How to Wreck a Nice Beach

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Something To That Effect

Farmer Frenches Amphibian

By Dave Tompkins at 3:23pm ET

The Votoader returns. This farmer with a frog affair comes from the insert that accompanies the Folkways record, Speech After Removal of the Larynx, released in 1964 and acquired, finally, at Academy Records in 2011. I traded a bunch of disco 12s for a recording of people trying to communicate without vocal chords, with the help of Western Electric, their stomachs, a parabuccal reservoir of air stored between the cheek and gum, and frogs. That’s my Friday night.

The cover art, drawn by Jaap Groendal, “symbolizes a man without a larynx and a violin with broken strings.”

But the photo. The frog appears to flying, not unlike the frog those bored murderers strapped to a skyrocket in The Tree of Life. But alas, no. It’s just an inset of a frog that appears to be in the air (where our voices originate, incidentally.)

I was similarly deceived by the scissors in the picture of Frankenstein’s monster below. As a child I always assumed the giant scissors were flying towards Karloff’s (Glenn Strange’s?) forehead, aiming for a flattop trim.* Upon reading Frankenstein, I was discouraged to find no flying scissors. No monster getting his lugs lowered. A closer look revealed that the scissors were attached to the facade of a barber shop. Not one to let reality get the best of my day, I imagined the scissors—after a visit with Jack Parsons at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena—could drag the building towards the monster’s bangs. This is what happens when a child gets left alone with Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Films: giant scissors drag barbershops into outer space.

As for the frog caption:  The farmer “caused it to croak by stroking it with his tongue…so the story goos.”**  I believe the goos wasn’t a misprint but perhaps a gross suggestion. Maybe if the farmer kisses the frog it’ll turn into Prince’s original demo of “Joy In Repetition,” which is just plain sick.

*You are now listening to “Set It Off” by Big Daddy Kane: “Smooth Father, give ’em a flat-top trim.”

**I don’t have time to watch The Wicker Man again, but I believe there’s a scene where a kid sticks a frog in his mouth.

***Here’s a story I did for The Oxford American about how I put Timbaland to sleep with an old bass record back in 2005.

The Hold-Up

By Dave Tompkins at 2:33pm ET

(Courtesy High Country News/Seventh Annual Report of the Missouri State


Sorry for the service interruption. We’ve been fooling with the expanded paperback edition of How to Wreck a Nice Beach, due out in November. Which is to say a giant grasshopper has been standing between me and my blog duties.

Anywizards, one day, I’d like to tell you about a conversation I had with Hellstrom Chronicle director Walon Green in 2002. He was talking about smuggling locusts into the US from Africa. “Apparently it’s illegal to start a plague in the state of California,” he said. Needless to say, this is one of my favorite interviews. I was so happy afterward that I forgot about crossing reality and was nearly flattened by a UPS truck.

For now, the future, I’ll be presenting at Eyebeam next Monday (June 13), along with Steve Goodman/Kode9’s AUDiNT collective, in anticipation of their Dead Record Office exhibition, opening Friday, June 17. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be flushed out the Vietnam jungle by “unsound” Infrabass weaponry, here’s your chance.

(If you’ve ever wondered what’s it like to flushed out of a subwoofer by a Dynamix II vocoder song that says, “Toilet bowl rock you to the ground,” go here.)

On Monday, expect to hear from Operation Wandering Soul, the WWII audio decepticon program, the specter of spectral communications, military use of “vestigial emanations,” and the professor who threw Goethe’s stolen larynx in front of a train.

I will also be playing a special disco gospel vocoder chant called “You Ought To Been There,” recorded in 1980 by Geraldine Stewart. The logo is a pair of flapdancing winged serpents straight out of a Larry Cohen movie that discouraged rooftop sun-bathing. (Is this the voice of Q?) Shattered like a glass goblin.

Dr. Quatermass, The Hole Is To Dig

By Dave Tompkins at 7:26pm ET

(SIGSALY Vocoder terminal “X-Ray” at Selfridge Department store in London, after a German V-2 rocket attack. Dec. 1944. Photograph by Stephen Geis)

During my first night in the seaside town of Whitstable, a man tossed a radiator—and himself—through his motel window and landed on the balcony below. Broken glass, everywhere. Prior to defenestration, Ken Hollings, author of Welcome To Mars, described the motel as “a new mathematical dimension.” (His harrowing account lives here. Fortunately, the man survived.) I’d just DJed a Cornhole tournament in Vegas over Super Bowl weekend. All I wanted was some grey beach. No blade of grass.

I was in Whitstable to do a vocoder slideshow for Off the Page, a literary festival co-produced by Sound & Music and The Wire.

You know you’re in the right place when you walk into a conversation about “an attic full of weeping mutants.” (Apparently, everybody’s seen Doomwatch.) And how the Electro-Larynx had made several appearances in Southpark, buzzing against the maligned throat of Vietnam vet Ned Gerblanski. (Gerblanski’s version of “Feel Like Makin’ Love” is here.)

I did three presentations while in the UK: Off the Page, Café Oto, and at Goldsmith’s (University of London, hosted by Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher).

(Peachoid at Whitstable, Off the Page Festival. Photo by Ken Hollings)

Off the Page took place in an old theater populated by headless manikins in wedding dresses and Victorian drape. It was fun hearing “Pack Jam” swallow those old stage ghosts. Hollings: “’Pack Jam’ made me want to write, because I knew I would never make anything as cool as that. I heard it and knew I was doomed.”

