How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop

BOING BOING FEATURE: Nathan Ihara of Melville House emailed me about Dave Tompkins' new (and first) book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach — The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop: The Machine Speaks, calling it "one of the coolest history/music/uncategorizable books ever." It's about the history of the vocoder, an anti-eavesdropping technology that was invented by Bell Labs in 1928, and which ended up being used by musicians in their work.

Dave Tompkins gave me a recording of a 1977 BBC radio reading of Ray Bradbury's short story from The Martian Chronicles, "August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains," which includes Vocoder effects. Here's a 4-minute sample of the recording. The full story runs about 23 minutes, but I can't post it because it's copyrighted. Unfortunately, I don't think the radio production is available anywhere for sale.

Dave kindly gave us permission run the following excerpt, which is a compressed adaptation from the book.

— Mark F.


"We are still but shadows of shadowy things" — Kenneth Patchen

In 1941, Ray Bradbury was diagnosed too blind for combat and happily flunked his Army physical. The loudmouth in glasses was free to squint at the future from the safety of his typewriter. "I went into the future and never came back," he tells me. "I started out in the center of the earth. Then I went to Mars."

Unfortunately for Mars, Bradbury brought some atomic Earth baggage along with him. In 1950, as America habituated to its Cold War appliances and Popular Science imagined droid servitude, Collier's published the Martian Chronicle "August 2026." Its sole character is the last talking house standing after a nuclear attack. The house is empty, automated and in complete denial — unoccupied yet busy. Like those who live alone, it speaks to itself while conducting the day's business, preparing an Olympian's breakfast as synthetic voices chirp about overdue bills and the weather. Galoshes are recommended.

After the synthetic cleaning mice complete their chores, the house lights a cigar and recites the Sara Teasdale poem "There Will Come Soft Rains," down to the last singing frog. A rhetorical question is implied: Would Nature care if man ceased to exists, with technology subbing in for Nature, as if we couldn't help ourselves. The frogs say no.

The ultimate efficiency home has met the ultimate efficiency weapon.


In 1977, the British Society of Authors awarded Best Drama to the BBC Radio adaptation of "August 2026." In the credits, top billing went to the vocoder and the show's producer, Malcolm Clarke, a man believed to have "cornered the market in deteriorating states of mind." Clarke was employed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, established in 1958 to provide sound effects for radio and television, including Doctor Who, Dr. Quatermass and The Goon Show.

The Workshop was stashed in a skating rink near a zoo in Westminster, in a building said to have looked like a mildewed wedding cake. "I always heard of the Radiophonic Workshop, but I never knew it was anywhere you could go," says Peter Howell, a composer who used the vocoder for Doctor Who as well as a gurgling trip inside the body. "I thought it was something that just existed." Less of a studio than foxhole, the Workshop transcended its peanut butter and jelly budget through innovation. Personnel (called Glow Worms) constantly raided redundant shops for equipment, improvising and embellishing their Philips tape machines and turntables. "It was always on 'beg, borrow and steal,'" continues Howell. "The stuff nobody wanted."

Radiophonic Workshop managed to annoy parents and frighten children within the same cosmic scream. They filled orders for an oscillation for the end of the world, "a high hum of pure agony," the rustle of man-eating plants, and the sound of an office building flying through space in the grip of seven powerful tractor beams. The BBC switchboard was jammed with curiosity. "We were just as wide-eyed about it as the public was," says Howell. "It's just we were privileged enough to get our hands on the [equipment] and fiddle with it."

In 1969, the Workshop hired Malcolm Clarke based on his ability to burp for the better part of two minutes. He would be immortalized in Radiophonic lore when recruited by Workshop head Delia Derbyshire for a radioplay of Aristophanes' The Clouds. (A gastronomer himself, Aristophanes once punctuated speeches with hiccups.) "She needed a stomach-rumbling mating-fart ritual dance," says Clarke over the phone from his London home. "So I spent a half-hour swallowing air. I did one out right on the green cue light. It went on for nearly a minute. It was a beauty."

Derbyshire was impressed. "I hope my burp is still in the library," beams Clarke. "I made myself feel quite ill doing it," he told me. "It had nothing to do with diet. It's entirely done by skill and virtuosity. Keep me well away from the naked light, I'll tell you that!"

Malcolm Clarke had learned to convert his stomach into a studio via an esophageal speech technique used by throat cancer patients. "I was interested in how they'd teach laryngectomy patients to swallow air and bring it up. Once they brought up the air, they use the burping sound to articulate words. It sounded quite vulgar, but at least people could speak."

Clarke developed his gift as a child with whooping cough, hanging out at the gas works in his push chair and inhaling. "Gas is a rich source of harmonics. When you're first faced with a vocoder, it's kind of a reverse-synthesis thing. You've got to put in more than you need in order to get intelligibility out. You need something that's got lots of harmonics in it in order that the rest of the gubbins that comes in after the sound can modulate it. The richer the sound, the more intelligibility comes out of the vocoder. Your imagination is much more talented than the reality. Once you get some stomach rumbles together, they're not as exciting as you think."


