Robot Voice Design Asbjoern Andersen


Joe Grandberg is a DJ, Music Producer, and Remix artist from Sacramento, California. He has been involved in music for 40 years and has put out songs that have placed on Billboard top 10. He’s placed music cues on HBO, MTV, E!, A&E, and TNT. Joe’s songs have achieved international success, but he still keeps a day job. For the last several years, Joe has been working on recreating the original Cylon voice from Battlestar Galactica.
Written by Doug Siebum
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In this article, Joe Grandberg talks about using analog gear to recreate robot voices, mainly focusing on the Cylon voice from Battlestar Galactica.

JG = Joe Grandberg
DS = Doug Siebum

DS: What started your obsession with the Cylon voice?

JG: I like to keep a list of things that I want to Google and research. So about four or five years ago, I was just sitting on a nice sunny day, like, “what was that thing? Oh, yeah.” because I like electro music, from the 80s, and Egyptian lover, and Miami bass music. They use a lot of vocoders in that music. I was like, “what about that Cylon voice? Did they ever figure out what vocoder that was and how they made it?” I started researching it. There was a lot of discussion and speculation, and there was a guy back East and another guy in the Netherlands, who, between the two of them, narrowed it down, it had to be the EMS vocoder. This one guy is crazy, he bought the Bode and the Moog, all these expensive vocoders, and tried them out, and he believed it was a magical oscillator and the other guy in the Netherlands kind of figured out, hey, this is a modified pulse width thing, and that’s the most likely candidate. I get this kind of sound, but it’s incomplete.

The guy who had the biggest Battlestar Galactica website, it was so huge in detail that I was like, “man, who even has a website like this? Who is this guy?” And it turns out he lives 15 minutes away from me. Out of anywhere on the whole planet, the guy was my neighbor. So I met him and he is a huge fan and he knows some people who worked on Babylon 5 and the Battlestar Galactica: Razor show from 2007. That guy had the original surviving guy’s phone number in his pocket. He had consulted him. I don’t know how his first job at age 18 was Universal Studios, but I did the math on his age and he would have had to have been like 18 or 19.

All the best gear that people lust after now, it’s all the stuff that was involved, you know, the RCA 44, ribbon mic, Electrodyne console, Collins compressor, Fairchild 660, Universal Audio 175B, the whole process of editing and producing audio in 1978.

I got his phone number and I got him on the phone and he was like, “oh, yeah, I was there. I did that process.” He told me all the gear and the synthesizer. It totally blew my mind. I put in my video series on YouTube. All the best gear that people lust after now, it’s all the stuff that was involved, you know, the RCA 44, ribbon mic, Electrodyne console, Collins compressor, Fairchild 660, Universal Audio 175B, the whole process of editing and producing audio in 1978. The gear they had, 35 millimeter film, the LA-2A, Ampex 350, this Cylon voice touched all of these pieces of gear, and the mojo that makes all that stuff great is the reason why it became obsolete. They built a better mousetrap. It doesn’t alter your sound as much, but the software EQ versus inductors and tubes and transformers, we have nostalgia for that sound. Led Zeppelin, I’ll use that as an example. When the levy breaks, boom, shake, boom, boom, shake, anybody could sit down at a drum and play that, but that production, that sound, is not even duplicatable.



Voice of the Cylon Pt. 1 The Synthesizer


Joe Grandberg’s video series on recreating the Cylon voice

The Cylon voice, even due to the finickiness of the ARP and the preamp levels, he said that there are times he went to dial in the tone after lunch compared to what they did before lunch and it was different. All these studios got rid of all this tube analog stuff a long time ago, but the sound impression that it left on history, when you’re flipping channels and you hear an old movie or you hear old songs, you can tell. You go out further into the fifties doo wop era. There’s just this, they call it moldy oldies, because there’s this other sound that’s from all the type of gear that was used in that era. And now they made recording gear super precise and clean, and it’s kind of sterile compared to that. We have so much nostalgia for this type of slight harmonic distortion that’s soft and pleasing and pleasant to the human ear and people of a certain age and beyond just really like it.