I forgot to tell them that Bell Labs was surrounded by barbed wire turned inwards (nobody gets out) and how one BTL engineer described the vocoder as a “book with seven seals.”

Steve Beresford and David Toop, who produced that Frank Chickens song with the vocoder doing the Tan-Tan-Tanuki chant, were in the house. Also in attendance were Green Gartside (Scritti Politti) and Stanley Kubrick’s assistant, Tony Frewin. We talked about Zardoz and Lolita, and feeding Peter Seller’s back-porch jitters to a speech psychologist. “I get sort of carried away, being so normal and everything.” The word normal—which appears with the frequency of brains in Critical Beatdown—never sounded weirder. We are discomforted by its frequency, its insistence. If you’re compelled to say everything is normal, then most likely it is not. The familiar is a Quilty perversion.

Jonny Trunk presented rare Tristram Cary shorts. Trunk, who issued the “deadly dangerous” soundtrack for Blood On Satan’s Claw on his excellent label Trunk Records, also collects underwater music, aptly described as “people making music for a place without sound.” At some point in the evening, a few hours before our neighbor attempted to fly his radiator out to sea, yet after discussing the “increasing nightmare of not remembering who people are,” Mr. Trunk identified my pupil’s echo. “You have keyhole eye.” (It’s the left one.)

Ken Hollings’ “Cage Post-Cage” talk was enhanced by a smoke machine.

My left leg fell dead-ass asleep during Kodwo Eshun’s talk on his favorite music writing. Tried stomping it back to life in the aisle and failed. Made a wounded galumph for the exit. More stomping ensued in the theater basement. Leg regained consciousness upon discovering that the merch table had sold out of How to Wreck a Nice Beaches. (And that I was still having way too much fun.)

It’s alive!

This dead limb thing was no reflection on Kodwo’s presentation since he, uh, included an excerpt from my vocoder book: PAGE 227*—the part about Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where a freshly podded Donald Sutherland emits a clone drone in Golden Gate Park, in broad daylight, in front of god and bagpipes. According to IBS, one can only be cloned (or duped) while asleep. My leg nodding off was a good start. Let the dub version of “Biters in the City” finish the job.

Three nights later at the Café Oto talk, someone asked if I was aware that I had been cloned. (I wasn’t.) He then told me to “look up Gordon Darcy.”

(Cafe Oto, Wire Salon Series, London. Photo by Cailin Deery)

(Cafe Oto and “The Foghorn.” Photo by Cailin Deery)

A few notes:

During the Q&A at Oto, a guy in the back said I had to make a choice: The Time Machine or Quatermass & The Pit. Any loyalty to HG—thanks for that funk epigraph—was compromised by the Quatermass scene involving a construction crane being smashed into a giant locust from Mars. All topped off by a facemelt. The choice is yours.

Goldsmith’s (a University of London offshoot) had my favorite batch of students yet. Said one: “Don’t tone it down and don’t stop cussing.”

That night ended at Steve Goodman/Kode9’s apt where we listened to “Purple Beats” and Burial remixing Massive Attack’s entire album, and watched vintage ghost army footage of Signal Corp officers mixing with three turntables inside a truck.

It turns out that 19th century naturalist and conchology books are mad expensive in Edinburgh. I was tempted by The Inmates of My Garden, which included the chapter “Eyes and No Eyes Is a Tale to Be Found at Home.” (Not to be confused with Cold War in A Country Garden by Lindsay Gutteridge.)

The Stone Tape is dope.

Is it tourist-y to visit the wine bar where they used to burn witches?

(Not the first edition and slightly warped.)

The cover of the first—and unaffordable—edition of A Hole Is To Dig (illustrated by Maurice Sendak) has the subhead: “The First Book of First Definitions.”

“A face is so you can make faces.”

“A face is something to have on the front of your head.”

And of course…

“A seashell is to hear the sea.”

Rondo Hatten played the role of Hoxton Creeper in Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death.

Missed the chance to see the place where JFK’s brother’s plane blew up during Operation Aphrodite and the 16th century town that fell into the sea and is now being exhumed by sonic mapping.

Speaking of Operations, here’s Churchill’s list of prohibited Ops that “came up” during the Q&A at Café Oto:


Famous racehorses and constellations are permitted.

*p. 227. I am only jocking myself to reach a far more alarming truth.

Thanks to Cecilia Wee, Mary Liles, Tony Herrington, George Mahood, Derek Walmsley and Gordon Darcy.

“Freaking Real to the True”

By Dave Tompkins at 12:23pm ET

(Felix Visser, right, with Christopher “SpaceStation” Moore, 1981)

Last year, it was brought to my attention that my book caused a man from Holland to choke on his marmalade toast. The victim was Felix Visser, dismayed that HTWANB had snubbed his excellent Syntovox 221 vocoder (an oversight to be remedied next print run). I know better than to stand between a man and his breakfast, so I conducted a Q&A for reparations. Teeth to toast. Here, Felix discusses his vocoder and his marmalade. Also: the foretelling of Allied air raids, the satisfaction of nailing a laptop to a totem pole, and how he once cloned the voice of the Secretary General of NATO, the controversial and ubiquitous Mr Joseph Luns.

