Blog / A tangent from The Record

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By Wendy

When New York-based writer and DJ Dave Tompkins was in town for the opening of “The Record,” he stopped by WXDU, Duke’s student-run radio station.

Download and listen to the two-hour interview with DJ Viva Cohen and DJs Max and Nate, including goodies from Dave’s record collection,  a few animal tangents, the big bog burp scene from the movie Dark Crystal and a special memory of the late hip-hop and graffiti pioneer Rammellzee.

Connections between Dave and the vinyl record abound: He contributed an essay to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition and spun records at our opening event (Dave contributed to the feeling, according to News and Observer arts editor Craig Jarvis, of “a stirring in the air that tells us something vital is taking shape” this fall arts season.

We find lots of vinyl connections, too, in Dave’s recent book, “How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop.” Dave conveniently summed it up for me in an email:

During WWII, the US Signal Corp deployed two turntables and records to help encode the human voice for its top secret global phone network, codenamed Project X, or SIGSALY. The 16-inch records were used with the vocoder, a Bell Labs device that broke down the voice and reconstructed it into a machine’s impression of human speech. (The vocoder’s speech synthesizer would later be used in music and film in the ’70s and ’80s, the robot voice heard in early hip-hop, as well as Neil Young, Styx and German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk.) Twelve vocoder terminals were developed by Bell Labs and deployed across the globe from 1943 through 1946. The vinyl was the most sensitive classified component of Project X, as the records held the randomized code key. These thermal white noise noise recordings had to be playing constantly while Allied commanders (such as Churchill, Eisenhower etc) spoke over the telephone. Each record was 14 minutes long, so another record had to be cued in case of longwinded strategy or excessive chattiness. (Any dead air or repeated signal would’ve alerted eavesdroppers.) The mix was automatic and the needle was indexed in the center, playing in reverse. The records had to be destroyed immediately after use. They were fed to the “Record Destruction Machine,” melted by blow torch, or “scratched” and gouged with a screwdriver. Considered the rarest unlistenable records on earth, none of the vinyl is believed to have survived the war.

Project X was finally declassified in 1976, the year Alan Parson’s Project used a vocoder on a song called “The Raven.”

Attention, L.A. friends! Catch Dave this Wednesday, Sept. 22, for a reading from his book at Skylight Books.

IMAGE: Old (1997) picture of Dave Tompkins in Forry Ackerman’s basement in L.A. Courtesy of the writer.

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