So, it was cool to slowly get a trickle of information from this guy. I sent him a demo file. He’s like, “well, that sounds pretty good, but I don’t think you’ll get it without the Electrodyne console that it was mixed on.” So I got some 500 series Electrodyne modules, and fooled around with that.

The thing is the human voice for the vocoder, nobody knows who spoke the lines. It was kind of lost in the sands of time. He said they brought him the voice on a Nagra, there was no label. The Screen Actors Guild, I’ve emailed them, had some people try to research, and some other people at Universal. It’s possible the records burned in the 2008 fires at Universal Studios. Nobody seems to know, but Peter Berkos, the original sound designer and creator of the Cylon voice, told me he could picture the guy, but he can’t remember his name. Peter just passed away February 2nd, I want to say, 2024. He said he was a white guy, muscular build, well known athlete, like a boxer or a wrestler. Glen Larson chose him for his voice. My theory is after they did audition, some English voiceover actor. So, the Cylon almost had an English accent, but it didn’t go through.



Interview with Cylon voice creator Peter Berkos 2022


Interview with Peter Berkos

Peter Berkos had his demo file. I imagine that Glen Larson would have got on the mic to test this out, this new toy that came out in 1977. The EMS 1000 Vocoder. And he, from those at least three trials deduced, you have to have this powerful, rich announcer type of voice like a Lou Rawls or a really rich baseball announcer voice. Not a Pee Wee Herman, Kermit the Frog type of voice. So he found this guy, who was probably cheaper than Michael Santiago, who was slated to do it. He admitted to my friend in an email that, “yeah, they hired me to do it, but they got someone cheaper.”

Because you didn’t really need a brand name voice for that, because it wasn’t recognizable. Like, you know, they hired Eddie Murphy for Shrek. They could have hired anybody with a comical voice, but that was a big brand name that they brought to the table. So I’m not sure who this guy’s voice is. And even if I knew, and I’ve discovered this, you can’t trick the vocoder into thinking it’s someone else’s voice. You know, in that movie, The Terminator, he can replicate anybody’s voice and trick people on the phone? You can’t do that. The vocoder knows. It’s more than just frequency, it’s formants, and overtones, and harmonics, and that helps the filter bank decide what frequency is going to be divided into what slot.

I’ve been playing with some other vintage EQs from the era and some things. It only goes so far. I’ve done formant shifting on the vocoder. And you can hear how it’s all about that guy’s voice in a sense.

they have the UREI 565 little dipper filter bank in every room.

Peter Berkos told me and confirmed there was an external EQ used on the voice when they recorded him and my other source had told me they have the UREI 565 little dipper filter bank in every room. So the laws of probability told me it had to be that one. I had actually ruled that thing out and sold it, so I bought another one. It was kind of cool. It came from KPFA Berkeley, which I grew up listening to jazz on. I started trying outlandish weird things and, you know, without getting super gritty into the details.

The weird thing about the Cylon voice is, the carrier of the synthesizer tone, going into the vocal and the human voice, share no frequencies in common. So the vocoder is trying to stamp a sound onto another sound that it shares no frequencies in common with. So what you’re hearing is like a reaction, like inside a nuclear reactor, there’s these two things come together and something unpredictable happens. Normally you find some harmonically rich sound, like a sawtooth wave or mixture, and you have a nice fat compressed EQ voice. And this is different. It’s, a very, very thin frequency spectrum of the human voice with the bassy hum, coming from the synthesizer of a certain pulse width modulated square wave with, I believe a sine and a triangle, all the same sync. When you turn the knob, you can find it, thanks to Janec Van Der Lans in the Netherlands. He discovered that about 15 years ago. But no one could ever guess, the preamp, the mic, the tape machine, the tube limiter. There’s between two and four monster powerhouse tube limiters involved in every single one you hear, and I’ve not yet got the mastering chain. I don’t know if I ever will.

Peter Berkos said that was the best audio production he ever did, and it got no recognition. And it really is, when you listen to the show, it’s like a hit record. The mixing, the noise reduction that they had to battle, you know, the tape hiss of the era. It’s just, it’s so magnificent in inventing all these sounds.