Felix, this Heimlich Maneuver’s for you.

When was your first encounter with the talking machine?

It was in the early Fifties: Sparky’s Magic Talking Piano. It touched me deeply, considering I was probably the same age as the little boy in the recording.

That piano helped Sparky cheat his way through Flight of the Bumblebee.

I had to practice playing the piano every day. The fact that the piano could talk—I must have accepted this as one of the miracles thrown at us after the war. Technology was all around. Everything was possible.

The Dr. Seuss film, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, had a dungeon master’s take on enforced piano lessons. “Tickled to death.”

A good friend of mine, the Chicago-based composer Terry Fryer, whom I usually refer to as Dr. T, has got those 5,000 fingers. Turn the music sheet upside down, and he continues playing it modus cancricans and upside downans.

Did you try to build a talking machine as a kid?

Later in high school, during physics classes I had an encounter with a facsimile of one of those contraptions made of wood, leather, copper—traditional lab stuff. [Ed. based on the one built by Wolfgang Von Kempelen in the 18th century.] In the mid-Fifties, physics class labs consisted just of iron balls and rings, candles, mirrors, wood constructions, copper, brass, leather, bakelite, ruhmkorffs, wimshursts, Bunsen burners. They were a postwar variation of a freak-out darkroom.

I wish we made artificial throats in Physics.

At that age (12-13) I was way too young and lacked enough “charge” to fantasize about an electronic solution, however, an electric solution for Von Kempelen’s talking machine, yes! Thinking of the blowing end of a vacuum cleaner: use an electromotor instead of the manually operated bellows. Voices originate in wind, don’t they?

“The vacuum cleaner is on the tarmac.” That’s my friend’s code for a vocoder drone.

In the 19th century, as I learned later, Sir Charles Wheatstone built a better mechanical speech apparatus.

The one Edgar Allen Poe wrote about…

I’m not familiar with the device, but I guess it still was the old wood and copper trick. Funnily enough it was Alexander Bell who improved the machine. It was still wood and copper, but this time with rubber bellows. Bell veered off this toy and concentrated on his real goal: to transfer the human voice through a copper wire. The vocoder became serious after I got a demo of the big EMS vocoder in London. This must have been around 1976.

Those old EMS demos were strange: stock exchange reports, conversations with animals, and a news report entitled “Two Teenage Girls, Grisly News.”

Synthesizers still being a novelty, I was very much into using real sounds in music, like the “old musique concrète.” Therefore I was very impressed by the “I Claudius” main theme, in which they used the sound of a circular saw-blade at the end of its travel through a piece of wood. Zzzziinnggggggg! I wonder if anyone noticed it.

(At the AES, with friend and vocoder pioneer Dr Harald Bode, and Mrs Bode, after the presentation of Bode’s paper and introduction of the Barber Pole Filter)

When was Synton founded?

I established Synton Electroncis in early 1973. It was a two-man band. The company was set up to develop a duo-phonic synthesizer, called Syrinx. This was merely a result of being annoyed with a number of problems I’d encountered with an EMS Synthi A, which I had bought in early ’71 for the small electronic studio I’d built for my work as a composer, mainly of film music. I approached EMS to see if there would be a way to promote and sell their stuff in Holland.

You were also translating science-fiction paperbacks into Dutch to help keep Synton afloat…

Robert Sheckley was my favorite one. I translated many short stories by him. “The People Trap” was a very good one. We’re talking early Seventies now. Sheckley was visionary in how society would change. “People Trap” was in fact the first story on what later would be known as “reality TV” and what will finally become Internet Reality. I did some Heinlein, Silverberg, Simak and Asimov too. [Ed: The vocoder makes a cameo in Silverberg’s “Halfway House.”]

What was your perception of the US and technology at the time?

There was a wide gap between the two continents—literally and culturally. European culture was not a melting pot, as the US had become (by brute force!) but a tombola. Or “potluck” if something would match. WWII did a lot in the sense that we, people in Europe (I’m not saying Europeans, because they did not exist and maybe still don’t) (re)discovered a totally different world: the USA. Which brought us all these goodies that were so comfortable and nice, pampering and modern. Pics of Roy Rogers and his Appaloosa with chewing gum. But they were also unfamiliar and possibly dangerous things. I remember watching a house burn down. I was nine years old. Bystanders whispered that the fire originated in the closet, where clothes were hung that had been washed in “these new synthetic detergents from America.” Spontaneous combustion. This is just to give you an impression of how naive (even postwar) people in Europe were—unwritten pages with one goal: no more war and let the future be golden.

(Visser and Roger Linn, inventor of Pumpkin’s favorite drum machine, doing their ventriloquist act, 1983)

I’d interviewed a Dutch Signal Corps officer who mentioned a Siemens-manufactured vocoder called Elcrovox, which was used during the Cold War. What were your memories of the war as a child in Holland? Those famous intercepts of Churchill phone calls took place on a beach near Noordwijk, which served as an impetus for the Allies to deploy Bell Labs’ vocoder X-system/SIGSALY.

I was born in April 1943, so my recollections of the war are very dim. I was told, however, that I was used as a kind of bombing flight foreteller. When the planes of the Allied forces were passing over Holland to bomb Germany, I would sit up in bed, long before the planes were near and stick my finger up in the air, saying “Vlieger komt!” (Flyer comes!). And I was always right—within three minutes they were there. Not ESP, but rather sensitive to VLF, I guess.