In 1976, England's Electronic Music Studios (EMS) loaned the BBC an EMS 5000 Vocoder, a massive piece of electronic furniture with "cheeks of teak" and armrests. This £10,500 machine that could detect the difference between a noise and a sound. "You couldn't avoid it," recalls Peter Howell. "When you first came to it, it certainly looked weird and wonderful because it just had interesting labels on it, like Frequency Shifter and Pitch Extractor."

Though Malcolm Clarke thought trees were "too polite" to engage the vocoder, recordings of steam engines and roadwork were ideal, the grouchier the better. "A talking concrete mixer is very rich–a majestic horrible noise. I don't think there's anything purely electronic that hasn't owed itself to nature and nature usually does it better. [Nature] has more imperfections. As humans, we like the imperfections. You'll always have a reference to what happens in nature. Even if it's outlandish, it has to relate somehow."

While suffering through management training, Clarke read The Martian Chronicles and realized "August 2026" could be electronically adapted — "the whole bloomin' lot." The vocoder itself was already acquainted with mass destruction, having encrypted top-secret phone calls for the deployment of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. In August of 1945, the dehumanization of the human voice had been transliterated to subtract a population. Though Allied General Franklin E Stoner had ordered the Hiroshima phone transcripts to be destroyed, one anonymous Signal Corps officer recalled hearing two words through the vocoder: "Hell-Bomb."

The spectral description of speech had described what could not be imagined, a carbonized human outline burned into a wall in a Japanese ghost town. The shape of things to come. Accordingly, the eastern flank of Bradbury's Martian house bore the silhouettes of its former occupants, along with the shadow of a child's ball, fried in mid-arc.


Workshop composer Peter Howell would say that the vocoder is not man's best friend. Malcolm Clarke became aware of this when trying to get actors to speak through the machine. "When it came to using the vocoder, actors are suspicious animals. They were determined to behave like robots and I couldn't stop them. I said, 'Look, this is in the year 2026, we don't sound like Daleks!' Just because there would be electronic voices in the future doesn't mean that humans wouldn't make sense."

The vocoder was also unforgiving when it came to artifacts between speech sounds. "When people speak they tend to generate sounds which are not going to be helpful. The vocoder assumes that every sound that goes in there is speech — be it a splutter, plosive, script rustle, studio atmosphere, unwanted mouth noise or fart. It will translate in its own terms."

Bradbury was particularly fond of the "mousecleaning" service. Clarke gave the mice vibrato mustaches, a fussy pitch for the clean-up scene where the family dog comes home covered in radiation sores. Overwhelmed by the smell of automated pancakes, the dog goes berserk, chasing his tail in circles until Clarke makes him "disappear up his own asshole."


In May of 2003, I received a package from Malcolm Clarke of Everlasting Lane in Herts, England. Included was a CD of preliminary vocoder tests for the Bradbury play and a brief letter. Apparently, Clarke couldn't find the recording of the original broadcast but here was "some vocoder stuff." He parted with an Irish beer salute and a drawing of a chubby spider with nostrils, smiling. The CD began with sustained noise at various frequencies, from snub-nosed power drills to a proboscis whine, followed by a cringing version of a HAL standard — "Daisy Bell," pitched into the nosebleeds.

Two months later, I called Clarke to thank him, only to sadly learn that he had died of a heart attack at sixty-four. I then returned to his test demo, focusing on the incontinent white noise. The signal appeared to be in pain, struggling to birth speech, but something was there — the voice of a day, repeating itself mindless. Clarke had explained this during our last phone conversation, a trick of intelligibility and intelligence. "Some people hear [the voice] very early on in the transition from pure chaos and noise into perfect speech. I took the voice of the calendar ("Today is August the Fourth 2026") but I started with the raw ingredients, filtered white noise, which gradually begins to pulse and shape. The beginning is a barren landscape out of which emerges intelligence — the house. The discovery of intelligence."

The process was reversed for the end of "August 4th," when the house catches fire. "In the beginning, the barometer has a very low voice," said Clarke. "Towards the end, the quality of his voice catches fire. The barometer turns from flames into steam and evaporates."

The mice — now promoted to fire brigade — whiz about spewing green water. The house is frantic, caught between survival and loops of habit, "making breakfast at a psychopathic rate," mowing the lawn, slamming doors, chucking umbrellas out the door. Several vocoded voices scream all at once, pitching fits, a crying of lot 451, one singing "Daisy," another reading a Tennyson poem in the burning den. "Blow bugle blow answer echoes dying, dying, dying…"

One wall stands among the ruins and inside it, the last vocoder, the daily minder repeating the day after, "Today is August the Fifth," the voice disintegrating into the white noise landscape, what Malcolm Clarke called "the demise of intelligence." The deformation age. The repetition of date seems to be nagging, as if mocking an attempt to perpetuate ourselves, in the event — a flashing instant — that we forget.

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