Ampex 350

The Cylon spaceships were a diesel engine sound effect with a Rolls Royce motor sound effect, all vocoded together to make a brand new, non existent engine sound

They used a vocoder for that Dagget character, like some kind of futuristic dog robot. They merged a toy dog barking sound effect with the real dog. The Cylon spaceships were a diesel engine sound effect with a Rolls Royce motor sound effect, all vocoded together to make a brand new, non existent engine sound, and then they would ride the faders up and down to make a fly by engine noise. I was able to glean some pretty cool information from him that he remembered, unfortunately, not the original voice actor, but I kind of get the gist of it.

It’s been a long four or five year process finding these bits and pieces as best as I can or substitute, you know? Owning a Fairchild 660 is not in the cards for me. The Collins limiter, he said was a Collins 26U-2, which is a huge monster tube limiter with two channels. He said sometimes but not often, they would split the bass and treble into the left and right by means of a crown VFX-2 crossover. I think there’s a few tones, you can really alter the rings doing that. Oh, because the output of that went into the Fairchild 660. So, there’s so much tone sculpting in that segment of the processing alone. All the dialogue was processed in the Collins, in Fairchild, to really get it level for TV broadcast.

People hearing the show audio on a 3 inch speaker for a 70s TV show, which is, I would say, not very Hi-Fi. So it had to be very limited and squeezed for broadcast purposes and intelligibility. But with the vocoder, there’s no rule. So I think they hit that pretty hard on the limiters. And then on the final mixdown, they had two Universal Audio 175Bs in the mixdown room.

I did another video about that control room. It was used in an episode of Columbo as a background prop, so you get to see the actual console that those shows were mixed on. I think they slammed that vocoder sometimes beyond belief, and those old transformers and tubes, the colors just bloom up in this magnificent way. It just took a kind of a boring, not that super interesting sound, and bloomed it up into something just unbelievable. That’s why those machines are so coveted at a high price, because they don’t make stuff like that anymore. Part of it is the metal and the processing of old transformers. I’m convinced, and from people I talk to, there’s a reason why those old transformers sound that way. And there’s probably environmental reasons and cost reasons why they can’t do it the same way. So it’s a very subtle thing, but at the end of the chain, it becomes a very big thing.

I have, after about five years of collecting this gear, I’ve managed to get three original Electrodyne modules. I still want to get the line amps. The original Electrodyne line amps I’m still hunting for, but it’s just kind of a limit to how close you can get.


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You change tubes in an amplifier and it will have a different tone. You multiply that times dozens of factors, just like two 808 drum machines can sound different from the factory, just with the plus or minus 7 percent tolerance on all the capacitors and resistors inside the unit. Different analog machines can have a little different flavor. And then you multiply that across 10 pieces of gear with hundreds of components. Plus my voice is not really ideal for the Cylon voice. It’s too muddy in the low mid range, too much mid range in the upper mid range, and not enough bottom end bass. I picture that guy’s voice sounding like Lou Rawls, just that singer, but not super deep, which is what the guy who heard it told me, but there’s a richness there. And I also believe the original ARP 2500, the components and the filters used to build that, would have been the top quality, they spare no expense. Alan R. Pearlman (creator of the ARP synth company), the designer, he was a former NASA scientist. So, you know, he was probably used to only working with the top notch products, where today’s consumer products are made with the cheapest parts possible or components possible, for market reasons. So I think ARP filters were a little bit ringier than the clones that exist.

I believe that guy’s voice activated it and paired up with those bassy rings, just enough more to, from the very get go, I’m not able to really match that tone. And then, I have a cloned RCA 44-BX mic. I do have an opportunity to try an original one that formerly belonged to Groucho Marx, I want to say. A guy I know near me owns it. I just got to get my hands on it and see, because I think, the subtle differences that a vintage transformer, the vocoder, I tried to trick it. I tried to use a digital synthesizer from the computer, from a dedicated audio card coming at double CD quality and the vocoder knows. Hey, this is digital. It’s a series of snapshots, even at 96 KHz. And it sounds terrible. And it’s like, it has to be analog. So I do use plug ins to try to steer the tone as much as I can.