When did you develop the Syntovox vocoder?

Syntovox 221, the big one, was developed in 1977 and 1978, and presented to the world in 1979 at the New York AES Convention. This is where I met Wendy Carlos for the first time. We started at point zero and in the blind. We took orders for three vocoders and had sandwiches brought in.

Were you aware of the vocoder demonstrations at the 1964 World’s Fair? This had a significant impact on Carlos, who was one of your biggest fans.

No, I was playing gigs, as a drummer, mostly for American officers and NCOs who were based in France. The World’s Fair in 1964 was held in New York, which in those days was on a different planet, a desired goal, which could only be reached with a steamer in six days, or in a Super Constellation—this magnificent, beautiful flying fish with three tail wings.

Did Synton have clients outside of music, i.e. for speech pathology analysis, government military encryption, etc?

Yes, we had dealings with phonetic labs—one in Leiden [Ed: The 1964 Folkways release, Speech After Removal of the Larynx, was recorded at the Phonetic Laboratory of the Ear in Leiden] and one in Nymegen. Another interesting one was with KLM, after this terrible plane crash on Tenerife in 1977. They approached us in 1978 when we were still beta-testing the vocoder. They were talking about equipping their flight simulators with a Syntovox, to manipulate speech and scramble or distort messages. Later, after all the investigations, it turned out the accident was mainly caused by a clash of characters and a very long wait at the runway rather than by misinterpreting messages. The co-pilot was but-butting and did not want to take off. The Captain said, “Enough of this, let’s go for it.”

It always struck me that people who were more into artificial speech than I was, ignored the importance of inflections in speech. I thought the electric shaver, which had to be pressed against the larynx, was way too primitive. [Ed: This led to the invention of the Sonovox.] Even in those years with an electro-mechanical device of which the frequency could have been modulated manually, speech could have sounded a lot better and less robotic.

(Visser with Bob Moog at Terry “Dr. T” Fryer’s place, Chicago, 1984)

Robert Moog was often broke, on the verge of bankruptcy—his engineers viewed the vocoder as a distraction, a waste of time. How did you survive?

Bob never liked doing business for the sake of it—I didn’t either. There’s one reason to be on the verge of disaster, constantly. He once told me that he’d become too old to listen to his workers’ family and social problems. And he went on: “I guess I’ve always been too old for that.”

Getting back to vocoders: His engineers may well have been right. Nobody survived on vocoders. We were no exception. We got some more time before the bell tolled for us by making other products. Modular (analog) synths, the Syrinx monophonic synth with a revolutionary filter section (a formant filter!), which, incidentally, was the fruit of numerous brainwave sessions Bob and I had. This Syrinx, though, didn’t budge when we released it in 1982 and it got a coup de grace with the release of the DX7. All of a sudden the world wanted FM synths.

Talk about “Shortening the Amazement Curve.”

People had become aware that everything was possible, so the amazement curve got shorter and shorter. I guess one could compare the impact of the effect with that of “playing” (multi-voiced) the sound of a starting Harley Davidson on the first Emulator. People would just fall apart when hearing it.

In spite of the fact that we claimed to have made “the intelligible machine,” we never focused on the speech part. I personally think that the principle of vocoding—imposing characteristics of one sound upon another—is or should have been much broader than just using speech as an exciter. One should realize that expression stems from the “envelope”, it’s not only in the audio spectrum. I remember that we’d built a very accurate pitch-follower for the NOS (Dutch National Broadcast System) to be used in conjunction with Syntovox 221. When we started using it during evaluation, we were flabbergasted: The machine sounded like a human being. But the phase shift caused by the very steep filters we used (54 dB/octave) created some aliasing effects with the constantly changing formant information.

As a writer, terms like “aliasing effect” are very appealing. What musicians used the Syntovox or expressed interest in using it?

Tangerine Dream, Klaus Netzle, Bruno Spoerri, Johann Timman (aka John Nammitt), ELO, Philippe Catherine. There must have been hundreds of them. We never supported sponsoring to profile our products in the market for a number of reasons, and we operated via a distributor and/or dealer network. Feedback was scarce, so I really don’t know to whom all vocoders went.

By the way, most musicians get trapped by their instruments. The industry and its marketers greedily make them believe that only their imagination is the limit. (Which, in fact, is true!) So, if you buy this or that, you’ll be able to make fascinating music. Oh, I can now write a book because I have a word processor? Glorifying the tool is like putting too much weight on the importance of the tool, while creativity should be leading.

There we are, with all these musicians desperately waiting for their new instrument to be able to conceive their ultimate work. Anyway, I believe that most musicians who bought a vocoder, regardless of its make, were just looking for new effects. But effects and gimmicks get boring very quickly.

Fortunately a handful of users—one of them definitely being Wendy Carlos—were willing to experiment with the vocoder tool and produce very interesting and beautiful music, using it as a shaping, modulating and enveloping instrument, not as a gag. I think Wendy did fantastic work. It was so refreshing and inspiring to hear sounds that were sound-sounds, not vocoder sounds, albeit produced and/or processed by a vocoder. That, I think, is the real thing.

