When Machines Speak

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On display at The New Museum until September 30th, is the exhibition Ghosts in the Machine. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari, the exhibition is described as having been “conceived as an encyclopedic cabinet of wonders: bringing together an array of artworks and non-art objects to create an unsystematic archive of man’s attempt to reconcile the organic and the mechanical.”1 Of the myriad works presented in the exhibition, there is one humble object that in so many ways embodies the complex history of technical abstraction, and the externalization of that which is inherently human. This object is called the VODER.

Short for Voice Operation DEmonstratoR, the VODER was an instrument or tool that provided its operator the ability to synthesize human speech. It easily predates the first cases of computerized speech synthesis, and represents the distinct end of an era for a particular type of metonymic device, along with the beginning of a whole other era of synthesized speech. The year was 1929. As the story goes, Bell Labs researcher Homer Dudley experienced an epiphanic moment, while laying in a hospital bed.

 

A pioneering researcher of voice communications technologies, Dudley was working to develop more efficient methods of voice transmission that could make better use of the Bell System’s bandwidth. His eureka moment was the realization that the human mechanisms of speech (the vocal cords, mouth, teeth, tongue and lips), resembled the mechanics of radio transmission2: the vocal chords create high-frequency vibrations that serve essentially as a carrier wave to the data encoded by the articulations of the mouth. He would go on to spearhead the development of  technology that enabled the invention of a device called the Vocoder3. By breaking speech down into ten low frequency bands, the Vocoder was able to send transmissions requiring far less bandwidth than the full spectral information produced by the telephone. By the mid-30s the team at Bell Labs had developed these technologies to successful ends, but would not see implementation outside of the lab for another decade or so.

 

 

It was this initial work on the Vocoder that led Dudley down a winding path toward the VODER. The key distinction between the Vocoder and VODER is that while the Vocoder was a tool through which to process speech, the VODER was a instrument with which one could synthesize speech. The Vocoder required its operator to only turn a few knobs, and speak into a microphone. The VODER was an instrument in a wholly other sense, providing fourteen keys, a bar controlled by the operator's wrist, and a foot pedal. The Voder was not spoken to – it was performed, or played. The operator's speech impulses would bypass their destination of the vocal cords and mouth, instead manifesting themselves through their hands, wrist and foot, and finally through the manipulation of the VODER’s controls. Complex combinations of keys would produce the requisite components of speech that a given letter, word, and sentence is composed of. The foot pedal controlled pitch, providing the essential subtle variations of intonation. The resultant sounds approached that of modern speech synthesis. Computers would not meet the expressive abilities of the VODER for another twenty years.

 

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