How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks
How to Wreck a Nice Beach (Melville House Publishing)
by Dave Tompkins
$35.00 List Price
Technology can take unexpected turns on the path from an inventor's lab to the shelves of Best Buy. During World War II, presidents Roosevelt and Truman used a cutting-edge voice scrambler called the vocoder, dubbed SIGSALY by the US Signal Corps, to communicate furtively with the Allies about details for such operations as the Normandy invasion and the Hiroshima bombing. Two decades later, as President Kennedy used an encryption device for back-channel communications during the Cuban Missile Crisis, vocal scrambling began its second life in music as singers started distorting their voices. In Hamilton, Ohio, soul-funk musician Roger Troutman fabricated his own distortion device from freezer parts, while futuristic electronic-funk group the Jonzun Crew warned their fans, enigmatically, about the video game Pac-Man.
Detours such as these are brought to light by music journalist Dave Tompkins in his fascinating and entertaining debut, How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Ostensibly a history of the vocoder, the voice technology invented by Bell Labs researcher Homer Dudley in the late 1920s that evolved into SIGSALY, Tompkins's narrative alternates between secret military transmissions and musicians exploring vocal distortion. The juxtaposition is meant to suggest what covert communications and intergalactic funk might have in common.
Dudley's vocoder operated uniquely. It took an input (voice) and scrambled it in a predetermined manner; another, distant vocoder (like the one Churchill kept in the basement of a London department store) unscrambled that signal and rearranged it. It