Friday, April 18, 2008

An MultiMedia Exposé: The Vocoder Anthology

I know ya'll are probably just as sick of hearing me moan and complain about vocoders as I am of hearing songs that feature them. But just how much do you truly know about the instrument that has singlehandedly ruined black radio and eardrums? Allow me to enlighten you.[1]

[Editor's Note: For any "anonymous" lurker that's about to check me on the difference between the vocoder, auto-tunes, and talk-box, get a life. You know exactly what I'm talking about, damnit! Spare me the technical circle-jerk, and take your wealth of knowledge over to Scratch Magazine.]

From the wiki entry.

A vocoder (a portmanteau of vox/voc (voice) and encoder) is a speech analyzer and synthesizer. It was originally developed as a speech coder for telecommunications applications in the 1930s, the idea being to code speech for transmission. Its primary use in this fashion is for secure radio communication, where voice has to be digitized, encrypted and then transmitted on a narrow, voice-bandwidth channel. The vocoder has also been used extensively as an electronic musical instrument.

For musical applications, a source of musical sounds is used as the carrier, instead of extracting the fundamental frequency. For instance, one could use the sound of a synthesizer as the input to the filter bank, a technique that became popular in the 1970s.
Okay, now that we've got the technical jibber jabber outta the way, let's talk music, decade by decade.


History says The Alan Parsons Project, Giorgia Moroder, and Pink Floyd were the first cats to really mess with the vocoder. I don't really know any of these folks, but I guess I have to provide token representation, so here's "Mr. Roboto" by Styx.

No, I still have no friggin' idea what this song is about. So let's fast forward to the familiar stuff.


Herbie Hancock probably had the first breakout 'urban' hit of this genre with his Grammy-winning single "Rockit".

It's a real shame that most people still associate Hancock with this single song, when his career as a jazz artist is far more accomplished than one hit. And speaking of one hits, how could we forget Rockwell's creepy "Somebody's Watchin' Me, featuring a still-black Michael Jackson on the hook?[2]

While other bands like Dazz, Guy, and the Gap Band successfully used the machine to crank out 80's hits, perhaps no single artist exemplified vocoder fever more than Roger Troutman. With a plethora of hits like "Computer Love", "Slow And Easy", and "More Bounce To The Ounce", the frontman for Zapp elevated the artform to all new levels.


With the exploding commercial popularity of hip hop music, interest in pure R&B began to wane during the 90's, and the vocoder appeared to be on it's last legs. With the exception of a few notable guest appearances by Troutman on West Coast gangsta rap songs, the 90's weren't too kind to the ole' voicebox.

The seminal mid-90's hit "California Love" featured Troutman gettin' down with Dr. Dre and Tupac.[3]

While this version of the song gave 80's babies a nice feel for vocoder magic, the slept-on "California Love: Part II" where Troutman really gets off is a far better representative example.

Troutman enjoyed a brief career renaissance after the exposure, but sadly was violently gunned down in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. So overlooked are his contributions to the history of the talkbox that the wiki entry doesn't even mention his name. This must change.[4]


With a second George Bush in office, and black music reaching creative all-time lows at the advent of the century, there was little to sing about. But a few years ago, a Senegalese ex-car thief named Akon dusted off the ole' voice box and quietly started pumping out hits like "Locked Up", "Belly Dancer", and "Lonely". While this young[5] man swore up and down he was singing in his own unaltered voice, anyone born before 1980 knew full and damn well he was stealing Troutman's old tricks.

Sadly, while Troutman's voicebox was studly and masculine, Akon's came off as chipmunkish and comical. But this being America circa 2003, tweens who don't know any better thought Akon was cool and unique. Payola was exchanged, and in short time Akon became a chart topping household name. He even had his own Verizon commercial and toured with Gwen Stefani before an odd humping incident with an underaged Carribbean girl became a Youtube sensation.[6] Still, Akon had gained enough juice to unleash his secret moneymaking weapon: a marginally talented ex-rapper turner singer named T-Pain.

The husky Floridian exemplifies the average (and we do mean very very average) guy on the street done good. By unapologetically embracing the voicebox, Teddy Pain has become a commercial success beyond Troutman's wildest dreams, with such ditties as "I'm Sprung", "Buy You a Drank", "Bartender", and my personal favorite, "I'm In Love With a Stripper".

Seldom has mediocrity sounded so good.

T-Pain has gone on to become a highly sought after collaborator and general debit credit to his race, essentially driving hook singers like Faith Evans and Nate Dogg into early retirement. And like any other successful Rappa Ternt Sanga, he's spawned a legion of copycats, including some reasonably talented artists who've recently adopted his computerized gimmick to garner airplay. Peep the imitators of this imitator.

