Retrotechtacular: The Voder from Bell Labs

voder

This is the under-the-hood view of the keyboard for the Voder (Voice Operating Demonstrator), the first electronic device capable of generating continuous human speech. It accomplishes this feat through a series of keys that generate the syllables, plosives, and affricatives normally produced by the human larynx and shaped by the throat and tongue. This week’s film is a picture montage paired with the audio from the demonstration of the Voder at the 1939 World’s Fair.

The Voder was created by one [Homer Dudley] at Bell Laboratories. He did so in conjunction with the Vocoder, which analyzes human-generated speech for encrypted transfer and re-synthesizes it on the other end. [Dudley] spent over 40 years researching speech at Bell Laboratories. His development of both the Voder and the Vocoder were instrumental in the SIGSALY project which aimed to deliver encrypted voice communication to the theatres of WWII.

voder layoutIn this film, the Voder is first demonstrated with a flat, robotic rendition of the phrase “she saw me”. The operator then runs through the various possible inflections to show the flavor that the foot pedal provides. Inside the Voder is a group of band pass filters in parallel that span the frequency range of human speech. Excitations are received from either the noise generator or the relaxation oscillator, and selection between the two is made from the wrist bar. The pitch is controlled with the foot pedal. The band pass outputs are fed to ten gain pots under the operators fingers. Three additional keys manipulate the excitations to produce the consonant stop sounds like /t/, /d/, /p/, /b/, /k/, and /g/.

voder keyboardVoder’s pitch can be adjusted to emulate all kinds of voices, from man to woman to child. It is capable of speaking an any language the operator can speak. As a special bonus, Voder makes very convincing cow and pig sounds.

In creating the Voder, it was discovered that non-inflected vowels sounded like a foghorn, so vibrato was added to make them more human. This of course means that Voder can sing, and the operator gives a heartwarming performance of “Auld Lang Syne”.

For an operator, getting the Voder to speak is a difficult undertaking. Generating a single word requires the keying of several sounds in quick succession, along with simultaneous wrist bar action and pedal work to color the inflection. Bell Labs auditioned a few hundred girls to train in Voder operation, but ultimately had fewer than 30 expert operators. [Helen Harper], who you hear in this film, was considered the best. According to [Helen], mastery required about a year of constant practice.

[Thanks to Fran for the tip!]

[Voder keyboard image source]

Comments

  1. Default says:

  2. chuck says:

    What, no schematic?
    This blows Vocaloid away!

  3. The phone companies still use it today. Some services do not use a person for voice response. In fact…. Some of the PBX services use it. Now we have voice synthesis instead of that method……

  4. Georg says:

    Do we really live in modern times?

  5. ka1axy says:

    Bell Labs offered “Science Kits” when I was in high school in the late 60’s, one which taught you about speech synthesis It was probably the first mderately complex electronic kit I built that actually worked.

    http://www.beatriceco.com/bti/porticus/bell/belllabs_kits_ss.html

  6. ka1axy says:
  7. dtremit says:

    The Voder (or at least a Voder) still exists; it’s on display in the lobby at one of AT&T Labs facilities in NJ.

  8. zuul says:

    pretty cool

  9. Robert S says:

    Miku sure has a very unique family tree

  10. echodelta says:

    Current cell phones only transmit 2 octaves (4to1) range, the high pitches of diction. The hum-tone of the voice is encoded this old fashioned way! That’s why people sound so fake on a cell phone. Imagine with it fixed pitch. Robot voice on every call.
    Coming soon: 5 octave cell phones. They will finally sound about as good as an old fashioned landline.

    • justice099 says:

      Weird. People sound exactly the same on the cell phone as they do in person on my phone. Are you still carrying around a startac or something? Or maybe you just have a bunch of robots calling you?

      • DainBramage1991 says:

        My old StarTAC sounded pretty darn good, with a dynamic range similar (to my ears) to that of a landline phone. It is actually my favorite cell phone of all the ones I’ve used over the years.

        • justice099 says:

          Well, maybe someone pranked echodelta’s phone and made it so that it calls chatbots instead of the people they think they are calling.

          Point is: wtf? I forgot after thinking up that brilliant idea for a prank!

          • Throeburn says:

            Analog mobile voice signals at one time carried nearly full fidelity voice signals. This is part of the reason analog used so much power. The power needs and the throughput are two reasons the analog signals gave way to digital. Our ‘modern’ mobile phones sound horrible compared with the first mobile phones, which were analog.

          • justice099 says:

            Umm…ok. If you say so.

            But, hey my 8 track is much better than my CD player, too so I get it.

            :/

    • Bogdan says:

      It’s not necessarily the limited frequency band that makes the voice sound bad, it’s the way it is encoded: http://www.radio-electronics.com/info/cellulartelecomms/gsm_technical/audio-codecs-vocoders-amr-celp.php

      I don’t know how things are around the world, but here in europe I have enjoyed HD voice for quite some years on all networks I tried. Of course, the other person on the line has to have the right phone as well..

  11. Quazi says:

  12. BillBrasskey says:

    You’re welcome. Posted Dave Tomkins book last week and now we have this.

  13. Galane says:

    We dodged a bullet with the Voder. At its debut there was other new technology demonstrated at the same fair that combined with the Voder and tape recordings could have made voice activated voice mail and robo-calling with synthesized voice possible.

    Just imagine Ma Bell with huge banks of tape recorders to store messages and Voder voices on tape saying things like “You have. Zero. New messages.” “To delete. Message. Say Seven.”

    Thankfully, that mashup wasn’t conceived until well into the solid state digital electronics era!

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