The process, I think that at the end, the Cylon voice hit tape about five times. It went out of the LA-2A directly in the inch and a quarter, 35 millimeter full stripe, taken to another room, passed through the Collins and the Fairchild, onto an Ampex 350 to stop. And I don’t understand how the sync works with that. With human actors it’s got to be dead on for the sync. There must be some kind of code. I’m not familiar with how they manage that. But anyways, bounce back from the 350 to 35 millimeter. I don’t know how many times, it got dubbed in the meantime, I picture video editing where they cut the actual magnetic tape, the film reel on a chopping block and then cut the scenes together.

Joe Grandberg holding a blue Collins
Joe Grandberg holding a blue Collins

Then you have to print the final episode as you master it. And then that got bounced to an Ampex quadruplex tape machine, which is for broadcast purposes. And there was an optical tape machine in there in the mix. And then the high frequency on that stops at like 8 KHz. So, as you have high loss from tape, the Dolby A noise reduction compensation is a big part of the sound, Dolby A. There’s just this dull, pillowy thing. I think in the mastering, there’s some kind of de esser, like ducking. You know, everything is at one frequency. What’s the word that I’m looking for? I don’t know if they had that type of thing back then or if they invented it. A downward expander. There’s some kind of downward expander you can see when you watch this type of spectral analyzer of that show. It drops off deep at 3 KHz and then at 5 KHz everything disappears. But it’s still so detailed and clear because there’s just this lush, huge quality to that huge 35 millimeter tape audio. And going through all those transformers and tubes back and forth through the console, it just kept getting bigger and ringier and deeper.

It’s the result of the filmmaking process and editing process in 1978.

It evolved so there’s no knob you can turn to get that sound. It’s the result of the filmmaking process and editing process in 1978. So, I’ve been tweaking away at it. I have a really good idea. I know, exactly what they did with all the EQ settings, but my voice is a different sonic imprint than that guy’s, and that’s the big question mark factor that, it’s not even duplicatable.

I do have a couple more things I want to try. This Little Lab’s Voice of God. It’s like a super resonant peak filter meant for giving you a rich announcer type voice, and it works on kick drums and toms too. I want to try one of those. And I want to try a formant shifter on my voice going to a BOSS VT4 or something like that. Just to see if I can change the spectrum downward a little bit towards a deeper voice. I think you’ll be able to tell. That’s that kind of like, hostage ransom phone call they use in the movies to disguise their voice. But just a few things, the downward shift a little bit to get out of my space. If I meet the right person. I hear them talking. I would have them do some voice demo stuff for me to see if it works.

The guy who was originally trying to find this and hit a dead end like anyone else would, years ago. He has a much bassier voice than me. He’s been building a parallel system as I’ve been building mine. As I tell him this information and his voice is a very deeper voice announcer type voice and his tones come out totally different than mine. No matter what I do or anything he does, you can just hear it’s like a high resolution. You know, if you blew up a picture from a flip phone with a two meg camera. It would just look like blocks and you wouldn’t even recognize your own mother. But the The EMS vocoder is a 16 band vocoder, whereas, say, the Beastie Boys Intergalactic vocoder is 11 band. So the higher the resolution, the more of the original characteristics sneak through. And if you play with a software vocoder that gives you 100 bands of resolution, it sounds like your voice, but with a glassy, kind of creamy quality to it.

So it was just the perfect, you know, let’s face it, if you’re a music engineer, gear lover 1978 would be a good year to go back in time and go shopping. Am I right?
 

EMS Vocoder
EMS Vocoder

DS: Right. So, do you know what studio it was where this was originally done?

JG: Universal Studios. I don’t know how many studios were in their facility, but as I said, they used that actual room in a Columbo episode where a murder takes place in a music or a television studio. And since they were already in a studio, they just put a different name on the outside of the building and filmed. They took all the Universal Studio logos down and filmed it there. And then you can see in the background through a vocal booth or through a glass window, the edge of the Electrodyne console in the other room where the Cylon voice was actually made.

