Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pretty Cool

In the Mu section of a recent Wired:

Entertainment : Music
Robo-Voice's Greatest Hits, or How Advanced Spy Tech Topped Music Charts
By Brian Raftery 02.23.09
Photo: Joseph Maida
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From Lil Wayne's cyborg-slick singing on "Lollipop" to the Twiki-tweaked vocals of T-Pain, use of the voice-enhancing software Auto-Tune has reached a fever pitch. But it turns out that the irresistible robot sound was also a big hit with the allies way back in World War II, when a not-so-young MC named Winston Churchill dropped some knowledge over a voice-masking gizmo called the vocoder—and pretty much ended the war. (It's got a great beat, and you can plan D day with it!) Herewith, the surprising history of pop's favorite "new" sound.
1935 Bell Labs' scientist Homer Dudley files a patent for a "signal transmission" device. Bell would unveil a speech synthesizer, based on Dudley's vocoder tech, at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City.
1943 Vocoder amps and filters are incorporated into bulky, expensive terminals that encrypt conversations between FDR and Churchill during World War II. (Stalin, always kind of a Chatty Cathy, is left out of the loop.)
1961 The NSA develops the HY-2, which would pave the way for the first digital channel vocoder for a mainframe computer. With 16 channels, it could process secret messages at 2,400 bps.
1971 The vocoder makes its electronica debut when composer Wendy Carlos invokes the device's spooky tones on the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.
1972 Stevie Wonder's Music of My Mind album introduces the masses to the talk box, a gizmo that allows singers to "speak" through their instrument via a plastic tube, making them sound like one of Charlie Brown's teachers.
1974 An epochal time for robot voices: Kraftwerk releases "Autobahn," a 22-minute vocoder jam; a year later, Peter Frampton hitches his ax to a talk box—and his career comes alive!
1976 Using audio signals to map Earth's subsurface, oil-industry researcher Andy Hildebrand masters auto-correlation (tracking sound reflections to detect repeating patterns) and creates the tech behind Auto-Tune.
1978 A vocoder is used to voice Battlestar Galactica's evil Cylons. Meanwhile, on-set tensions run high after Lorne Greene uses the device to prank Dirk Benedict's bungalow.
1983 Dudley lives long enough to see his beloved invention employed in a rock opera about space prisons. Domo arigato, Dennis DeYoung!
1985 Zapp, fronted by talk-box maestro Roger Troutman, hits the charts with R&B slow jam "Computer Love." Troutman would later be tapped to "sing" the chorus on the Tupac/Dre hit "California Love."
1997 Exploiting his findings from the '70s, Hildebrand releases Auto-Tune, recording software that can detect pitch and automatically correct vocals in real time. It quickly becomes one of the best-selling plug-ins ever.
1998 Cher scores the best-selling single of her career with "Believe," thanks to her use of Auto-Tune; the blippy sound—which many mistook for a vocoder—is now known as the Cher Effect.
2007 T-Pain drowns his single "Buy U a Drank" in Auto-Tune effects, leading to a number-one hit. He later stars in a Funny or Die spoof called "T-Pain v. His Vocoder." The machine wins.
2008 Auto-Tune overload on albums by Lil Wayne and Kanye starts the robo backlash. Melodyne, another pitch-altering plug-in, generates buzz.
2009 Indie darlings Bon Iver bring Auto-Tune to alt-folk, layering and looping the a cappella vocals on "Woods" into one blissfully synthetic hymn. Hallelujah!

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