Words by Sam McNiece
From their humble beginnings as a way of condensing the human voice for transmission through cables underseas, the vocoder has had a long and storied history which included use in World War Two as a form of cryptography before it made Kraftwerk and Bambaataa sound like futuristic robots and spur on the creativity of millions. Lets dive into the vocoder, how it works, what it does, and how its been used in pop and electro music today.
The vocoder was invented in the 1930s by Homer Dudley of Bell Labs, as a means of compressing the human voice into something more easily transmittable to conserve bandwidth. The basic idea behind his work was to separate the human voice before it was sent through telephone lines so it could be reconstructed when it reached the intended destination.
During World War Two, the use of a vocoder was taken to the next level as Bell Labs were enlisted to provide a speech-encoding technology to encrypt Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelts conversations. Utilising this technology, only the envelopes of specific bandwidths were sent after they had been encoded by a secret record, and had to be reconstructed at the receiving end by vocoder experts, utilising the same record to decode the speech. The vocoder provided a way for signals to be transmitted without a need for codewords as the sheer amount of equipment required to reproduce the transmitted signals was enough to fill a room; the SIGSALY devices weighed over 55 tons a piece!
In laymans terms, a vocoder encodes or synthesises human speech, hence the term vocoder (voice encoder). An input signal of your choosing is named the carrier and another audio signal youre going to manipulate it with is called a modulator. Resonant band pass filters are set at specific frequency intervals by the modulator which the carrier signal activates, shaping frequency bands through the envelope of that specific frequency band.
For instance when you say but, the b sound is quite low in frequency and will activate the lower frequency bands and pronouncing the t sound will result in mid-high frequency bands being activated. You can imagine the low frequency bands reproducing more tonal sounds and higher frequency bands producing consonants and sibilance.
In music, typically a synthesiser is used as the modulator (more specifically an open sawtooth sound with short attack and a long decay) and a voice as the carrier. This creates that classic robot voice heard over countless track from Daft Punk to Herbie Hancock by making the voice have similar timbral qualities to a synthesiser while maintaining its amplitude and formants.
There were early uses of the vocoder in music by Bell Labs but none appeared to penetrate the mainstream or serve as anything other than an advertisement of what their product could do.
It wasnt until Wendy Carlos utilised a spectrum follower in her Moog rig, which is inherently the same technology as the modern vocoder, on Stanley Kubricks A Clockwork Orange, that it hit the mainstream. It is regarded as the first time a vocoder had been used in a widely successful release. The cover of Beethovens Ninth Symphony set the tone for electronic music for years to come, albeit after a short hiatus.
No doubt, the electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk had been influenced by this revelation in technology, first utilising their customised vocoder onAutobahn,which marked one of the first uses of the technology on vocals. This record was a landmark for many reasons and the vocoder was a staple from this point on throughout their incredible discography.
Throughout the late 70s, the vocoder was used by a few acts, including Herbie Hancock on his record Sunlight.Herbie, who definitely has been an early adopter of music technology, perhaps from his Jazz upbringing, created quite a tacky record inSunlight, but none the less laid a foundation for other artists to come through and produce full records with vocoder lines in place of the human voice.
Fast forward a couple years and Afrika Bambaataa sampled the legends Kraftwerk on potentially the best electro record ever, Planet Rock. The vocoder action on this record was actually performed by the recording engineer, stealing a vocal line from The Strikers, and it displayed to the hip hop and funk heads what the future of those genres would be, electronic.
Fast forward to the 90s and newer electro music was bubbling in the underground of Detroit as a consequence of their funk and techno backgrounds. Artists such as Aux 88, Underground Resistance and the legendary Drexciya and all their side projects utilised vocoders to hide their identity, sound otherworldly, or in Drexciyas case, harness their underwater aesthetic.
After this influence on underground electro, the effect was clear, vocoders were here to stay. Looking forward in electro, Anthony Rother is among the top users of the vocoder, using it in his recorded music and in live performances. Check this video below for a masterclass on vocoder use.
The vocoder was used by a large swathe of musicians aiming for a futuristic sound which today may actually sound dated in certain genres. That hasnt stopped modern pop producers using modern advanced vocoders on their records as well as vintage units. Products such as the free TAL Vocoder and Abletons built in Vocoder stay true to the original hardware units allowing some flexibility but producing relatively similar results to what youd expect from 80s vocoders.
Vocoders become extremely enticing once you reach further developments in their technology, including vocoder plugins, VocalSynth 2 by iZotope and OVox by Waves. These two plugins allow the human voice to function more like a synthesiser than having to be shaped by one. They combine synthesis into a vocoder and add FX to become all in one machines, which you can hear across various pop modern pop records alongside pitch correction software.
You dont have to look far to see tracks like Pony by Ginuwine and its iconic yeah, yeah, yeah, which forms the backbone of the whole track. Imogen Heaps Hide and Seek transforms her vocal performance into a full ensemble through the use of the vocoder among other vocal effects. And how could this be a discussion about vocoders without talking about Kanye Wests incredible Vocoder solo on his nine minute epic Runaway.
