I've been obsessed with the vocoder for a long time. From the first time I heard Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" to watching Clockwork Orange in high school -- the sound has fascinated and amused me to no end. Until last week, I didn't know Dave Tompkins' book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach, which details the history of the vocoder from a music critic's point of view, even existed. Naturally, when I became aware of its existence, I picked the book up as quickly as possible.
It's amazing to think about the origins of one of the mainstays in pop music -- like many technological advancements, the vocoder was originally a military item. It was created in response to German wiretapping and divided the voice across frequencies so spies couldn't listen in on conversation. It was a regular in the offices of some of history's most influential men and was a part of history's most crucial moments, including D-Day and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
While much of this is probably common knowledge, what might not be is the way early vocoder's worked: Weighing around 55 tons, they were extremely delicate and required two turntables playing random noise to work -- this setup had to exist on both sides of the conversation.
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Of course, over time the vocoder got smaller and soon infiltrated pop culture -- the devices being especially attuned to robots in series like Battlestar Galactica and Transformers, before exploding onto the pop scene with a little help from Kraftwerk and Michael Jonzun.
Tompkins guides us through this journey with an effortlessness that can only be achieved by years and years of research. From the military to the funky, we're given interviews from a ridiculously wide range of people: Military personnel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Ray Bradbury, Wendy Carlos, Peter Frampton and countless others.
This isn't a tedious essay about the history of the vocoder; How to Wreck a Nice Beach is a passionate, literate tale of one man's obsession. Thankfully, he brings us along for the ride. Where a lot of non-fiction dries up, Tompkins excels -- perhaps it's his history as a music critic; perhaps it's something else. His metaphors and simile's get a bit muddled at times, likely another sign of his music critic origins, but they don't get in the way of the overall purpose and it doesn't happen enough to be a distraction.
You can pick the book up directly from the publisher, and if you're interested in an audio tour, you might appreciate Arthur Magazine's supplementary mix. Oh, and if you're wondering what the title means, run "how to recognize speech" through an older vocoder and see what it sounds like.