We’ve come a long way since T-Pain unwittingly enraged countless people by popularizing Auto-Tune in the mid-’00s on a couple of highly successful singles—as if the technology of vocal distortion hadn’t been a throughline in pop music dating back to the 1980s. Setting aside the likely racism of that backlash hitting only when an R&B artist embraced the technology (rather than, say, a former member of Genesis) and the controversy seemingly dying out as soon as Bon Iver incorporated it into his music, it’s exciting that we’re once again in a period where unlikely artists have embraced the possibilities of experimenting with voice modulation within the realms of unexpected genres.
One such artist is Pool Kids, the mathy emo collective who dip into vocoder usage midway through their new self-titled LP on the vaguely proggy “Swallow” with vocalist Christine Goodwyne duetting alongside a modulated version of her own voice to give is a bit of a “Hide and Seek”–type distortion. “I feel like a lot of people would agree that the human voice is one of—if not the—most emotional ‘instruments’ since it’s literally a human being that you’re listening to,” she explains, fortifying the band’s decision to push the boundaries of emo on the track. “But we’re obviously limited to only being able to sing one note at a time, and chords themselves have so much more emotion in them than a single-note melody. So to me, vocoder is like a tool that allows us to make the human voice carry even more emotion than it already does! And that is just so cool to me. It hits me so hard every time.”
With their new album out now, Goodwyne took the the time to share a playlist of some of the band’s favorite tracks that set the precedent for “Swallow,” ranging from the aforementioned Imogen Heap tune to more recent singles by the likes of Charli XCX, Carlone Polachek, and Rina Sawayama. Check out the album here if you haven’t already, and stream the playlist below accompanied by commentary from Goodwyne.
Imogen Heap, “Hide and Seek”
I’ve noticed that people sometimes have a hard time distinguishing vocoder from a talk box, or even Auto-Tune. This song feels like the perfect “intro to identifying what a vocoder sounds like.” Literally the entire song is in-your-face-vocoder, and I feel like everyone knows this iconic song and the sound of these vocals. You can hear the constant chord changes in the voice, which I feel like is the most obvious thing differentiating it from a talk-box sound. I was so drawn to this song the first time I heard it and I now realize it’s because I am obsessed with vocoder vocals!
Rina Sawayama, “Bad Friend”
When the vocoder made its big entrance at 0:48, the first time I heard this song my jaw dropped. I had this thing on repeat for weeks, and still return to it often. I think this might be the song that made it click for me how infatuated I am with vocoder.
Caroline Polachek, “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings”
Without fact checking myself, I feel like Caroline Polachek uses vocoder a lot. It feels particularly important to me in this track, though. Without the vocoder in the choruses (first appearing at 0:50) it would certainly still be an insanely catchy song, but god…it just wouldn’t be the same.
Great Grandpa, “Mono No Aware”
This record is amazing already, but the vocoder moments in this song make it that much better. Fun fact: This was one of the two main records that made us want to work with Mike Vernon Davis, who did end up producing our new, shiny, self-titled record (out now!).
Charli XCX, “Lightning”
Charli XCX is always finding new and creative ways to make her vocals sound freaking killer and unique. Luckily, she let us indulge in some serious vocoder at 0:48 (just realizing three of these songs have had the vocoder drop at that same time stamp…maybe they’re up to something).
Taylor Swift, “Delicate”
Opinions on Taylor Swift aside, this song is a great, full-force-ahead vocoder moment. Truly never too much vocoder for me.
Special Explosion, “Fire”
This was the other record besides Great Grandpa’s Four of Arrows that sparked our excitement to make a record with Mike Vernon Davis. The vocoder is more subtle in this song than in the other highlighted in this article, not coming in until 2:36 (at least that I can pick up on). Such a good way to develop this chorus later in the song—MVD is a genius and everyone should make a record with him!
Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight”
Iconic song. Iconic drum fill. Iconic vocal production. Iconic everything. But I feel like people don’t appreciate the vocoder layer on the back half of this song! Specifically the words “remember” at 3:02 and “ever met” at 3:17. Chef’s kiss!
MUNA, “Pink Light”
Not gonna lie, Spotify suggested this as an addition to this playlist, and I knew who MUNA was but was not familiar with this song. What a fitting addition! You hear the vocoder layered in the beginning of the verses and it adds so much. They also have a song off this record called “Stayaway” that has a big ol’ vocoder chorus.
Boards of Canada, “In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country”
Probably the only playlist you will see Taylor Swift and Boards of Canada next to each other. This is another great song to reference when someone asks what vocoder is/sounds like. You can hear the lil’ chord changes everywhere. This one is cool because there isn’t a normal vocal layered over it, it’s just the vocoder.
Pool Kids, “Swallow”
Probably not supposed to plug my own band here, but this vocoder moment is one of my favorite moments on the album. I was having a hard time enjoying the chorus of this song, so I told the producer that if we cut out all the instruments at 2:43 and do a massive vocoder moment, it might make me love the song. I showed him “Bad Friend” by Rina Sawayama as a reference. Sure enough it worked and totally changed the way I saw the song!