Herbie Hancock – Sunlight / 1978

Not a typical Herbie album for one BIG reason – “vocals” by Herbie himself. Why quotes? He used a voice-encoder, or “vocoder” (NOT “vocorder”). Invented by Bell Laboratories in the early 60’s, this “effect” was first popularized by Wendy Carlos on her early 70’s soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, most notably in her electronic realization of Beethoven’s 9th. A bit later it was used by Kraftwerk on “Autobahn” and Man Machine. A vocoder takes an input signal, such as a synthesizer (but can be anything) and filters it using a second input signal, such as a human voice. The input signal is “shaped” to the charactersitics of the second signal. This second signal can be mixed with the original (Moby did this a lot on “Play”) or removed so only the filtered original is heard. This is what Herbie did here. Of course when you use a synth you don’t have any of the problems associated with bad singing, like wavering pitch.

Now to set things straight: Peter Frampton never used one, he used a device referred to as a “Pig”, where a tube channels the sound of the instrument acoustically to the mouth where it is then “shaped” and picked up by the microphone. This effect was also used by Jeff Beck on “She’s a Woman” from Blow By Blow and on the phenomenal live album he made with Jan Hammer. It was also used by BT Express on the Function At the Junction album (how’s that for an obscure ref?). Also, Cher had nothing to do with her vocoded voice on “Believe”. Cher had recorded a demo of this song and an independent (and then unknown) producer used the effect on her voice, then took the track to Cher who loved it. The tune became a big smash, and for the next year every Backstreet Bumbiters and the N*Sphincs recording used him, making that producer an overnight success (can’t recall the name). The process used for Believe was a very-labour intensive process of isolating just certain places in the vocal performance where she changes notes, then taking her voice out and inserting the vocoded line for just the split second of the note transition. Takes hours and hours to do.
This album was an experiment in styles from Herbie, and from the picture of his setup on the back cover it is obvious he had major enthusiasm for electronic instruments. He created a sound on the new Sennheiser vocoder that approximated his voice and wrote a few funky tunes he could “sing” on. For that alone this album is a novelty. And for the funky disco suit he’s wearing, complete with medallion.
The album is actually quite good, though the tunes are a bit cliche lyrically. But you still have all the great players like Harvey Mason and Paul Jackson, Mtume, Jaco Pastorious etc etc so the music kicks no matter what. When Herbie kicks in with a solo it’s pure joy as always. Even though the songs are designed to be danceable, the writing is still first-rate with lots that rewards. It’s also amazing to hear these great musicians doing their best to realize Herbie’s vision, even though it’s not really what they were used to playing. Very professional. When Herbie had a minor hit with this album, he moved into a more commercial feel and started using guitar players like Ray Parker Jr and other musicians who came from the funk and Motown schools, like Melvin Ragin (“Wah Wah” Watson), and I believe one or both are on this album. Just keep an open mind, remembering that Herbie is an explorer, and here he’s expressing something that he never quite repeated. Not a failed experiment or anything, just a unique moment in his musical development: Herbie as vocalist.

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