Briefly Noted: Do Androids Sing?


In the electronic funk of the early '80s, the vocoder distorted the human voice into a strange robotic sound. Long before it was a musical instrument, though, the vocoder was an encryption tool in World War II and the Cold War. Like the Internet, it didn't become a popular sensation until civilians started playing with it and adapting it to new contexts.

Dave Tompkins provides a playful account of the technology's history in How to Wreck a Nice Beach (Melville House/Stop Smiling), a synchronicity-strewn story whose all-star cast ranges from Sun Ra to Ray Bradbury and from Cookie Monster to the Daleks. The machine's musical and military sides evolved independently but occasionally bumped against each other. In World War II, conversing covertly via the vocoder required two turntables, an arrangement that inadvertently foreshadowed a hip hop DJ's setup. Tompkins' book includes a photo of two Signal Corps officers, circa 1944, standing at their record players. The terminal is code-named SAMPLE. —Jesse Walker