In his recent book How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, author Dave Tompkins tells the story of how a military voice-scrambling technology (the vocoder) became absorbed by civilian pop culture in the form of artificial, robotized vocal effects.
While still exploring the sound’s WWII origins, Tompkins describes “ghost armies” conjured from nothing using sensory technologies as part of a “sonic deception strategy” practiced on the battlefield. “During World War II,” he writes, “artifice—the illusion of conflict—was a weapon in itself. There were wooden bombs, fake factories, inflatable tanks, synthetic fogs, electronically generated ghost armies, psychoacoustic ventriloquists, and magicians hired to make the coastline disappear.”
Technologists from places like Bell Labs unleashed hi-fi wizardry against the adversary, including misleading sound effects built into torpedoes and “artificial screaming bombs” that, to put this in somewhat Friedrich Kittler-like terms, turned warfare into a kind of lethal, all-encompassing, international discotheque of blinding lights and disembodied shock waves, a carnivalesque over-investment in technology’s fatal side-effects, distracting people long enough that they could be destroyed.
So it was interesting to see last week that PBS has produced a documentary called Ghost Army:
In the summer of 1944, a handpicked group of G.I.s landed in France with truckloads of inflatable tanks, a massive collection of sound effects records, and more than a few tricks up their sleeves. They staged a traveling road show of deception on the battlefields of Europe, aimed at Hitler’s legions. From Normandy to the Rhine, the 1100 men of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops—the Ghost Army—conjured up phony convoys, phantom divisions, and make-believe headquarters to fool the enemy about the strength and location of American units. Every move they made was top secret and their story was hushed up for decades after the war’s end.
Amongst their crew were “sonics experts” who “made an early use of multi-leveled mixing to replicate the sounds of a massive military unit on the move.”