Without the amount of money invested into research by Bell Labs, its unsure if wed have the vocoder today, in all its funky and transformative vocal modulation. We as musicians and listeners to music have them to thank as I personally cant imagine where pop and electro would be if it werent for the humble vocoder.
If you found this article interesting, check out this video by Doctor Mix playing 10 famous songs on a vocoder.
- WhatsApp rolls out encryption for chats backed up in the cloud - Mashable - October 17th, 2021
- WhatsApp now lets users encrypt their chat backups in the cloud - TechCrunch - October 17th, 2021
- Meet the Alliance for Encryption in Latin America and the Caribbean - EFF - October 17th, 2021
- Apples plan to scan images will allow governments into smartphones - The Guardian - October 17th, 2021
- WhatsApp to bring in encryption for backup chats after privacy fears - The Guardian - October 15th, 2021
- WhatsApp end-to-end encrypted backups are rolling out on both Android and iOS - GSMArena.com news - GSMArena.com - October 15th, 2021
- Encryption: Why security threats coast under the radar - Philstar.com - October 15th, 2021
- Encryption Management Solutions Market 2021 : Industry Analysis ,Size, Share, Revenue, Prominent Players, Developing Technologies, Tendencies and... - October 15th, 2021
- TLS Support Redis - October 12th, 2021
- Signal >> Documentation - October 12th, 2021
- Encryption Consulting announces their first-ever virtual conference - "Encryption Consulting Virtual conference 2021." - Tyler Morning... - October 12th, 2021
- [Update: Rolling out] WhatsApp adds end-to-end encryption for Android cloud backups - 9to5Google - October 12th, 2021
- Homomorphic Encryption Market New Coming Industry to Witness Great Growth Opportunities in Coming Years From 2021 to 2027: Microsoft (US), IBM... - October 12th, 2021
- SmartKargo Incorporates EDIfly Advanced Aviation Messaging At No Cost for Customers of its E-Commerce Logistics Solution - Yahoo Finance - October 12th, 2021
- No outages, no data leaks: The new WhatsApp killer built on the blockchain creates privacy-focused encrypted messenger - Cointelegraph - October 12th, 2021
- Mosyle's $ 16M Series A Drives Growth by Launching the Mosyle Business with the Market's First Encrypted DNS Filtering and Security Solution -... - October 6th, 2021
- Tips to Secure and Encrypt your WIFI Network Security - H2S Media - October 6th, 2021
- Data Encryption Standard (DES)? - All You Need to Know | Techfunnel - TechFunnel - October 4th, 2021
- XSOC CORP Recognized by CyberSecurity Breakthrough Awards Program for Overall Encryption Solution of the Year - Business Wire - October 4th, 2021
- Encryption: Why security threats coast under the radar - Express Computer - October 4th, 2021
- Hardware Encryption Devices Market 2021 Technology Development, Key Manufacturers, Forecast Based on Major Drivers and Trends Up to 2027 - Digital... - October 4th, 2021
- Container security without governance is neither secure nor governed - The Register - October 4th, 2021
- Sectigo Certificate Manager Wins 2021 CyberSecurity Breakthrough Award for Overall Encryption Solution Provider of the Year - PRNewswire - October 4th, 2021
- Customs and Border Protection Signs Major Contract With Amazon-Owned Encrypted Chat App Wickr - Gizmodo - October 4th, 2021
- Encryption cant be used as excuse to deny sharing details to law enforcement: Govt - The Financial Express - October 4th, 2021
- Facebook announces WhatsApp end-to-end encrypted (E2EE) backups - Techiexpert.com - TechiExpert.com - October 4th, 2021
- Bluefin Issues New Payment Security Brief on PCI-validated P2PE for Petroleum and Convenience Stores - PR Web - October 4th, 2021
- Get a lifetime of easy, automatic encryption for all of the files on your computer for just $30 - ZDNet - September 24th, 2021
- Tide encryption is ready to end the cyber breach pandemic - TechCrunch - September 24th, 2021
- The FBI has kept the presence of the encryption key secret from Casey for three weeks. - Cheraw Chronicle - September 24th, 2021
- Braves non-tracking, browser-based video conferencing tool is out of beta - TechCrunch - September 24th, 2021
- 5 ways to stay ahead of government-targeted ransomware - GCN.com - September 24th, 2021
- Encryption Software Market expectation surges with rising demand and changing trends by industry analysis through 2026 Stillwater Current -... - September 24th, 2021
- What Is a Hardware Security Module? HSMs Explained - Hashed Out by The SSL Store - September 24th, 2021
- Making the Most from WEP - Wi-FiPlanet.com - Wi-Fi Planet - September 24th, 2021
- Brave, the startup behind untracked browser-based video conferencing tool is out of beta - Security News - BollyInside - September 24th, 2021
- Hardware Encryption Devices Market Is Expected To Witness Healthy Growth At A CAGR Of More Than 40% - Herefordshire Live - Herefordshire Live - September 24th, 2021