The sound-sound.

I could fantasize for hours about what one could do with mouth/voice controllers, not necessarily mimicking speech. A sound is a sound is a sound is a sound (taken from the quadruple rose by Gertrude Stein), only when it is a sound-sound.

The Syntovox had worldwide interest…

In all we must have sold close to a thousand vocoders. Beats me where the bulk went. They were distributed in Brazil, Hungary, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, England, the USA, Russia, (former) Yugoslavia, Belgium, France, Spain. Mainly to radio stations. I know of one peculiar sale to the Belgian Broadcast System. I traveled to Brussels. Arriving an hour late with our Belgian distributor because of heavy traffic, the “brass” audience, about ten managers, was a bit annoyed. Since there was not much time left they told me to keep it snappy and they asked for an imitation of Joseph Luns, Secretary General of NATO. Luns had a particular type of voice and way of speaking, which I’d studied a bit. Lots of pink noise and VLF modulation, a proper formant-shift patch, plus some of the wording he used did the job. I know that it was freaking real to the true Joseph L. Hurray, one more unit sold. But what in hell were they going to do with that effect?

What were your impressions of the vocoder’s use by artists like Kraftwerk? Or later in early Eighties hip hop? Do you feel like the sound has been taken as far as it can go?

Kraftwerk were the users of the first hour of the commercialized vocoder. What they did with it was a reflection of what was considered new and exciting in that era. One could not separate the influence of the vocoder from music of that period, just like one could not separate the serpent from medieval music. For that reason I believe that the sounds have taken as far as they could go, then.

I apologize, on behalf of my book, that it made you choke on your marmalade toast. And I thought I had exhausted all the “Pack Jam” possibilities.

In spite of not being featured in your book, I believe you have created the ultimate book on vocoders. Almost ultimate. For the second run and following, please do include Syntovox, just for integrity, posterity—and for becoming really ultimate. And please do introduce me to “Pack Jam.”

What makes your jam so special?

Our marmalade jam is special because the fruits—oranges, tangerines, lemons—come from Corsica, the big French island in the Mediterranean. We pick them in winter, around Christmas and New Year’s Day, just as they grow wild. They are untreated, with the taste of the Fifties, when those fruits were not yet being manipulated (for instance, manipulated to not produce seeds so we wouldn’t have to spit out the pits). It’s called giving up everything to be comfortable, sacrificing pleasure. How would Tangerine Dream have sounded if they’d been Seedless Tangerines?

What’s up with the laptop totem pole?

The Laptop Totem Pole was inspired by, of course, the totem pole of which the intention differs from culture to culture. The laptop refers to a culture of disposable goods. Since those laptops kept piling up after a short (anticipated?) life, irreparable or very costly, so that buying a new one was cheaper, I thought about doing something creative with them. So I nailed them on a wooden plank. It gave me satisfaction. After a while I took them to the dumpster, where they belonged in the first place.

The Year In Vocoders

By Dave Tompkins at 12:05am ET

(Bell Labs’ “Floating Wing”/Millennium Falcon, 1964 World’s Fair)

1. The following used the vocoder in 2010:

a.) David Lynch
b.) Ciara
c.) Target Santa Robot
d.) Target Nutcrackers
e.) James Blake
f.) De La Soul
g.) Big Boi
h.) All of the above except Big Boi

2. My dad claimed to hear a vocoder:

a.) From a dirty Pink Pony stashed in a pram in a Polish bakery
b.) In his new titanium cobalt kneecap
c.) Through the 102 JAMZ Jam Machine
d.) During a phone call with an old stuttering classmate named Hogblood Hodges

3.) A Kentucky magazine described How to Wreck a Nice Beach as:

a.) “A mega-pill of mule-choking insights”
b.) “A mega-box of mule-team Borax”
c.) “Megalon Vs Godzilla”
d.) “A metaphor for the Omega Man’s Ray-Bans.”
e.) “Do what?”

4.) At a reading in Los Angeles, a man in a wheelchair asked me to sign his copy of:

a.) The Violence of Childbirth
b.) The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine
c.) Man With A Shattered World: History of a Brain Wound
d.) Acoustic Theory of Speech Production With Calculations Based on X-Ray Studies of Russian Articulations

5.) While running in the watershed woods in NC this past June, I saw

a.) Three bear cubs climbing a tree
b.) A mailman passed out in his truck
c.) A turtle
d.) A turkey
e.) Professor Trottelreiner
f.) A, B, C, D

6.) This year I encountered:

a.) A guy who wants to build a vocoder out of bamboo and snot
b.) A woman who wants to build a vocoder out of glass
c.) A civil war submarine engineer who wants to build a subwoofer out of HP Lovecraft’s skull, which had been disinterred while on moonshine in Providence and now allegedly sits on a friend’s coffee table in Atlanta.
d.) All of the above

7.) In Little Toni Marsh’s “Video Burnout,” the vocoder says:

a.) “Where do you go when the arcade’s closed?”
b.) “There’s an RV up my nose.”
c.) “Where’s my Arby’s Rump Roast Boat?”

