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Zeus B. Held \ Biography

Why Can't I Be a Singer? zeus b. held and the vocoder

The history of the Vocoder began 220 years ago. In 1791, Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen developed the speech machine, which made it possible to produce not only vocal sounds but even single words and short sentences. However, Van Kempelen was less interested in making any old sounds and noises talk. He wished to understand the underlying function and principles of the human speaking voice and imitate it mechanically.

This resulted in pioneering work in the field of speech synthesis, which is defined as the artificial simulation of the human voice. Indeed, the emergence of electric engineering in the 20th century made it possible to create speech sound by electrical means. The VODER, developed by Homer Dudley was the first device with that capability. It was unveiled in 1939 at the world exhibition in New York. Subsequently, Dudley went on to develop the Vocoder, based on the VODER, in the Bell Laboratories. Vocoder is an acronym for 'Voice' and 'Coder' - Voice Coder. Its initial application was the reduction of necessary bandwidth for transatlantic long distance calls in telephone technology. Dudley assumed that the particular articulation techniques of the human tongue, lips and mouth could be electronically imitated. However, the dynamics and bandwidth of the electronic copy turned out much lower than natural speech. This consequently enabled the use of a phone line for multiple conversations held at the same time. The inventor explained the Vocoder to his children by using a scrambled eggs metaphor. The Vocoder takes an encoded message, scrambles it and sends it on in a different arrangement. Upon receiving the message, the Vocoder at the other end scrambles the message a second time and reassembles it into the correct order.

From the very beginning, part of the project had planned to not only use the instrument for telecommunication, but also for entertainment purposes. It was used for various special effects, for example to modify voices in animated film. Then the American military became aware of the machine, and put it under the strictest secrecy.

During World War II, the Vocoder was used to encode speech, after the American forces found out that the Germans had intercepted conversations between Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The speech encryption system - SIGSALY - was thus developed, which also went by the name of 'Green Hornet', since the encrypted conversations sounded like the buzzing of a hornet. Churchill and Roosevelt communicated through the Vocoder, while records were played in the background for purposes of speech encryption. The playing time of such a record amounted to 12 minutes. As soon as the record ended, a new one had to be put on, to impede the possible occurrence of silence. The mix had to be continuous while the Vocoder was fed with voices. Despite the fact that this scenario does not describe the work of a DJ, but the speech encryption technology of the American military, you can't help but think that it is all part of a big concert, featuring two turntables and a Vocoder.

The Vocoder's double life remained unknown to many musicians. It was quite the opposite for the engineers, the Vocoder developers. They were not aware, that their invention was also a popular asset in countless music productions and clubs. Legend has it, that composer Peter Thomas used the Vocoder for the first time in 1966, in his soundtrack for TV series Raumpatrouille Orion. Others claim that the first musical utilisation took place in 1936, by singer Charles Vadersen. Vadersen, an engineer at Bell Laboratories, sang traditional songs such as Old Man River and Barnacle Bill through the Vocoder.

Zeus B. Held first encountered the Vocoder in the 1970s. Despite the fact that the speech engine is hard to handle, very intricate and difficult to wire, the young musician feel head over heels for it in no time.

It all began in Hamburg's Doktor Heinz Funk Studio. Zeus was still playing keyboards in the band Birth Control, but had plans for recording a solo album. He wanted to make music that was different to rock music; he wanted to try something new. He used the Vocoder to challenge the concept of authenticity in rock, which - in rock and pop music - is always associated with the singer's voice. Bob Dylan and Elvis come to mind, whose voices are their trademarks. The Vocoder scratches the smooth surface of this idea. Whoever makes use of it, can assume various identities, distort their voice in any possible fashion and put the idea of authenticity to the test. The reception of his solo debut Zeus' Amusement is the best proof for this theory. The album had to look hard for a bit of love amongst the traditional rock clientele. 'To some extent, people even accused you of treachery,' says Zeus. 'I was going to lectures by Mauricio Kagel and Joseph Beuys in D¸sseldorf during that time. It all interested me very much.' Zeus bided his time at Stollwerck Cologne. 'At three in the morning, we played gigs using synthesizers and a Vocoder. I used to do a lot of experimenting.' The vital play of sounds and ideas is reflected in the perfect mastery of the instrument. Zeus B. Held turns the 'Human-Machine', as advocated by Kraftwerk, into reality. In the song Nice Mover by Gina X Performance, the voice that is modulated by the Vocoder sounds like a synthesizer, can hardly be made out, seamlessly blends into the driving arrangements. The Rockets on the other hand call to mind old science fiction films; the singer becomes a robot, singing with mechanical precision.

Using the Vocoder was not only an expression of the aim to simulate the human voice, but also to lend human qualities to the machine, to merge with it, fill it with life and emotion. This idea had been formulated by music researchers Ernst Koster in his 1950s essay on the Vocoder: 'If artificial language is handled within a sophisticated and artistic context, is casts off the nature of the total apparatus from which it escapes.' Zeus reaches this very state in his Beatles cover The Fool on the Hill, by giving the electronically generated singing voice a yearning character through a skilful application of modulation. This was long before Neil Young attempted to use the Vocoder as an intermediary between man and machine on his album Trans, in order to communicate with his son, who suffered from infantile paralysis.

'To me, music has something to do with the act of breathing,' Zeus reveals. 'The Vocoder enables me to electronically transform this very physical feeling.' Zeus's sounds breathe their own, steady rhythm. They sound breezy and as light as a feather. Base and drums elegantly avoid crashing into each other, forming a solid foundation, which is extended with layers of synthesizers and energetic beats. It is all completed with a fascinating feel for melodies. Music is here to entertain us after all, Zeus refers to this as the 'Hollywood effect', which he observes in his work with the Vocoder too. 'Music allows you to create a fictitious and spatial world.'

The world is ripe with an abundant diversity of musical styles, which 'European Zeus' knows to elegantly implement into his pieces, seamlessly and without any ruptures. One could say the following: Zeus has found what other composers spend their whole lives searching for - the very own sound. It is a seductive amalgam of drifting disco sounds, cosmic music and progressive particles of rock. A mixture that - especially nowadays - is gladly picked up again, for example to create the experimental sounds of Hypnagogic Pop.

In the meantime, it seems that the Vocoder has been surpassed by digital technology. The Auto-Tune effect dominates the world of music. Against this backdrop, Voice Versa is a love letter to a machine of bygone times, a document of acoustic archaeology, which is by no means tied to the past, but is rather future-orientated, tangible and alive.

Raphael Smarzoch

Cologne, January 2011

Zeus B. Held