- WhatsApp launches encryption in iCloud and Google Drive backups - InTallaght - September 24th, 2021
- WhatsApp boosts end-to-end encryption - BusinessTech - September 17th, 2021
- WhatsApp to offer encryption on cloud backups: Heres all you need to know - India Today - September 17th, 2021
- London's Top Cop Says 'Big Tech,' Encryption Are Letting The Terrorists Win - Techdirt - September 17th, 2021
- Zoom unveils new security features including end-to-end encryption for Zoom Phone, verified identities and... - ZDNet - September 15th, 2021
- Insights on the Hardware Encryption Global Market to 2026 - by Algorithm & Standard, Architecture, Product, Application and Region - PRNewswire - September 15th, 2021
- Light Start: WhatsApp rolls out backup encryption, LG is more attractive, Google goes dark and iPhones only laak gud vaabs Stuff - Stuff Magazines - September 15th, 2021
- Revenant REvil. WhatsApp offers encryption. Hortum spyware in Turkey. Update on the UN data breach. Healthcare breaches disclosed. - The CyberWire - September 15th, 2021
- How a glitch in the Matrix led to apps potentially exposing encrypted chats - The Register - September 15th, 2021
- Secure cloud storage: which are the most secure providers? - ITProPortal - September 15th, 2021
- WhatsApp is finally allowing users to encrypt chat backups uploaded to iCloud and Google Drive - Buzz.ie - September 15th, 2021
- WhatsApp is adding encrypted backups - The Verge - September 11th, 2021
- What Is Fully Homomorphic Encryption (FHE)? - CIO Insight - September 11th, 2021
- WhatsApp end-to-end encrypted messages arent that private after all - Ars Technica - September 11th, 2021
- UK government backs Apple, and wants to scan encrypted messages for CSAM - 9to5Mac - September 11th, 2021
- VPN and Email Encryption Provider, WiTopia, Inc., Is Now Raising Capital Via StartEngine - PRNewswire - September 11th, 2021
- Future in the cloud for encryption - Capacity Media - September 8th, 2021
- WhatsApps Claims Of End-To-End Encryption Might Be Entirely True - Ubergizmo - September 8th, 2021
- Debunking Wi-Fi Security Myths: Wi-Fi Encryption Is Weak - TechSpective - September 8th, 2021
- WhatsApp Flaw Casts Doubt on End-to-End Encryption - Security Boulevard - September 8th, 2021
- Bluefin Receives U.S. Patent on Systems for Vaultless Tokenization and Encryption - WFMZ Allentown - September 8th, 2021
- Priti Patel backs ad campaign that criticises Facebook's stance on end-to-end encryption - Graham Cluley Security News - September 8th, 2021
- EXCLUSIVE: What's in the new zero-trust strategy - Politico - September 8th, 2021
- 3 ways to protect yourself from cyberattacks in the midst of an IT security skill shortage - Help Net Security - September 8th, 2021
- Apple Has Betrayed Its Privacy Legacy and Will Undermine End-to-end Encryption Everywhere - Privacy News Online - September 8th, 2021
- IBM's first 7nm Power10 chip arrives in E1080 server system with a wealth of shiny features - The Register - September 8th, 2021
- The adoption of multi-cloud drives the need for better data protection and management of encryption keys an... - Security Boulevard - August 26th, 2021
- Cryptomator Vs. BoxCryptor: Which One Is The Best Encryption Software? - Analytics Insight - August 26th, 2021
- Why you should encrypt your data on your computer and how to do it - The Star Online - August 26th, 2021
- Video end-to-end encryption on Ring to be available worldwide - ITP.net - August 26th, 2021
- Privacera partners with StreamSets to strengthen data security for ETL processing in the cloud - Help Net Security - August 26th, 2021
- R400m cocaine-in-a-boat accused used encryption app to communicate - TimesLIVE - August 26th, 2021
- Evervaults encryption as a service is now open access - TechCrunch - August 24th, 2021
- How to Encrypt Your Own Windows and Mac Devices (and Why You Need To) - Lifehacker - August 24th, 2021
- Why encryption is the key to digital fitness, according to Thales - iTnews - August 24th, 2021
- How to check each of your WhatsApp chats are ACTUALLY private right now and not being intercepted by h... - The Sun - August 24th, 2021
- WebCam: How Australia paved the way for Apple's encryption backflip - Crikey - August 24th, 2021
- Staggering 400% rise in child sexual abuse images detected by Facebook as fears over encryption plans g... - The Sun - August 24th, 2021
- Hardware-based Full Disk Encryption Market 2021 and Analysis to 2027 Micron Technology Inc, Seagate Technology PLC, Toshiba, Intel - The Market... - August 24th, 2021
- WhatsApp could soon have an iPad app for the first time - Engadget - August 24th, 2021
- Facebook is bringing end-to-end encryption to Messenger calls and Instagram DMs - TechCrunch - August 14th, 2021
- Apple opens the encryption Pandora's box - Axios - August 14th, 2021
- How to encrypt your computer (and why you should) - Mashable - August 14th, 2021