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A brief history of vocal fakery from Zapp to "Lollipop" 

Wednesday, Jun 25 2008

When the vocoder was first invented in the 1930s, it was intended as a telecommunications encoder for speech encryption and transmission. Okay, so the history is dry, but the signal is wet, and the pitch-shifting, compressed sound has been drizzled over popular music for almost 40 years. Since the 1970s, when Bob Moog and Wendy Carlos tweaked the tools to compose A Clockwork Orange's soundtrack, the keyboard-controlled synthesizer has been used to breathe new life, so to "speak," into tracks needing that certain retrofuturistic feel. Think ELO, Giorgio Moroder, and all that disco-era wonkiness — then trace its legacy all the way through R. Kelly's "Hairbraider."

This weekend the Old School Funk Fest in Concord features Zapp, the crew that bumped nasties on the radio waves of the '80s, influencing the pliant thump of G-funk and New Jack Swing. In Zapp's honor, we offer a brief timeline of memorable artists making freq-y tracks by modulating the vocoder and its modern relatives.


Original frontman Roger Troutman rocked keyboards and a talk box, a mouth-regulated effect. The elastic sheen is satisfyingly synthetic, as heard on 1980s's "More Bounce to the Ounce," and in Troutman's spot on 1996's "California Love" by 2Pac and Dr. Dre.

Herbie Hancock

When he released Future Shock in 1983, this jazz-funk pioneer recalled the recent past on the single "Rockit." Its android articulations evoke Kraftwerk, but with a hip-hop sensibility.

Daft Punk

In 1997, this Parisian duo emerged (albeit in metallic masks) with vocoders set to fun for animatronic acid house anthem "Around the World." The portamento-altered title phrase repeats almost 150 times, because robots never tire of da funk.

The Beastie Boys

In 1998, the Beastie Boys launched their third comeback with the single "Intergalactic." Featuring a nasal voice gargling "A-no-ther di-men-sion" in a staggered pitch, the track spurred many frat boys to pop 'n' lock poorly.


Apple Computers' speech-synthesis technology has become a cameo artist of sorts. This little OS feature has guested on such albums as Radiohead's OK Computer, Air's 10,000 Hz, and Benny Benassi's Hypnotica. The effect is more funky than fooonky, but still, go on with your bot self ...


Cher's 1998 single "Believe" introduced the world to the intentional abuse of Antares plug-in Auto-Tune, a force that now threatens to be a farce. In production manuals as "The Cher Effect," the pitch tic has been used by Madonna, Hellogoodbye, and, hell, even Kid Rock, but most noticeably by these final entries:


This Florida native has been almost as big a radio presence this past year as ProTools, adding selectively retuned hooks seemingly everywhere. T-Pain manages to sing about "luvn' yo curves" even as he lops some off his voice.

Lil Wayne

We currently live in the Antares era, as led by "Lollipop," Lil Wayne's summer hit featuring Static Major. Drippin' with ice, ridin' on chrome, and being serenaded by a robot = priceless.

About The Author

Tony Ware


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