8.) My brother’s high school band was called:

a.) Cousin Ito & the Salivating Spleens
b.) Get Them Guts Outta My Yard
c.) Eraser In-law
d.) Wrong Name Death Scream
e.) A & B
f.) All of the above

9.) When I spilled a beer on my laptop in 2005, I lost:

a.) The part where Man Parrish falls from the ceiling of Studio 54 and sprains his ankle while headlining over Madonna with a troupe of purple dwarves carrying lanterns
b.) The part where a can of tennis balls inhales all the unvoiced hiss energy at the 1980 US Open Men’s Final between Borg and McEnroe, including Henry Kissinger’s gnat-triggered sneeze on the third row
c.) My shit
d.) My religion
e.) My beer
f.) All of the above

10.) Match the following special effects provided by Mad magazine special effects specialist Don Martin.

a.) “Sitz sittzle sizzotz”
b.) “Ahh-ahh ahh THOONOONN!”
c.) “Voofen! Voofen!”
d.) “Skwappo!”
e.) “GEEN!”
f.) “Thiz ziz ziz ziz”

1. Plastic Man giving a guy on the 32nd Floor the finger
2. Spiderman’s secret web fluid backfiring
3. The Human Torch hugging his girlfriend
4. Iron Man sneezing inside his iron mask
5. The Katzenjammer Kids’ dog barking at them in German
6. The Silver Surfer wiping out on a meteor

11.) Amazon called How to Wreck a Nice Beach:

a.) “Entertainment Book of the Year”
b.) “An edutaining pain in the ass.”
c.) “A book whose sales ranking is equidistant to the miles separating Earth and the Pac Man Nebula, as calculated by a Mayan algorithm.”

12.) I was going to call my book:

a.) So To Speak
b.) I Have No Vocoder and I Must Scream
c.) Frog & Toad Don’t Care
d.) Technically Speaking
e.) Hard To Tell
f.) All of the above


13. When I told Florian Schneider about the dragon with the Voder around his neck in Robert Heinlein’s Between the Planets, he said I should stop indulging in childish fantasies and get back to serious research.

14. The first book cover was to be an illustration of William Rehnquist’s neck, with the stoma strung like a Bancroft Bjorn Borg tennis racquet, and the title stenciled across the catgut grid, through which tiny—and perhaps poisonous—blue toads are peeping. Rendered in pencil.

15. Stuart Gordon, director of Re-Animator, owns a copy of How to Wreck a Nice Beach.

16. The vocoder in DJ Hero 2 is not really a vocoder.

17. The programmer behind the “I Am T-Pain” app attended the Princeton reading and left.

18. Snoop Dogg owns a copy of How to Wreck a Nice Beach.

19. On January 4th, 2010, I emailed the following to my editor: “Holy shit! Make that a holy shit and a holy shit!”

20. On January 4th, 2010, I emailed my final editorial change.

21. I’m DJing the Mega-Gate Super Bowl Party in Vegas, sponsored by the National Tailgating Federation.

(1) h (2) a (3) a (4) a (5) f (6) d (7) a (8) e (9) f

(a) 3 (b) 4 (c) 5 (d) 6 (e) 1 (f) 2

(11) a (12) f (13-19) True (20) False (21) Ulp!

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.

An Important Holiday Message From Your Friends At How To Wreck A Nice Beach

By Dave Tompkins at 2:52pm ET

(Under the Bass Plate Mistletoe)


…and the 69 Boyz.

…and TARGET.

…and this lady who appears to be unscrewing my skull (“like a light bulb”) and who signed her cards as “The Claw”

…and this Dynamix II Merry Bass tape I forgot to digitize because I was housing BBQ in Winston.

….and the sound of a sleigh hurtling through time and space, shredding the present.

…and the first 25 seconds of my favorite beat of the year.

Manny Zambrano at Citinite was kind enough to make this mix, which includes the underrated Tone Loc B-side “A Fine Line Between Hyper and Stupid.”

Howl’s Freaking Face-Castle

By Dave Tompkins at 12:54am ET

Last year, the NCSU alumni association sent a postcard of the Wolfpack marching band spelling out my name in Carter Finley Stadium.

Unfortunately I had nothing to contribute beyond the assurance that the alumni association had successfully blown my mind. Or dosed my season tickets.

Did my name file back into the stands after halftime and get obliterated and try to steal the goalposts?

Did my name’s tuba section play on a J Ro J song?

Does Registration and Records still have my middle name listed as Cruthcth?

The only thing that could’ve topped that was having the band spell out Pack Jam while playing “Pack Jam.”* Or the band could spell out my entire book and then transform into a vibrating electro-magnetic football field.

What a narcissistic scramble!

Or NCSU could mail me a terrarium of Sandkings** who would build a castle bearing my visage, which would grimace and mutate accordingly as the Wolfpack squandered yet another second half lead. A drawbridge of Dorian Gray at the 50-yard line.

Dear Distinguished Alumni,

Please find enclosed your very own customized mood-sensitive Wolfpack Face Castle…

The last time I was at Carter Finley, I abandoned halftime to go see Public Enemy play a secret afternoon show in Chapel Hill, while the rest of Chapel Hill was crammed inside Kenan Stadium for Homecoming. It was 1990. Flavor Flav reported to the stage via crowd surf. Griff marched the S1W’s. Terminator X cut the record with ostrich beaks. Our face castles dripped for joy. Afterward, we stumbled into the magic flea-flickered light of Saturday afternoon, wondering if it had even happened. (See flyer detached from telephone pole on Hillsborough Street.)

