Interview with Felix Visser – Syntovox

Felix Visser, the brains and business-man behind dutch company Syntovox was interviewed Dave Tompkins, January 19, 2011. Please note that all (c) are with the authors of this article.

Last year, it was brought to my attention that my book caused a man from Holland to choke on his marmalade toast. The victim was Felix Visser, dismayed that HTWANB (How to wreck a nice beach, ed) had snubbed his excellent Syntovox 221 vocoder (an oversight to be remedied next print run). I know better than to stand between a man and his breakfast, so I conducted a Q&A for reparations. Teeth to toast. Here, Felix discusses his vocoder and his marmalade. Also: the foretelling of Allied air raids, the satisfaction of nailing a laptop to a totem pole, and how he once cloned the voice of the Secretary General of NATO, the controversial and ubiquitous Mr Joseph Luns. Felix, this Heimlich Maneuver’s for you.

When was your first encounter with the talking machine?
It was in the early Fifties: Sparky’s Magic Talking Piano. It touched me deeply, considering I was probably the same age as the little boy in the recording.

That piano helped Sparky cheat his way through Flight of the Bumblebee.
I had to practice playing the piano every day. The fact that the piano could talk—I must have accepted this as one of the miracles thrown at us after the war. Technology was all around. Everything was possible.

The Dr. Seuss film, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, had a dungeon master’s take on enforced piano lessons. “Tickled to death.” A good friend of mine, the Chicago-based composer Terry Fryer, whom I usually refer to as Dr. T, has got those 5,000 fingers. Turn the music sheet upside down, and he continues playing it modus cancricans and upside downans.

Did you try to build a talking machine as a kid?
Later in high school, during physics classes I had an encounter with a facsimile of one of those contraptions made of wood, leather, copper—traditional lab stuff. [Ed. based on the one built by Wolfgang Von Kempelen in the 18th century.] In the mid-Fifties, physics class labs consisted just of iron balls and rings, candles, mirrors, wood constructions, copper, brass, leather, bakelite, ruhmkorffs, wimshursts, Bunsen burners. They were a postwar variation of a freak-out darkroom.

I wish we made artificial throats in Physics.
At that age (12-13) I was way too young and lacked enough “charge” to fantasize about an electronic solution, however, an electric solution for Von Kempelen’s talking machine, yes! Thinking of the blowing end of a vacuum cleaner: use an electromotor instead of the manually operated bellows. Voices originate in wind, don’t they?

“The vacuum cleaner is on the tarmac.” That’s my friend’s code for a vocoder drone.

In the 19th century, as I learned later, Sir Charles Wheatstone built a better mechanical speech apparatus.

The one Edgar Allen Poe wrote about…
I’m not familiar with the device, but I guess it still was the old wood and copper trick. Funnily enough it was Alexander Bell who improved the machine. It was still wood and copper, but this time with rubber bellows. Bell veered off this toy and concentrated on his real goal: to transfer the human voice through a copper wire. The vocoder became serious after I got a demo of the big EMS vocoder in London. This must have been around 1976.

Those old EMS demos were strange: stock exchange reports, conversations with animals, and a news report entitled “Two Teenage Girls, Grisly News.”
Synthesizers still being a novelty, I was very much into using real sounds in music, like the “old musique concrète.” Therefore I was very impressed by the “I Claudius” main theme, in which they used the sound of a circular saw-blade at the end of its travel through a piece of wood. Zzzziinnggggggg! I wonder if anyone noticed it.
When was Synton founded?
I established Synton Electroncis in early 1973. It was a two-man band. The company was set up to develop a duo-phonic synthesizer, called Syrinx. This was merely a result of being annoyed with a number of problems I’d encountered with an EMS Synthi A, which I had bought in early ’71 for the small electronic studio I’d built for my work as a composer, mainly of film music. I approached EMS to see if there would be a way to promote and sell their stuff in Holland.

You were also translating science-fiction paperbacks into Dutch to help keep Synton afloat…
Robert Sheckley was my favorite one. I translated many short stories by him. “The People Trap” was a very good one. We’re talking early Seventies now. Sheckley was visionary in how society would change. “People Trap” was in fact the first story on what later would be known as “reality TV” and what will finally become Internet Reality. I did some Heinlein, Silverberg, Simak and Asimov too. [Ed: The vocoder makes a cameo in Silverberg’s “Halfway House.”]