It was pretty cool. My contact, he usually doesn’t email me or he never emailed me unless I pester him with a question. But he said, “hey, I was watching TV the other night and I saw my old studio where I used to work. It’s in this Columbo episode.” I tracked it down and it’s a Quad 8 console where they mixed that show down and other shows of the era. I think they did Incredible Hulk and stuff from that era in there. Then he said later in the 80s, they changed consoles to like a Mitsubishi or something, and he preferred the older stuff. Wherever their big mixing studio production facility is in Southern California.
 

DS: Joe, can you tell me about yourself and your background with sound and music?

JG: Yeah, I started playing saxophone in the third grade. I grew up listening to jazz and classic rock. My dad was like half John Coltrane, half Jimi Hendrix. So that’s what I grew up listening to and wanted to play saxophone because this cool guy down the street played it and it’s a pretty cool instrument, right? So I was eight years old and I dove headfirst into that. I’m very left brain or whatever the reading and heart side brain is. I could read music instantly.

I just soaked it up and I played it through high school, jazz, and in college. I actually went to the University of Nevada, Reno for two years to be a music teacher. But when I got exposed to MIDI and electronic music production, I was like, this is what I want to do. Like in the late eighties, rap music samples, a lot of heavy funk, soul R&B, James Brown, Funkadelic, that type of stuff. I was like, Hey, that’s cool. Two bar loop is cool, but I want to hear the whole song. I liked what they were doing with the sampling. When the copyright laws changed in 1986, it was no longer a wild West of just looping anything and adding drums and keys to it. So I was hooked. That’s what I wanted to do.

I thought, “well, the future doesn’t have a lot of employment for saxophone players, so let me get into this commercial music thing.” And I got into electronica, dance, West Coast, Bay Area, freestyle music, which is like early eighties. It’s influenced Miami bass, a lot of drum machines and synthesis stuff.

I got into the game too late. Corporate radio has done away with big shows and the DJs being the gatekeeper of community, of music. Everything’s seems to be handed down from a three ring binder now. So the small independent little music labels dried up and the whole world changed for music consumption and creating and listening.

I decided, fairly recently, I had my fun, I’ve done all the remixes and things I wanted to. I have about 120 something music cues that I submitted to a company over the years that have ended up on MTV, TNT, and HBO. HBO Vice used a lot of my cues, electronic based stuff. I was pretty happy that one cue that I did that was heavily influenced by the John Carpenter soundtrack from The Thing, they used during an interview with John Carpenter and it was just full circle because his music really influenced me.

And now it’s just a hobby. This one thing captivated me and I was like, “man, you know, they didn’t document anything.” My source said that back then everyone was so busy, engineers didn’t take selfies in front of their consoles. It was everyone trying to get the work done and they unfortunately didn’t do any behind the scenes stuff on the Cylon voice.

Cylon Autopsy
Cylon Autopsy

There’s a few prototype costume artworks that can be found on the internet. But this whole crazy thing of this brand new vocoder and synthesizer thing, they didn’t document any of it at all. And when the show gets canceled, they throw away stuff, it’s a fire sale. Get this junk out of here.

Look at Star Trek, that show was considered a failure in 1969. It’s gone on to generate billions of dollars over the decades. There was props and things from that show they probably threw away that would be worth, well into the six figures now, right? My source says he thinks there’s a good chance that the original vocoder might still be there somewhere. Someone else I talked to who worked there said they did sell off all the analog stuff a long time ago. I’ve checked with archive people there, trying to see, and they don’t have any trace of it. So I’ve kind of gone down as many avenues as I can, but I just like electronic music and sound design. This is one thing that influenced almost the whole genre of electro rap, robot voice music, that was a feature in a lot of styles of music.

No one ever has known. So, I got set out on this mission. Once I talked to that guy the first time, I was like, “okay, there’s got to be more.” And then he finally told me about the ribbon mic, which is a big part of the sound. And this is just a job he did 40 years ago. He’s not excited about it. It’s like, “yeah, I’ve been there, done that.” So I bug him and pester him and find out finally after like the third or fourth time asking him, I said, “man, some of these scenes are really compressed harder than others. And, you know, look at this wave form. What’s going on here?”