This Thursday, I’ll bring my bag of talking dead leaves to the Kenan Music building at the campus of UNC, where MJ once rocked “Sticky Situation” by the pool. Reading and stories will continue at Flyleaf Bookstore (Friday, 7pm), followed by records at Bowbarr.

*This wouldn’t be the first time a marching band played a vocoder classic. MC A.D.E.’s “Bass Mechanic” was a standard for black colleges in the south.

**Sandkings are the most dangerous expensive pets on the black market. They deserve a proper film adaptation to replace the weak Outer Limits version with Beau Bridges growing a ferret out of his head.

Any Major Bag of Dead Leaves Will Tell You

By Dave Tompkins at 5:38pm ET

(Halloween a Nice Beach. Photograph: Raphael Lauchaud)

When I was in L.A. for a book reading, I visited Dublab and tried to iron my tie and did a radio show. Now I’m in October, not L.A., and Halloween wants its Pumpkin back. Of course, the vocoder is under the impression that every day is Halloween and I’m not going to burst its skull balloon.

In fact, I’ve been convinced for some time that my book was written and recorded exclusively during October, that reliquary of magic, loss, decay, top-hatted ghouls in hardware stores (Mazzone’s True Value Hardware, 470 Court St, at 4th Pl), melancholy 9-minute S.O.S. Band songs, orange things, hearing things, Mean Old Devils, Ambrose Bierce, faceplants in corn mazes, Dead of Night, hydraulic skulls with spinners (Clinton St & something), and special teams’ flukes.

This is a combination of L.A. stuff, and Halloween, and things that have little to do with either.

For those who want instant Miami Bass Halloween skip to 33:37.

Thanks to Frosty at Dublab and Jeremy Campbell (at 10 Jay) for all the engineering, edits, and do-whats.

Wave hi to the dust witch, in her balloon outside your window.

Download the mix, “Any Major Bag of Dead Leaves Will Tell You,” here.

(What’s a lagoon to a Gill Man? Photograph: Kate Glicksberg)

In The Kitchen with Vincent Price

Vincent Price made an Italo cooking record that includes a prosciutto and Honeydew melon appetizer. Good to hear Dr. Phibes talking spaghetti and meatballs. Not included is the “poodle pie” recipe that Price used to force feed a critic in Theater of Blood, which also featured Diana Rigg in mustache disguise as Dave Stewart from the Eurhythmics. Or Foghat’s drummer circa Foghat Live.

(0:12) “Colours (Remix)” Cabaret Voltaire

My first Halloween suit was a semi-fire retardant Creature from the Black Lagoon. The mask had swamp dimples on the forehead and gill jowls. I wore it to school. I wore it in the summer.

In The Creature Walks Among Us, marine biologists at Seaworld attempt to outfit the gill man with a human voice box and a pair of khakis.

(0:40) “The Sentinel” Ian Boddy

My brothers convinced me that a green ghost lived in the storm drain in our backyard. My mother gave it a theme song and impaled a green sheet on our lamppost, which, according to one neighbor, I used for signaling the Martians.

The full 12 minutes of disco Sentinel can be heard at Veronica’s Minimal Wave radio show. Not to be confused with this Sentinel.

I like that growling fog that rolls through, before we get gonged by…

(2:51) “I Wanna Do Something Freaky To You” St. Tropez

A vocoder cover of the Leon Haywood song sampled in a famous song by Dre and Snoop, who later rose from the dead as Jimmy Bones.

(3:50) “Rockberry Jam (Dr. Dre remix)” LA Dream Team

The recently deceased Uncle Jamm is shouted out at the end, just after the berry voice gets all smoky in pitch.

(6:00) “Blood” P.E.A.C.E.

Known to make fun of the L.A. Dream Team and wear a helmet with two chin-straps to secure wig from blow back.

(6:03) “Planet Rock Backwards” Egyptian Lover

I asked Egypt if he’d do that “Planet Rock” backwards thing for a minute or so and send me an MP3. Then Uncle Jamm passed away. Then Egypt sent over a 45-minute mix of him tearing up my vocoder playlist. The email just said (((BOOM!!))).

May all of your parenthetical asides be swamped in Bass.

(8:31) “Aqua Dream” Madrok

Not to be confused with that E.V.I.A.N. song with the starfish with a hi-top fade and seahorse playing a keytar on the cover. Thank One Way for that MiniMoog catapult and “I Need A Freak” for the bassline.

I ordered a copy of Madrok from Finland but they sent me the Clean Version of Kool Moe Dee “Go See the Doctor” instead.

Thanks, guys!

(10:06) “True To the Game” Snoop

Old demo (?) of Snoop rapping over someone—maybe Dre or Battlecat—rubbing together two copies of “Radioactivity,” long before they turned it into “Cali Iz Active.”

(11:32) Roger & Eazy (Ghost Radio)

Roger Troutman goes on the Ruthless Radio show in ’94 and makes a beat for Eazy, beatboxing through a Talk Box. (The drums are from an Austin group called the Pool.)

(12:48) “Late Night Hype” Compton’s Most Wanted

An Anita Baker bassline, a late night exchange at a gas station, something unregistered poking out the window—what this guy from Gastonia used to refer to as “the Wavy Wavy.” Then gunshots. “I tried reason with the chap,” says Eiht. (The g is understood.) Later he does a faceplant on the floor, thanks to the ding-dong timing of Rick James’ bag of weed.

