were looking for a different way to encode speech. And so Bell Labs was commissioned by the Natural Defense Research Committee, in 1942, to develop this massive speech-encoding machine.

NEARY: Was there ever any trouble understanding what people were saying? Obviously with this technology, you can really distort words and distort what's being said.

Mr. TOMPKINS: Intelligibility was a problem, in particular with the pitch control. They would send Bell Labs engineers to the Pentagon to regulate this wild pitch situation. And so, they didn't mind world leaders and generals sounding like robots, just as long as they didn't sound like chipmunks. Eisenhower did not want to sound like a chipmunk.

NEARY: All right. At some point, the vocoder made a shift from being something the military used, to becoming part of popular culture. When did that begin to happen?

Mr. TOMPKINS: A big shift occurred in Germany, and there's a speech in 1949 by an information theorist named Werner Meyer-Eppler, and he talked about the applications of artificial speech. And the speech inspired radio engineers in West Germany to have a vocoder developed by Siemens for West German radio in Cologne.

A big transitional point would be Wendy Carlos' soundtrack for "A Clockwork Orange." Wendy Carlos did a vocoder interpolation of the fourth movement of Beethoven's "Ninth." And essentially that introduced the vocoder to its first major audience.

(Soundbite of vocoder interpolation, Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony")

Mr. TOMPKINS: There were a lot of people had no idea what it was. But as the vocoder evolved, they knew the voice, they just had no idea where it came from.

(Soundbite of vocoder interpolation, Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony")

NEARY: So after that voice was heard in "A Clockwork Orange," did other musicians then sort of wonder what it was and begin experimenting with it?

Mr. TOMPKINS: It started appearing in music studios because the technology was still really expensive at the time. But German electronic musicians Kraftwerk, from Dusseldorf, were some of the first to make the vocoder more accessible through their early work. The first big hit would be "Autobahn," this sort of serene journey across the highways. And the vocoder, it would just say Autobahn...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TOMPKINS: ...with this sort of gasp.

(Soundbite of vocoder music, "Autobahn")

Mr. TOMPKINS: They continued to use it in their music for "We are the Robots" and "The Man Machine." And it sounded perfectly natural in the context of Kraftwerk because they were doing purely electronic music.

(Soundbite of song, "We Are the Robots")

KRAFTWERK (Electronic Musical Group): We're charging our battery and now we're full of energy. We are the robots. We are the robots. We are...

NEARY: You know, it seems to me that from what you're saying, the use of the vocoder started with experimental music - maybe avant-garde music - but then eventually it moved into mainstream with hip-hop, right?

Mr. TOMPKINS: It became the voice of electro-funk hip-hop in the early '80s. In particular, Michael Jonzun - he's a disco musician from Boston - recorded perhaps the first entire hip-hop vocoder album, "Lost in Space," which was released in 1983. And the song called "Pack Jam" was inspired by his intent to destroy all Pacman, or Pacman machines, because the videogame made him dizzy.

(Soundbite of song, "Pack Jam")

Mr. TOMPKINS: These futuristic sounds, with the new synthesizer technology at the time, it really affected how people moved.

(Soundbite of song, "Pack Jam")

NEARY: And also, it has a successor which is known as Auto-Tune. What is the connection between the vocoder and Auto-Tune?

Mr. TOMPKINS: Well, Auto-Tune is a pitch-corrective software implant. It places the pitch in the right place on the musical scale. The vocoder breaks the voice down and then reconstructs it so that you have an input for speech and you have an input for a modulator, say, a synthesizer, and you can play those notes through your voice.

Auto-Tune is often mistaken for vocoder, so in a sense Auto-Tune brought the vocoder back in vogue. But the Auto-Tune sound is sort of has its birdlike delirium to it that really appeals to pop.

(Soundbite of song "Buy You A Drink")

T-PAIN (Singer): I'm-a buy you a drink, oo-whee. Ooh, I'm-a take you home with me. I got money in the bank. Shorty, what you think 'bout that? I'll be in the grey Cadillac. We in the bed like ooh...

NEARY: Some might argue that this robotic sound is overused. Do you think that ultimately the vocoder was good for music?

Mr. TOMPKINS: Oh, certainly. Certainly, I think expanded music in terms of the synthesizer technologies that were available at the time. And what's more human than wanting to inhabit a different character? And so I think it gave artists a sort of an outlet and became an escapism, especially with hip-hop in the early 1980s.

NEARY: Dave Tompkins is a music journalist and author of "How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop." Thanks, it was good talking to you, Dave.

Mr. TOMPKINS: Oh, thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of song, "Intergalactic")

THE BEASTIE BOYS (Musical Group): (Singing) Intergalactic planetary, planetary intergalactic. Intergalactic planetary, planetary intergalactic...

NEARY: And you can read an excerpt from Tompkins' book and hear songs featuring the vocoder at

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of song, "Intergalactic")

THE BEASTIE BOYS: (Singing) Well, now don't you tell me to smile. You stick around, I'll make it worth your while. Got numbers beyond what you can dial. Maybe it's because I'm so versatile. Style profile, I said. It always brings you back when I hear, ooh child. From the Hudson River out to the Nile, I run the marathon till the very last mile. Well, if you battle me, I will revile...

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