He said, “Oh, that’s the Universal Audio 175B.” People are asking like 15 grand for those, you know? I’ve never seen a Collins 26 used. I think the serial on mine is like 600 range and they’re all the ones I’ve seen for sale are under that. In my quest to find this gear, I’ve talked to a lot of people who are like, “yeah, they threw a lot of this stuff away.”

Cylon Gear setup vocoder EMS
Cylon Gear setup vocoder EMS

They threw away Fairchild 670s. This one guy said that he got wind of them throwing about 10 or 12 original LA-2As in the dumpster. And these big companies like CBS and Universal Studios, they knew this was awesome gear. It was obsolete, but it was still good, but they didn’t want you or me buying it and starting a production house down the street. And it was just a tax write off for them. So, just imagine, original LA-2As and 175Bs and Fairchild limiters and Ampex tape machines going into the dumpster. It’s a crime against humanity. But nobody knew how coveted they would be in the future. It was like, “yeah, it’s the 80s, we have solid state transistors, IC chips. Look how rad this is.” That was the thinking. I get it. They built a better mousetrap for a cleaner, more consistent, more repeatable, more recallable audio and it just kept evolving and evolving. Now you have almost digital perfection, but where’s the flavor? Where’s the mojo? I don’t think it’s even legal to build and manufacture a vacuum tube in the United States for some kind of environmental reasons. Most of them are made in China, Russia Lithuania, different places. I understand you can’t cut a vinyl record in California for some of the chemicals involved in the process.

I’m trying to find some parts for my Otari tape machine, which is my substitute for a 35 millimeter, because me owning a tape machine the size of a refrigerator, it’s just not in the cards. So that’s my substitute there, and all this stuff is, in 20 years, there’s not going to be anyone alive who worked with this stuff as far as techs and repairs. That generation’s leaving, and tape is such a big part of the sound of almost a century of music. It’s kind of sad.

you can’t emulate the process of five trips to huge, lush tape through tons of tubes and inductors and transformers and over and over bouncing and merging and layering and mastering. It’s just a soup

I understand there’s some company manufacturing a new reel to reel, but it’s playback only. There has been a resurgence of companies making tube compressors, tube EQs, and stuff like that, variable compressors, just because it’s such a big sound in computers. They can copy and mimic, but it’s just 2D. You ever walk into a, convenience store or somewhere and you see a 2D cut out of a celebrity basketball player? Out of the corner of your eye you think “oh, there’s a guy standing there” and then you look and you’re like “no, it’s a cardboard cutout.” That’s how my my feeling about plugins has evolved. There’s certain things that can do great things, but when it comes to tone shaping, if you’re starting out with a virtual instrument or something, you can never get that big space and magic mojo from zeros and ones being manipulated. That’s why, even with recording the vocoder to the computer, man, you can’t emulate the process of five trips to huge, lush tape through tons of tubes and inductors and transformers and over and over bouncing and merging and layering and mastering. It’s just a soup that is what they had. That’s what it sounds like.

Even they couldn’t duplicate it. I think a lot of that was, the ARP 2500 is finicky and you can see in my video I made. That the pitch kind of drifts on it. Some days I’ll take a drink of water when I’m doing a recording session and the whole tone will change, because it’s a very organic thing. That’ll change the resonance and frequency response just enough, you’ll start getting clicks and pops and it breaks up. Then you’ll take a drink and it’s really smooth.

I wish we could hear that guy’s voice. Like, what did he sound like? You know? I have an idea, but the show is so compressed at some point with the tape compression too. You can almost hear the guy’s voice poking out. It’s trying to poke out through the sound. I think if it was ever known and discovered, we’d hear the Cylon voice in a different way, and maybe it would almost ruin it. It would be like, “hey, it’s just that’s the sonic imprint of that guy’s voice.” There’s all the incredible recording. It’s so big. I can’t match it.

Joe Grandberg ARP MOOG
Joe Grandberg ARP MOOG

No matter how many limiters and compressors I throw on my recordings and my masters, even after going through an LA-2A, a Collins, and a 175B clone. That magical lush tape compression and, I assume they’re mastering with something like, two Pultec’s and the Fairchild 670 and everything they had was that caliber of everything. When your whole entire long signal chain is that caliber of stuff that has that unduplicated magical quality to it, and that’s why that stuff sells for big big bucks today, because they just don’t make them like they used.

