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?

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