A Brief Vocoder History

You may be surprised to learn that the voder and vocoder date back to 1939 and 1940, respectively.

Homer Dudley, a research physicist at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, developed the Voice Operated reCOrDER as a research machine. It was originally designed to test compression schemes for the secure transmission of voice signals over copper phone lines.

It was a composite device consisting of an analyzer and an artificial voice synthesizer, as follows:

The analyzer detected the energy levels of successive sound samples, measured over the entire audio frequency spectrum via a series of narrow band filters. The results of this analysis could be viewed graphically as functions of frequency against time.

The synthesizer reversed the process by scanning the data from the analyzer and supplying the results to a number of analytical filters, hooked up to a noise generator. This combination produced sounds.

The Voder was demonstrated at the 1939 World Fair, where it caused quite a stir. In World War II, the vocoder (known then as the VOice enCODER) proved to be of crucial importance, scrambling the transoceanic conversations between Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Werner Meyer-Eppler, the director of Phonetics at Bonn University, recognized the relevance of the machines to electronic music—following a visit by Dudley in 1948. Meyer-Eppler used the vocoder as a basis for his future writings which, in turn, became the inspiration for the German “Elektronische Musik” movement.

In the 1950s, a handful of recordings ensued.

In 1960, the Siemens Synthesizer was developed in Munich. Among its many oscillators and filters, it included a valve-based vocoding circuit.

In 1967, a company called Sylvania created a number of digital machines that used time-based analysis of input signals, rather than bandpass filter analysis.

In 1971, after studying Dudley’s unit, Bob Moog and Wendy Carlos modified a number of synthesizer modules to create their own vocoder for the Clockwork Orange sound track.

Peter Zinovieff’s London-based company EMS developed a standalone—and altogether more portable—vocoder. EMS is probably best known for the Synthi AKS and VCS3 synthesizers. The EMS Studio Vocoder was the world’s first commercially available machine, released in 1976. It was later renamed the EMS 5000. Among its users were Stevie Wonder and Kraftwerk. Stockhausen, the German “Elektronische Musik” pioneer, also used an EMS vocoder.

Sennheiser released the VMS 201 in 1977, and EMS released the EMS 2000, which was a cut-down version of its older sibling.

1978 saw the beginning of mainstream vocoder use, riding on the back of popularity created through the music of Herbie Hancock, Kraftwerk, and a handful of other artists. Among the manufacturers who jumped into vocoder production at this time are Synton/Bode, Electro-Harmonix, and Korg, with the VC-10.

In 1979, Roland released the VP 330 ensemble/vocoder keyboard.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were the heyday of the vocoder. Artists who used them included ELO, Pink Floyd, Eurythmics, Tangerine Dream, Telex, David Bowie, Kate Bush, and many more.

On the production side, vocoders could—and can still—be picked up cheaply in the form of kits from electronics stores.

From 1980 to the present, EMS in the UK, Synton in Holland, and PAiA in the USA have been—and remain—the main flyers of the vocoding flag.

In 1996, Doepfer in Germany and Music and More joined the vocoder-producing fraternity.

From the late 1990s to the present, a number of standalone and integrated software-based vocoders—like the EVOC 20—have appeared.