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How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks Hardcover – April 6, 2010

3.4 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

When first looking at this book, the initial question on most readers’ minds might be: What the heck is a vocoder? Simply put, the vocoder (invented in the late 1920s) took human speech and broke it up into its constituent frequencies, thus allowing that voice to be transmitted electronically, and reassembled and synthesized at the other end, reproducing the words, if not the sound, of the original speech. The vocoder was developed as a means of encrypting speech, of protecting transmissions from prying ears. But, over time, it found other uses, in movies, television, and music (if you want to imagine what it sounds like, recall the Cylons from the original Battlestar Galactica). Eventually, what began its life as a tool for cryptology became a pop-culture icon. Tompkins tells the vocoder’s story with great relish, as though he can’t believe how mind-blowingly cool the device is, and it’s impossible to read the book without being caught up in his enthusiasm. This one has cult audience written all over it. --David Pitt


"It’s unquestionably brilliant, not only one of the best music books of the year, but also one of the best music books ever written."
Los Angeles Times

"Dave Tompkins is seven steps ahead of science and several leagues outside of time."
—Sasha Frere-Jones, Pop Music Critic, The New Yorker

"The best hip hop writer ever born."
—Jeff Chang, author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, winner of the American Book Award

"One of the most bugged, brilliant guys I know." 
—Oliver Wang, NPR music critic 
"No one knows more about the vocoder than Dave Tompkins, not even the dude who invented it. [A]n awesome book about the vocoder and its cultural impact… read it immediately." 
—The Fader

How to Wreck a Nice Beach is much more than a labor of love: It’s an intergalactic vision quest fueled by several thousand gallons of high-octane spiritual-intellectual lust. Outside of, say, William Vollmann, it’s hard to think of an author so ravished by his subject... A hallucinatory stew of Rimbaud, Tom Wolfe, Lester Bangs, and Bootsy Collins.”
New York

"This one has cult audience written all over it."

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Stop Smiling Books (April 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1933633883
  • ISBN-13: 978-1933633886
  • Product Dimensions: 7.3 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,229,948 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I don't think that before I read _How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop: The Machine Speaks_ (Stop Smiling Books / Melville House Publishing) that I even knew what a vocoder was. After reading it, I am convinced vocoders must be everywhere. They seem to have been a foundation of Dave Tompkins's life. He has written this quirky book over a period spanning more than a decade, with some of the interviews going back more than ten years ago. Since he is an accomplished music columnist, mostly covering hip-hop and other popular music, most of the book is about the vocoder's use for entertainment, though it does cover the history of the device as a military tool. The vocoder helped win WWII, and even if you never appreciated it for that, and even if you aren't much of a pop music fan, you have probably heard its work when the movies needed a robot voice. _Colossus: The Forbin Project_ (1970) featured "the first paranoid supercomputer to speak through a vocoder." It has made cameo appearances in _Battlestar Galactica_ and _Tron_. It formed the words for the minimalist lyrics of Kraftwerk's _Autobahn_, and did the synthesized chorus for the electronic version of Beethoven's Ninth in _Clockwork Orange_. It was the basis for the vocals in the Christmas album _Zoot Zoot Zoot, Here Comes Santa in His New Space Suit_. OK, you don't know that one, and nobody is going to get all of Tompkins's astonishingly scattershot cultural references, but still, this hyper-illustrated, zingily-written historical tribute to Tompkins's favorite gadget is an amusing and in-depth examination of a particular and peculiar bit of technology and culture.

It is no surprise that the vocoder invented in 1928 is nothing like the vocoder now.
Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
On one hand, "How to Wreck a Nice Beach" is a frustrating read. Tompkins often takes off on tangents, offering irrelevant asides and allusions that are never fully explained or further explored. He mentions other devices and technology, but never illustrates how they are connected to the Vocodor and its development. Indeed, there's nothing technical at all in this book. We don't need a detailed examination of electric capacitors and sonic waveforms, but a little more scientific meat would have been nice.
That might seem a damning condemnation, but the other hand, the writing in this book is very enteraining. Tomkins' energetic stream-of-conscious style recalls the mix-master techniques of the hip hop music of which he is so fond. While annoyed at the lack of a chronological, coherent narrative, I love they way Tompkins puts words together. I continued to read just to see where he'd go next.
If you want a comprehensive history of the Vocodor and related technology, this is not the book for you. However, if you're looking for a fascinating, emotional tribute to this marriage of music, technology and culture, you should read "How to Wreck a Nice Beach."
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Format: Hardcover
The writing, frankly, is indulgent beyond belief, and often diffuses what he is trying to say. You have to pick through unclear convolutions and winking references you either get or you don't (it's like a Simpsons episode, except more distracting than entertaining) to get at the meat. To boot, he often throws in fictional elements to further pursue our admiration for his "flash" style. For instance, in setting a scene, he mentions that a cow is yawning and a food cart worker is stealing money while someone is onstage at a state fair with their vocoder...in the eighties. Pretty sure that didn't turn up in his research. That would be fine for a novel, but this ain't that. The cow is a harmless enough detail, but the result of telling me someone stole money while the band played--because you think it reads cool--is I am often wondering if more ambiguous details are fact or fiction. Bad news for a history of anything, even the vocoder. There were a lot of things I took with a grain of salt; you certainly couldn't cite this book as a source for research! (If you were even completely sure of what was being said in the first place.) The style is basically what someone might use trying to get attention and look clever in a 100-word blurb review in a magazine, stretched out over a book. I finally packed it in and am just skimming now. Check this one out from the library if you want to read about the vocoder, don't buy. I generally don't review things on amazon...once every couple of years...but this book is so off-putting I wanted to warn people.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
First off, this isn't a book about how a vocoder really works. There's no math. NONE. No pseudocode. Not even a deep discussion in plain English. Nor is it a book about how to use a vocoder, for secure speech or for putting an epic drop into your newest piece of music.

It's more a history of the Vocoder and the people who made it happen and who used it. The characters range from the steely-eyed guys who had security clearances higher than Churchill and Eisenhower, to rappers who spent as much time behind bars as at stagefront. And- it's told in a first-person mode; the author is telling of his experience in researching the book, who he's met, who he partied with, who he got to know, and (spoiler) who he became friends with who are no longer with us.

That said, it's fun and a good read. THAT said, remember it's limitations; it's a history, not an article in a maker magazine.
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