Eiht is surprised because DJ Unknown used to make beats like these. A minute or so into it, you realize “Basstronic” is kicking some “Rain Forest” ass.

(17:28) “Hollywood Dreaming” Father’s Children

“Sweet sweet dreaming didn’t ease the pain.”

(20:44) “Who Falls Apart” The Nonce

Some Fall sadness in memory of Yusef Afloat. The sleeve is orange.

For the Nonce completist, click here.

(21:52) “Long Day” The One & Only’s

Shortest song about the longest day—in Dayton. The state of Ohio was basically annexed by L.A.

(23:33) “I Love What You Love Doing To My Heart” JQ’s

Not to oversell the ambiguous specter at the window, but want me and heartbeat sound like haunt me on the right balmy day, which is now.

(26:23) “The Word Is Out” John Howard & Co.

My favorite car in the Wacky Races was the Creepy Coupe, which came with its own weather system. A storm cloud drop top.

(29:07) “Sending All My Love” Emerson

Misheard by a few people, for longer than necessary, as “sitting on a birdhouse.” There once was an abandoned Boo Radley birdhouse in my neighborhood, three stories and spinstered with cobwebs in the beak portals and gumballs in its den.

(30:47) “Tony’s Fantasy Edits” Bobby O

This isn’t scary. This is Freestyle. Where the f**k is Halloween?

(33:37) “Head Tonight (Instr.)” Luke & Lil Jon

Since I couldn’t attend the Goblin/ Alan Howarth thing in Krakow, the next best thing is Luke and Lil Jon doing the John Carpenter Halloween theme.

(36:39) “Way of the Drum (Dub)” Funkadelic

In case you were wondering what Funkadelic was up to in 1989.

The last time I saw George Clinton he was in a golf cart that ploughed through a game of 3-on-3 basketball game with the Beastie Boys in a parking lot in Atlanta, back when the Fu-Schnickens were still together. George was headed to the tour bus to have a speck of glitter extracted from his cornea. I remember George’s eye nictitating like Herbert Lom’s eye at the end of Pink Panther Strikes Again (when Lom’s slowly being erased by his own doom laser). For a wonderful moment all that remains is Lom’s tic, floating and twitching in front of a church organ, which is still feeling pretty Lon Chaney about things before the castle is reduced to manure.

(39:57) “Loveline” Shawne Jackson

Nothing to report here other than this was a preemptive consumer act before the WFMU Record Fair, in which a guy came down from Alaska to buy Straight Outta Compton. When my brother returned to North Carolina from Alaska, he pulled up in the driveway with giant tree stump chained to the hood of his yellow ’77 Corolla.

(41:22) “Fly Guy and the Unemployed” Ramsey 2C-3D

Obligatory “recession is scary” nod. Or dismal shake. Or, hey, decapitation while we’re at it.

(44:21) “Gangster Chronicles” Rammellzee and Phase II

Then there are those who pretty much observe Halloween every day.

Two of eleven minutes, allegedly recorded with stolen equipment in a basement in Vienna in 1984. The dub I got from Rammellzee also included Led Zeppelin “Dazed and Confused,” followed by “Radioactivity.”

Actually this may be “Crimes of the Gods.”

(46:31) “Black Hit Of Space (Oakey Extraction)” Human League

A song about a record that swallows all the record stores in the universe. Conversely, The Thing in Greenpoint is a record store trying to swallow all the records in the universe.

Superfund blobs activate!

(48:49) “Einzelganger”/“Aus” Giorgio Moroder

You tooth can sound like this if you sleep with your mouth open and have central heating.

“Aus” is The End, though this isn’t the end, and they could be chanting this is hell or HAL, or neither, since it’s in German.

(52:23) “Haunted Mix” Whodini

Going with this instead of the branded “vocoder version” of “Haunted House of Rock” is the kind of thing that could get me fired.

(54:36) “Buggers Dub (Reverse Edit)” The Buggers

Reversing the reverses, said Mr. de Zoet.

(57:17) “Wishing at the Wrong Speed” A Flock of Seagulls

A few Halloweens ago, a woman got on the subway with bloody birds pinned to her green sweater.

“What are you being for Halloween?”

“A Tippi Hedren bird attack.”

Still Tippi? Beak-a-zoid?

(59:12) “Greenwich Chorus” Peter Howell (BBC Radiophonic Workshop)

(1:00:28) “I’m Gonna Treat You Good” The Donations

Possibly the best la-la-la on record next to the New Holidays and maybe Gigolo Tony “Smurf Rock,” which I used to listen to in the back of a Mustang SVO on the way to school. And it’s from Cleveland.

The Great Orange Thing*

By Dave Tompkins at 12:51pm ET

Hallows Gallows! Running behind on monster prep, but here’s a picture of Pumpkin, vocoder enthusiast (“Biter’s Dub” TEETH) and all around near-deaf drummer/producer and inventor of “The Disco Skip.” Also recorded under the alias B. Eats. Check out those frames.

Photo from Pumpkin’s obituary in The Source.

*Overheard at a Charlotte Hornets game, 1990, during a Rambis moment on court: “Kempton! The Orange Thing! Grab the Orange Thing!”

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