Snoop Dogg's catchy "Sensual Seduction"[7]

Lil' Wayne's disgustingly bad "Lollipop"[8]

And oddly enough, Mariah Carey's new single "Migrate", which just happens to feature T-Pain.[9]

All of this madness culminates in the sadder-than-sad video below. Buddah take the wheel.[10]

Epilogue: If you managed to make it to this point in the post, I can only conclude one of two things. 1) You are wearing earplugs. 2) You must really love

For the foreseeable future, the vocoder will continue to ruin black radio and eardums worldwide. It's now a fully established, incredibly profitable cultural phenomenon, and there's no way to put the genie back in the bottle. We might as well embrace it, or at least learn to tolerate it.

Sadly, Roger Troutman never got to enjoy the spoils of his years of hard work, which is a travesty in and of itself. Somewhere in his condo in West Heaven, he probably looks down at these assclowns who are profiting off his pet rock with a mixture of disdain and pride. You know, sorta like the same way I feel for having spent an hour of my life documenting this whole thing.

But let it be known, Roger is the master of the Electro Harmonix "Golden Throat" talkbox and Yamaha DX100 FM synthesizer, regardless of how many iTunes downloads Akon and T-Pain rack up this year.

Respect the Architect.

The Vocoder wiki []

The Roger Troutman wiki []

[1] Admit it. You thought I was kidding about this post didn't you?

[2] Wasn't Rockwell some famous person's nephew or somethin'?

[3] I still hear this song somewhere or other at least once a week. But for the record, I don't consider it classic material. Not by a mile.

[4] Anybody know how to update a wiki?

[5] Some people say he's pulling a Dikembe Mutombo and is nearly 47 years old.

[6] Come on, he HAD to know that girl was 15 at best.

[7] Probably the most original video I've seen in ages.

[8] I threw up in my mouth the first time I heard this.

[9] See [8].

[10] Doesn't this little girl look like Connie from King Of The Hill?

25 AverageComments™:

Anonymous said...

Another AB classic.

trey said...


Alicia said...

Rockwell was Berry Gordy's son.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the history lesson .
I fault Clear Channel's buyout of independent Black radio stations for the collapse of Black music . As we know the Clinton's pushed through a media consolidation measure through congress which killed radio by putting the total control of the airwaves in the hands of right wing Clear Channel .

Before the buyout of Black stations real music could still be heard .

Victoria Page said...

Your post is 100 percent true....and I have been waiting on this post since you first mentioned it because I have grown weary of the vocoder. Good Post!

Kesi said...

Aw, MAN, this post was SO worth the wait!!! I'm typing this through blurry vision becuase I am STILL LMAO. You are a fool, AB, if I've never known one. Thanks for the history lesson (I LOVE 2 LEARN!! --shout out 2 HHH)and the laughs, which I really needed as the mundane work week lingers on.

OH, did u see the YouTube post of the little girl "GG" dancing to "Low"? Very sad, but baby girl's got some moves!!! I am AND aint mad at cha GG!!

Big Man said...

You think Snoop's song is better than Lil Wayne's?

Have you actually listended to Snoop rap lately?

ebonygentleman said...

I hope you can finally sleep well at night now that you've further educated the world about Roger. He deserves the respect. My dad told me once about how he saw him in concert during his prime. The dude walked onstage wearing a nude-colored leotard and cowboy hat. The crowd went nuts.

Very good post, AB. I'm glad you could make it thru some of the dreck to finish it.


China Blue said...

I had to Stumble this.

The only thing you missed out was Blackstreet-era Teddy Riley masking his lack of singing voice with the vocoder. I've got his remix of Mary J's 'My Love' on the internal jukebox as we speak :-)

Oh, can I just say:


I can't listen to current R&B now because every single bloody track is vocoder'd to death, to the afterlife, and back to life again.

ebw-educated black woman said...

AB, this is CLASSIC. A Very best of.
Wish you would have included Roger's More Bounce to the Ounce on this post, though. The song was like, 9 minutes long. we used to be tired and sweaty dancing to that joint at house parties! You're right-Roger used that vocoder to the fullest!
I do like Snoop's song. That video is like a throwback jersey. I think Snoop intended for that song to bean homage, of sorts. Hence, the old school video. Those other clowns are just trying to make a quick buck. The music industry is in sad shape. Mariah can sing,cant' she? why does she need a vocoder? This only goes to show what a racket the music industry is. Does anyone besides me remember when you could turn on the radio and hear a variety of songs by diverse artists and bands?

AverageBro said...

@ big man

I'm no fan of either, but Sensual Seduction is better than Lollipop by 20 miles.

@ eg

It was harder than you could imagine.[||] But I do it for my readers. Folks need to know the truth.

@ chinablue

I gave Riley a shout out in the 80's (Guy). But you're right, he maybe should have been more prominently featured.

@ e/b/w

Video killed the radio star. So did payola, but that's a whole nother post.

@ alicia

You sure, I coulda sworn that was his nephew

@ trey/kesi/errybody

thanks. i aim to please.

BrendaKay said...

The parent or parents of that little girl in the youtube video - need to be shot! Crappy music aside that was seriously disturbing.

Thembi said...

yes, china blue! and Blackstreet's "Don't Leave Me," too. But I guess all of that was just "California Love" outcroppings.

