How to Wreck a Nice Beach

More Crosstalk on the Vocoder
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Something To That Effect

To The Active Supernatural

By Dave Tompkins at 12:59am ET

(Manfred Schroeder / Photograph by Michael Waring)

2010 saw several vocoder characters go haint.

Dr. Fritz Sennheiser
Chilly B (Newcleus)
Rodger “Uncle Jamm” Clayton

Barry Hannah & The Yarp: “You active supernaturals ain’t ever going to get that apparent.”*

“The spectral description should fit,” said Manfred Schroeder, thinking speech compression, but in terms of terms which have surrendered meaning and content in exchange for an improved bit rate. A Bell Labs physicist who specialized in psycho-acoustics and “perceptual coding,” Schroeder died on December 28, 2009.

My last correspondence with Mr. Schroeder was September 2009, when I emailed to verify that he’d once written: “Funky! Funky! Funky! Contains one word type. Funky.” (He did.) Manfred and his wife lived in Germany but often wintered in Summit, New Jersey**, where I first met him in February 2003. Schroeder engineered the first vocoder to be accused of sounding human. One of his favorite intelligibility tests was Aztekenexpresszuggesellschaft, which translated to “Aztec express train company.”

Another test involved having a child lick “frost figures” on an iced-down streetcar window, and ask she or he to speak in numb-tongued Morse.

Schroeder was the first to tell me that speech recognition was beach wreckage, pointing me towards The First Circle—Solzhenitsyn’s Vocoder of Last Resort—and thus my book title. The scrambled Notels of secrecy and disambiguation. In an obituary posted at Language Log, Schroeder joked that he’d followed the path of Solzhenitsyn’s Gleb Nerzhin, “who seals his fate by choosing to work in psycho-acoustics rather than cryptography.”

Schroeder was lucky that choice found him alive. As a young wireless nerd, he was nearly caught by the Gestapo for eavesdropping on his school’s faculty lounge in Ahlen. During World War II, he served in a German anti-aircraft unit, spotting Allied blips in a synthetic fog. After his unit spent a night of shooting at random interference patterns—without hitting a single plane—Schroeder’s battery commander slapped him on the back and said, “Boys, I’ve never seen such smooth data.”

“Of course it was smooth data,” Schroeder told me. “I received a commendation for having delivered very smooth data. I learned at a very young age that this was the kind of country where you couldn’t trust the leadership.”

Schroeder’s battery commander assumed his radio-measuring book (titled Funkmess) indicated an aptitude for radars and promoted him to an air surveillance post in Holland. He spent the German surrender dismantling radars and exchanging smooth data with Dutch officers.

“We were in love with our radars,” he sighs.

Manfred on wordplay:

“In my native language, I always have to hold my breath, like where’s the end of the sentence, and only at the end of the sentence does the thing become clear. In the meantime I have to hold all this garbage in my head. German has to be declined—with all these different endings—and you can randomize the word order and can still unscramble it. You can’t do this in English. Words have to be in the right logical place. In English, many puns depend on the fact that different words pronounced almost the same or completely the same—that’s what the pun then rests upon. This isn’t so much the case in German. Just the word itself—pun— in English is three letters. There is a word in German for pun, but I have to scratch my memory. It’s wortspiele, a much longer word; it just doesn’t play the same role as in English. Even today I never know whether I’m speaking German or English.”

*“Sometimes you see something that seems made for you … and you want to leave it although the hours prove there’s nothing there.”

**My friend drove me to Manfred’s house in her hamster Datsun pick-up during a blizzard. The snowblind wipers were defenseless against the splat (No! Not the face!) and much of the trip was spent trying to dissuade a spider from going through our pockets. The creature had hitched a ride with Mike Waring, who took the photo above. We finally airlifted the spider to the dashboard where it investigated a speaker crater embedded in the right corner. The creature caught a blunted gust of Redman, shot us a triumphant glance (Tonight’s the night, suckers!) and disappeared into the sound.


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