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A vocoder (a blend 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.
The vocoder is related to, but essentially different from, the computer algorithm known as the "phase vocoder".
Whereas the vocoder analyzes speech, transforms it into electronically transmitted information, and recreates it, the voder (from Voice Operating Demonstrator) generates synthesized speech by means of a console with fifteen touch-sensitive keys and a foot pedal, basically consisting of the "second half" of the vocoder, but with manual filter controls, needing a highly trained operator.
The human voice consists of sounds generated by the opening and closing of the glottis by the vocal cords, which produces a periodic waveform with many harmonics. This basic sound is then filtered by the nose and throat (a complicated resonant piping system) to produce differences in harmonic content (formants) in a controlled way, creating the wide variety of sounds used in speech. There is another set of sounds, known as the unvoiced and plosive sounds, which are not modified by the mouth in the same fashion.
The vocoder examines speech by finding this basic carrier wave, which is at the fundamental frequency, and measuring how its spectral characteristics are changed over time by recording someone speaking. This results in a series of numbers representing these modified frequencies at any particular time as the user speaks. In doing so, the vocoder dramatically reduces the amount of information needed to store speech, from a complete recording to a series of numbers. To recreate speech, the vocoder simply reverses the process, creating the fundamental frequency in an oscillator, then passing it through a stage that filters the frequency content based on the originally recorded series of numbers.
In 1970, electronic music pioneers Wendy Carlos and Robert Moog developed one of the first truly musical vocoders. A 10-band device inspired by the vocoder designs of Homer Dudley, it was originally called a spectrum encoder-decoder, and later referred to simply as a vocoder. The carrier signal came from a Moog modular synthesizer, and the modulator from a microphone input. The output of the 10-band vocoder was fairly intelligible, but relied on specially articulated speech. Later improved vocoders use a high-pass filter to let some sibilance through from the microphone; this ruins the device for its original speech-coding application, but it makes the "talking synthesizer" effect much more intelligible.
Carlos' and Moog's vocoder was featured in several recordings, including the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, in which the vocoder sang the vocal part of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Also featured in the soundtrack was a piece called "Timesteps," which featured the vocoder in two sections. Originally, "Timesteps" was intended as merely an introduction to vocoders for the "timid listener", but Kubrick chose to include the piece on the soundtrack, much to the surprise of Wendy Carlos.
One of the first rock songs to feature a vocoder was "The Raven" by progressive rock band The Alan Parsons Project on their 1976 album Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and also was used on later albums such as I Robot. Following Alan Parsons' example, vocoders began to appear in pop music in the late 1970s, for example, on disco recordings. Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra used the vocoder in several albums such as Time. Pink Floyd made extensive use of the vocoder on the album Animals, even going so far as to put the sound of a barking dog through the device.
(stolen from http://en.wikipedia.org/w iki/Vocoder)