Thanks for this, AB. What's sad is that I listen to a lot of electronica, which vocoders any old thing, so I didn't even notice any of this until I was forced to consider the purpose of T-Pain's existence.

Anonymiss said...


I have to forward this to my BF cuz he's so in love with "Lollipop" that he put it on his PSP.

Mad Hatter said...

Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton used the vocoder, it was use with guitars in the early 70's, the Doors used the same effect call the 'Buzz Box' in the early 60's, Marty Robins used the same effect in the mid 60's, keyboards start using the effect with Styx, Dennis DeYoung wanted a more human sound from the keyboards, the sound was not used for a while cause the synthesizers were then making better sounds, Moog, Prophets, Oberhiems, Arps, Jupiter8, Roger Troutman, brought the sound back using synthesizers, many singers use the vocoder to help them reach hi notes, the technology of the sound can also correct the pitch of the singer. Its a great effect for music, however it can ruin a song if done wrong.

mrshadow33 said...

AB you have delivered another classic. I thank you just for giving props and attention to Roger Troutman who will always be the king of the vocoder. Weak singers like Akon will be gone soon and true fans of music like ourselves can help put the spotlight back on Roger's incredible legacy.

Anonymous said...

The only aspect impressive about this "Vocoder Anthology" post is somehow you managed to trick people into reading such a mundane, trivial attempt at an older, out of touch, NPR listening negra shed light.
>> The two biggest issues I have with you and this post is:
1) You have no clue what you're talking about
2) You have no clue what you're talking about

Old negras love to pine for the old days when music was pure. Who cares, let go, don't you listen to Jazz anyway? 30 is the same old 30 physically and mentally. Do you think old ass, out of touch negras like you did not complain when music shifted. Gimmicks are gimmicks we had our soldier boys and T-Pains. T-pain and the vocoder craze is simply not for you its a pop phenomenon meant to be exploited. I say good for any artist who can squeeze a few bills out of this stagnant music market. Everyone steals, bites and humps everyone. White or black you are just out of touch. Why are you complaining about shit that does not concern you?? So old, out of touch negra, chill out.

Anonymous said...

You sir, are an idiot. And while I'm at it, so are your fans for clinging to your every last word. First of all, Michael Jackson was never on Somebody's Watchin' Me. That's a myth. Secondly Roger Troutman played the talk box. You could call it the analog version of the vocoder. The end result is similar, but the means are completely different. Now T-Pain and all the other hip hop and r&b artists you mentioned are using a completely different effect all together. They are using the Antares Autotune effect, which corrects the pitch of the input according to the key you specify. The reason it sounds "robotic" is because it has the settings turned all the way up, which means the pitch is being corrected perfectly and instantly, something humans cannot do. Now while they all may sound similar to your untrained ear, there is a HUGE difference in accomplishing the sound, mainly because the vocoder and talk box require someone to actually be playing an instrument. Two inputs are required. One being your voice through a microphone, and the other is usually a keyboard, but as pointed out by "Mad Hatter ", Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton used a guitar. The voice of the singer cannot be heard until the instrument is played. The note played is the pitch you hear, while the voice from the mic is the sound that shapes the pitch. So while it may be argued that today’s artist’s using auto tune lack talent, those using the vocoder and talk box are talented musicians. There’s a real actual history lesson for you people.

AverageBro said...

@ (who else?) Anonymous,

Thanks for breaking down the technical aspects of this recent phenomenon. I purposely strayed away from getting all in the weeds with my readers, but obviously you've got a different take, which is appreciated. I don't appreciate being called an idiot, but I think you more or less stated my main point: that these newbies are talentless, and the genre's pioneers should be lauded.

Howard Lloyd said...

the VOCODER and TALK BOX are not the same thing!

Anonymous said...


The current poor state of R&B and rap is not the fault of the vocoder (or talk box), it's the fault of the music industry for producing and championing crap and ultimately, the masses at large for supporting it.

Also, anyone who freely admits to not knowing or caring who Giorgio Moroder, or Pink Floyd is (while referring to Styx in the same breath!?!?) has no business lecturing on the subject of musical history, lol.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree. How can you speak on these "technical aspects" if you don't know the difference yourself.

Anonymous said...

You obviously have no idea what you are talking about, nor the difference between a vocoder, a talkbox, and Auto-Tune.


Anonymous said...

Haha. It's true that debating the difference between the three seems a bit unnecessary (we're on a blog, not a science journal). Still, you can't just group the three and act like they're all the same thing. Auto-tune is something you just press a few button and bam! its on. Vocoder and Talk-box actually require a proficiency at the keyboard.

BitCrasher said...

So, SO true man. Honestly, I think the studio magic BS of the last decade or so needs to Houdini. Auto-Tune, Vocoders, anything other than compression, EQ, and Gating, needs to go the hell away. It's time for people to learn how to really sing instead of falling back on technological crutches for ratings. If you can't belt it out, GTFO, simple as that. Loved the post, it made my night.

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