What was your perception of the US and technology at the time?
There was a wide gap between the two continents—literally and culturally. European culture was not a melting pot, as the US had become (by brute force!) but a tombola. Or “potluck” if something would match. WWII did a lot in the sense that we, people in Europe (I’m not saying Europeans, because they did not exist and maybe still don’t) (re)discovered a totally different world: the USA. Which brought us all these goodies that were so comfortable and nice, pampering and modern. Pics of Roy Rogers and his Appaloosa with chewing gum. But they were also unfamiliar and possibly dangerous things. I remember watching a house burn down. I was nine years old. Bystanders whispered that the fire originated in the closet, where clothes were hung that had been washed in “these new synthetic detergents from America.” Spontaneous combustion. This is just to give you an impression of how naive (even postwar) people in Europe were—unwritten pages with one goal: no more war and let the future be golden.
I’d interviewed a Dutch Signal Corps officer who mentioned a Siemens-manufactured vocoder called Elcrovox, which was used during the Cold War. What were your memories of the war as a child in Holland? Those famous intercepts of Churchill phone calls took place on a beach near Noordwijk, which served as an impetus for the Allies to deploy Bell Labs’ vocoder X-system/SIGSALY.
I was born in April 1943, so my recollections of the war are very dim. I was told, however, that I was used as a kind of bombing flight foreteller. When the planes of the Allied forces were passing over Holland to bomb Germany, I would sit up in bed, long before the planes were near and stick my finger up in the air, saying “Vlieger komt!” (Flyer comes!). And I was always right—within three minutes they were there. Not ESP, but rather sensitive to VLF, I guess.

When did you develop the Syntovox vocoder?

Syntovox 221, the big one, was developed in 1977 and 1978, and presented to the world in 1979 at the New York AES Convention. This is where I met Wendy Carlos for the first time. We started at point zero and in the blind. We took orders for three vocoders and had sandwiches brought in.

Were you aware of the vocoder demonstrations at the 1964 World’s Fair? This had a significant impact on Carlos, who was one of your biggest fans.
No, I was playing gigs, as a drummer, mostly for American officers and NCOs who were based in France. The World’s Fair in 1964 was held in New York, which in those days was on a different planet, a desired goal, which could only be reached with a steamer in six days, or in a Super Constellation—this magnificent, beautiful flying fish with three tail wings.

Did Synton have clients outside of music, i.e. for speech pathology analysis, government military encryption, etc?
Yes, we had dealings with phonetic labs—one in Leiden [Ed: The 1964 Folkways release, Speech After Removal of the Larynx, was recorded at the Phonetic Laboratory of the Ear in Leiden] and one in Nymegen. Another interesting one was with KLM, after this terrible plane crash on Tenerife in 1977. They approached us in 1978 when we were still beta-testing the vocoder. They were talking about equipping their flight simulators with a Syntovox, to manipulate speech and scramble or distort messages. Later, after all the investigations, it turned out the accident was mainly caused by a clash of characters and a very long wait at the runway rather than by misinterpreting messages. The co-pilot was but-butting and did not want to take off. The Captain said, “Enough of this, let’s go for it.”
It always struck me that people who were more into artificial speech than I was, ignored the importance of inflections in speech. I thought the electric shaver, which had to be pressed against the larynx, was way too primitive. [Ed: This led to the invention of the Sonovox.] Even in those years with an electro-mechanical device of which the frequency could have been modulated manually, speech could have sounded a lot better and less robotic.

Robert Moog was often broke, on the verge of bankruptcy—his engineers viewed the vocoder as a distraction, a waste of time. How did you survive?
Bob never liked doing business for the sake of it—I didn’t either. There’s one reason to be on the verge of disaster, constantly. He once told me that he’d become too old to listen to his workers’ family and social problems. And he went on: “I guess I’ve always been too old for that.”
Getting back to vocoders: His engineers may well have been right. Nobody survived on vocoders. We were no exception. We got some more time before the bell tolled for us by making other products. Modular (analog) synths, the Syrinx monophonic synth with a revolutionary filter section (a formant filter!), which, incidentally, was the fruit of numerous brainwave sessions Bob and I had. This Syrinx, though, didn’t budge when we released it in 1982 and it got a coup de grace with the release of the DX7. All of a sudden the world wanted FM synths.

Talk about “Shortening the Amazement Curve.”
People had become aware that everything was possible, so the amazement curve got shorter and shorter. I guess one could compare the impact of the effect with that of “playing” (multi-voiced) the sound of a starting Harley Davidson on the first Emulator. People would just fall apart when hearing it.
In spite of the fact that we claimed to have made “the intelligible machine,” we never focused on the speech part. I personally think that the principle of vocoding—imposing characteristics of one sound upon another—is or should have been much broader than just using speech as an exciter. One should realize that expression stems from the “envelope”, it’s not only in the audio spectrum. I remember that we’d built a very accurate pitch-follower for the NOS (Dutch National Broadcast System) to be used in conjunction with Syntovox 221. When we started using it during evaluation, we were flabbergasted: The machine sounded like a human being. But the phase shift caused by the very steep filters we used (54 dB/octave) created some aliasing effects with the constantly changing formant information.

As a writer, terms like “aliasing effect” are very appealing. What musicians used the Syntovox or expressed interest in using it?
Tangerine Dream, Klaus Netzle, Bruno Spoerri, Johann Timman (aka John Nammitt), ELO, Philippe Catherine. There must have been hundreds of them. We never supported sponsoring to profile our products in the market for a number of reasons, and we operated via a distributor and/or dealer network. Feedback was scarce, so I really don’t know to whom all vocoders went.
By the way, most musicians get trapped by their instruments. The industry and its marketers greedily make them believe that only their imagination is the limit. (Which, in fact, is true!) So, if you buy this or that, you’ll be able to make fascinating music. Oh, I can now write a book because I have a word processor? Glorifying the tool is like putting too much weight on the importance of the tool, while creativity should be leading.
There we are, with all these musicians desperately waiting for their new instrument to be able to conceive their ultimate work. Anyway, I believe that most musicians who bought a vocoder, regardless of its make, were just looking for new effects. But effects and gimmicks get boring very quickly.
Fortunately a handful of users—one of them definitely being Wendy Carlos—were willing to experiment with the vocoder tool and produce very interesting and beautiful music, using it as a shaping, modulating and enveloping instrument, not as a gag. I think Wendy did fantastic work. It was so refreshing and inspiring to hear sounds that were sound-sounds, not vocoder sounds, albeit produced and/or processed by a vocoder. That, I think, is the real thing.

The sound-sound.
I could fantasize for hours about what one could do with mouth/voice controllers, not necessarily mimicking speech. A sound is a sound is a sound is a sound (taken from the quadruple rose by Gertrude Stein), only when it is a sound-sound.

The Syntovox had worldwide interest…
In all we must have sold close to a thousand vocoders. Beats me where the bulk went. They were distributed in Brazil, Hungary, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, England, the USA, Russia, (former) Yugoslavia, Belgium, France, Spain. Mainly to radio stations. I know of one peculiar sale to the Belgian Broadcast System. I traveled to Brussels. Arriving an hour late with our Belgian distributor because of heavy traffic, the “brass” audience, about ten managers, was a bit annoyed. Since there was not much time left they told me to keep it snappy and they asked for an imitation of Joseph Luns, Secretary General of NATO. Luns had a particular type of voice and way of speaking, which I’d studied a bit. Lots of pink noise and VLF modulation, a proper formant-shift patch, plus some of the wording he used did the job. I know that it was freaking real to the true Joseph L. Hurray, one more unit sold. But what in hell were they going to do with that effect?

What were your impressions of the vocoder’s use by artists like Kraftwerk? Or later in early Eighties hip hop? Do you feel like the sound has been taken as far as it can go?
Kraftwerk were the users of the first hour of the commercialized vocoder. What they did with it was a reflection of what was considered new and exciting in that era. One could not separate the influence of the vocoder from music of that period, just like one could not separate the serpent from medieval music. For that reason I believe that the sounds have taken as far as they could go, then.

I apologize, on behalf of my book, that it made you choke on your marmalade toast. And I thought I had exhausted all the “Pack Jam” possibilities.
In spite of not being featured in your book, I believe you have created the ultimate book on vocoders. Almost ultimate. For the second run and following, please do include Syntovox, just for integrity, posterity—and for becoming really ultimate. And please do introduce me to “Pack Jam.”

What makes your jam so special?
Our marmalade jam is special because the fruits—oranges, tangerines, lemons—come from Corsica, the big French island in the Mediterranean. We pick them in winter, around Christmas and New Year’s Day, just as they grow wild. They are untreated, with the taste of the Fifties, when those fruits were not yet being manipulated (for instance, manipulated to not produce seeds so we wouldn’t have to spit out the pits). It’s called giving up everything to be comfortable, sacrificing pleasure. How would Tangerine Dream have sounded if they’d been Seedless Tangerines?

What’s up with the laptop totem pole?
The Laptop Totem Pole was inspired by, of course, the totem pole of which the intention differs from culture to culture. The laptop refers to a culture of disposable goods. Since those laptops kept piling up after a short (anticipated?) life, irreparable or very costly, so that buying a new one was cheaper, I thought about doing something creative with them. So I nailed them on a wooden plank. It gave me satisfaction. After a while I took them to the dumpster, where they belonged in the first place.

This article (c) Dave Tompkins, kindly reproduced from his website.

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