Re: vocal transformation in early film

Subject: Re: vocal transformation in early film
From: Ian Chuprun (
Date: Fri Nov 18 2005 - 17:24:21 EST

Richard Wentk wrote:

> Don't forget the inevitable:

This is hilarious! I have never heard of Sparky and his piano and train,
nor the sonovox. But is the sonovox really electronically synthesized
sound? The two clips from the Sparky link you sent sounds a little like
vocoding, and the blurb from the link seems to think so:

"Now on CD - [snip] - four of the most well loved children's recordings
of the late 1940s/early 1950s all on one CD. Produced by Alan Livingston
and with Henry Blair as Sparky these recordings contain some of the
first uses of electronically synthesized sound -- in the recordings a
device called a Sonovox is used to blend human speech with the piano to
make it appear to speak in "Sparky's Magic Piano", and with the train
sounds in "Sparky and the Talking Train."" [snip]

but I looked up the sonovox on the web and Wendy Carlos, on, says this about it:

Many "vocoding effects" from years ago were not actually done with a
vocoder. Radio commercials in the 40's often featured speaking trains,
door squeaks, or the wind, highlighting another popular device: the
Sonovox. Gilbert Wright invented this mechanical means to impart speech
on other sounds ("talk boxes" and "talk tubes" borrowed the idea later
on). The source sound was fed through a power amplifier into two small
drivers, like loudspeakers -- but with each cone replaced by a 2" flat
disk. When the disks were pressed on a performer's throat, on either
side of her neck (most Sonovox performers were women, as with the
Voder), audio sent into the drivers would substitute for vocal chord
energy. The performer silently and carefully moved her mouth and tongue
in the usual speaking gestures, also adding the "fricatives" ("s", "t",
"sh", etc.). Close miking caught the result: be it a singing piano,
crooning trombone, or talkative foghorn. Children's recordings from the
40's, like Rusty in Orchestraville, Sparky's Magic Piano, and several
Disney animated cartoons (the train in Dumbo) feature the Sonovox. (The
new DVD of Dumbo contains a video clip of it in action, take a look!)
It's similar to a vocoder, but very different in execution and
principle: physical, not electronic.

but I am a little stuck as to whether it is or is not synthesizing sound
(sounds more like a kind of resonator to me) so now I have to go rent
the Dumbo DVD to see how this gizmo is used.


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