The history of the Vocoder

March 6, 2011 12:38 am Published by 2 Comments

Korg Vocoder

All robot’s report to the dance floor! I like to mess around with robot voice effects. I like the Sonovox, the Autotune, and the Talkbox but it’s the Vocoder that get the most love. Not only does it give the best sonic results, it also have a interesting history. For example it helped the U.S. and Great Britain have secure and secret phone calls when they made the plans for the D-day invasion.

The vocoder research was fueled by a hope of it could open up the transatlantic telegraph lines for voice communication. A Vocoded signal takes less bandwidth and it allowed you to pack two or more conversations into one telephone line. Thinking about my failed attempts to communication through my vocoder at gigs I wonder if conversation through Vocoders could have been a success.

The Voder, which was the name of bells first vocoder, was first demonstrated to the public at the 1939 New York and San Francisco Worlds Fairs and caused quite a stir.  An operator worked a special keyboard to synthesize human speech. This was one of the few encounters the civilian world had with Vocoder technology before the 1950’s cause it was a huge and expansive machine. But the military found good use for it.



The first application of the technology from the Voder and the Vocoder was in SIGSALY, a secure speech system used in World War II for the highest-level Allied telecommunications.

The SIGSALY terminal was massive. Consisting of 40 racks of equipment, it weighed over 50 tons, and used about 30 kW of power, it got hot so you needed a air-conditioned room for it. It was too big and cumbersome for general use, it was only used for the highest level of voice communications.

A dozen SIGSALY terminal installations were eventually set up all over the world. One was installed in a ship and followed General Douglas MacArthurduring his South Pacific campaigns. It supported about 3,000 high-level telephone conferences. The encrypted phone link between the US President and Churchill in WW2 was probably an example of SIGSALY.

The system was cumbersome, but it worked very effectively. When the Allies invaded Germany, an investigative team discovered that the Germans had recorded significant amounts of traffic from SIGSALY, but had erroneously concluded that it was a complex telegraphic encoding system.

The prototype was called the “Green Hornet” after the popular radio show The Green Hornet, because it sounded like a buzzing hornet — resembling the show’s theme tune — to anyone trying to eavesdrop on the conversation.

Eventually a dozen SIGSALY terminals were distributed to the far corners of the globe, to include Washington; London; Algiers; Australia; Hawaii; Oakland, California; Paris (after its liberation); Guam; and, after VE Day, in Frankfurt and Berlin.  The network provided both military and civilian leaders access to secure voice communications. The SIGSALY was vital in protecting both discussions of significant issues and day-to-day administrative details of the war. All told, over 3,000 top-secret conferences were held using SIGSALY, a truly impressive statistic. Once again, Allied ingenuity and hard work had won the day. The best proof perhaps is a telling 1943 statement by the once successful Deutsche Reichspost on the future possibilities of intercept of high-level Allied communications, “there is not much to be gotten from them now.”

I like the idea that Roosevelt and Churchill made call’s to each other talking war strategy sounding like the Transformers.

Vocoder technology or technology derived from it is used in modern telephone networks so we run our voices through Vocoders every day. It’s a pity it doesn’t make us sound like robots though.

The musical Vocoder

In 1948 Werner Myer Eppler recognized the capability of the Voder machine to generate electronic music. He modified it to become the Vocoder and used it as a reference for additional studies into electronic music.

In 1968, Robert Moog developed one of the first solid-state musical vocoder for electronic music studio of University at Buffalo. Two years later he teamed up with Wendy Carlos and built another musical vocoder, a 10-band device inspired by the vocoder designs of Homer Dudley.

Wendy Carlos’s woek showed the world what Moog’s synthesizers were capable of and that was true for Moog’s Vocoder as well. Carlos and Moog’s vocoder was featured in several recordings, including the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in which the vocoder sang the vocal part of Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony”.

Kraftwerks Vocoder

Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (1974) was the first successful pop/rock album to feature vocoder vocals.

After that the vocoder started to show up in pop, disco, funk and hip hop recordings and as a effect as soon as there was a robot in a movie.

Some great bands who ha used the Vocoder The Alan Parsons Project, Electric Light Orchestra, Giorgio Moroder, Pink Floyd, Styx, Jean Michel Jarre, Mike Oldfield Herbie Hancock, Daft punk etc.

2 responses

Leave a Reply to Ofer Smilansky Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *