Voices of the Dead: From Edison to Tupac via Sonovox

…whoever has spoken or whoever may speak into the mouthpiece of the phonograph, and whose words are recorded by it, has the assurance that his speech may be reproduced audibly in his own tones long after he himself has turned to dust. The possibility is simply startling…Speech has become, as it were, immortal.

“A Wonderful Invention – Speech Capable of Indefinite Repetition from Automatic Records,” Scientific American (Nov 17, 1877)

At the end of the nineteenth century, the invention of sound recording suggested a new era in which the voice would not die with the body but would rather be stored up, preserved, so that future generations could hear the dead speak. As one phonograph enthusiast remarked in 1896, ”death has lost some of its sting since we are able to forever retain the voices of the dead.”

But what if one wanted to hear a voice of the dead say something it had never uttered in life? That was the challenge faced by the creators of the Tupac Shakur “hologram” for the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Though the resurrection of Tupac (who died in 1996) proved a media sensation, reporting focused almost exclusively on the visual illusion and its mechanics – including a special fascination with the fact that the “hologram” wasn’t really a hologram but rather constituted a 21st-century version of a 19th-century optical illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost.

Tupac’s vocal performance, no less than his dance moves, required technology wizardry with a curious genealogy. The sound engineer responsible, Claudio Cueni, discussed the process of creating Tupac’s vocal performance on Pensado’s Place (a show for folks in the audio biz). While the visual team plumbed footage and medical records to recreate Tupac’s appearance in meticulous detail, Cueni combed recordings: no vocal double was be used – everything had to be Tupac’s own voice. The word “Coachella” – crucial to establishing the virtual Tupac’s presence at the festival and apparent interaction with the audience – proved particularly difficult, as Tupac never said the word in life (the Coachella music festival started in 1999, three years after Tupac’s death). But by joining the word “coach” to a mixture of sound-alikes for “ella,” and by time-stretching, auto-tuning, and altering vowel sounds with the audio plug-in Talkbox, Cueni was able to assemble the phrase “What the f*** is up Coachella?” from Tupac’s recorded voice.

It is with Talkbox that the genealogy of Tupac’s resurrected voice gets interesting. Since 2008, the plug-in has come with the digital audio workstation Pro Tools. In its Audio Plug-Ins Guide, Pro Tools explains that the purpose of Talkbox is “to add voice-like resonances to audio signals.” The website Pro Tools Production adds that this plug-in (like many plug-ins) digitally models a previous analog device:

The hardware equivalent is a stomp-box with a speaker connected to a plastic tube which ends up in the musician’s mouth. The user changes the shape of his/her mouth to filter the sound which is then picked up by a vocal mic.

The hardware predecessor to Talkbox was brought to prominence in the 1970s by Peter Frampton, who used it on such hits as “Show Me the Way” (from the album titled – get this – Frampton Comes Alive!).

Before there was the Talk Box, however, there was the Sonovox. The idea behind these two technologies was similar: both used the shape of the mouth to modify the frequency content of a reproduced sound. With the Sonovox, instead of putting one’s mouth on a tube that transmitted the sound to be modified, one pressed two loudspeakers against one’s throat. In both cases, the user silently mouths words while the transmitted sound does the job of the larynx, or voice box. (“The Talk Box is an extra larynx,” Frampton has said, “you shut of yours and get piped in larynx. It could be a guitar, it could be a synthesizer – anything that could be amplified and come out of the speaker and be bypassed and put through the tube.”) Lucille Ball demonstrated the newly invented Sonovox in a newsreel of 1939, in which the sound she modifies comes from a recording of a train (in 1941, the Sonovox was used to impart speech to a whistle and steam for the voice of the train in Disney’s Dumbo):

Like the illusion of Pepper’s Ghost, the Sonovox found an early application in conjuring the dead. In the 1940 film You’ll Find Out starring Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, the Sonovox plays an important role in the performance of seances. The first seance scene features three visitors from the beyond, the first speaking through a trumpet, the second drawing a low, growling voice from unseen drums, and the third a wispy voice in the wind:

In this second seance scene, the trick behind these voices is discovered:

These inhuman voices of the dead are a far cry from the faithful recreation of Tupac’s stage voice sought and achieved by Cueni (and it’s worth noting here the convenient fact that Tupac’s stage voice was always already mediated by microphones and loudspeakers, allowing Cueni to mask imperfections by adding reverb and delay without these effects seeming unnatural). Analogously, a main appeal of Pepper’s Ghost was that the seemingly three-dimensional figure could pass through objects and people; holographic Tupac, by contrast, remained distant from his on-stage company – never revealing the insubstantiality of his form, and encouraging us to perceive him as a living presence.

John Durham Peters has observed that “two ruling ambitions in modern technology appear in the phonograph: the creation of artificial life and the conjuring of the dead” (Speaking into the Air, 161). While the conjuring of the dead seemed to fade in importance in the twentieth century, the ability now not just to replay but also to reanimate the archive of a life lived – to generate new performances from it – has renewed the ambition. With today’s technology, death is no obstacle to the comeback.

If conjuring the dead remains a ruling ambition, however, it is also significant how much that ambition has changed in the last century+. Early phonograph users imagined that the vibrations of a voice, preserved in tinfoil or wax, carried a person’s presence. Something of this remains in the insistence that the holographic Tupac use Tupac’s own voice. Yet, in using Talkbox, Cueni treated Tupac’s recorded voice as an audio signal that needed to be artificially imbued with “voice-like resonance.” Like a train whistle or guitar, Tupac’s voice (cut up and reassembled syllable by syllable) became the raw material to which sonic markers of sentience and life were added. The remarkable result of such technological gymnastics was the convincing illusion of Tupac’s resurrection. Whereas yesterday’s technologies shadowed forth a second, ghostly realm, today’s thoroughly blur the boundaries between presence and absence, animate and inanimate, life and death.

In You’ll Find Out, the sonovox pivots from this “yesterday” to “today.” In the final scene, Mr. Kayser – the one who discovered the trick behind the seance – presents a more wholesome, musical application for the Sonovox. Just before the start of this clip Mr. Kayser declares, “it gave me a whole new idea for a band number. We’re going to let our instruments speak for themselves!”:


One Comment on “Voices of the Dead: From Edison to Tupac via Sonovox”

  1. […] read this essay, I was immediately drawn to the cultural obsession with musicians of the past, the voices of the dead, and our need to resurrect them, through new technologies, as was with that of rapper Tupac, or of Alexander Graham Bell’s 1885 […]

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