I’m having fun with it. I’m trying to find creative ways. I found this plugin called spectral conquest. That’s like a thousand band type of spectral EQ, and you can draw curves with the mouse and notch out little tiny things and try to match the rings. I think there’s certain things that are limited. An ARP 2500, there’s maybe 50 functioning units that are known to be left in the world, and they’re worth like 200 grand. I can never own that. I understand there’s a guy in Europe who makes the modules that operate at the original voltage. I may try to get my hands on one of those one day and see if, you know, it’s like not all sine waves are created alike. Even just between a vintage Moog and a DX7, if you go into waveforms and play the same thing, they’ll have a different timbre, slightly different EQ and characteristics just based on the circuitry that’s generating them.

I don’t know if my CMS Eurorack clone has given me all the ringiness that the original had. I feel like it’s not, but it’s close. These things get magnified in with all the tape and tube compression. So It’s just a hobby, you know. I’m working and trying to crack and no one can guess the information, but luckily I got a hold of that guy and I got to speak to this original creator and got a few things from him. I think I know exactly what they did, but it’s not really duplicatable 100%. So I’m trying to squeeze out as much realism as I can. Maybe I’ll audition some other guys with some better voices than mine when I get a chance too, to see where I can take it.
 

Cylon helmet
Cylon helmet

DS: Have you ever tried to recreate any other robot voices?

JG: I did stumble across, accidentally, the voice from the late 60s movie, Colossus. Which is what Terminator kind of stole the plot line from, about a giant global defense system that took the reins of global defense out of human decision making. And the interface of this computer have this monotone robotic voice. I’ve heard rumors that that’s what Glen Larson wanted to model. This inhuman, unthinking, unfeeling voice, and I was playing with some distortion plugins and I accidentally just recreated it. It’s weird, I had a sample back in the late 1990s of that audio from the Colossus movie. I am a machine. I am vastly superior to humans. And it was such a weird sound. It stuck in my head, but I didn’t know where it came from. Then I found that movie on YouTube. I was like, “Oh, I heard that sound like 30 years ago.” That’s how my brain works, like a catalog, it’s weird. I believe that was some kind of a distortion. The guys at the electronic shop, where I’ve had a lot of my gear serviced said they accidentally recreated it, fixing a guitar amplifier.

I came across some pre production scenes, one or two, from Battlestar Galactica, where the Cylon voice was different. It was a different set of waveforms, and they blended in the onboard oscillator from the EMS vocoder, which creates a chorusing effect, and I was going around with some stuff and accidentally stumbled across that and recorded it. It was like he was trying to decide. You’re sitting in front of an ARP 2500 and the EMS vocoder, and you’re trying to decide what you’re going to do, and he actually printed some scenes with some variations. The final one, I think, is way cooler. One they did was just white noise only, and it was very hard to understand. Just a hissing sound because I guess in the plot the Cylon Imperious Leader was comprised of some lizard people. You only ever see that one supreme leader character with some kind of reptilian being, and that I don’t think would have worked, broadcasting over the airwaves and to rabbit ears television receivers. There is film of that where it’s just hissing white noise sound. So they started off one direction and ended up totally different with this bassy, ringy thing. Which ironically, to me, it fits the character. It’s like this steely, metallic ringing sound. Just because of all the Dolby noise reduction and tape compression. The buzz, the buzzing component is so stuffed down into the tone. It’s like this bassy ring, which I can see why people have said they had a hard time understanding it. I was around in 1979 and 1980, and being a kid watching cartoons, I remember how bad the TV sounded. So that’s probably what the problem was.

Other than that, I know when I watched one of those early 2000 Star Wars sequels or prequels, I forget which they are, the clone character was just a straight off the shelf bought Boss VT-1 voice transformer from the music store. Which I thought was really uncreative. They just went to the Guitar Center and bought this little box and boom, there’s your robot voice. I only knew that because I had owned one of those at one point.

I do like playing with plugins. I try to make modern Cylon concepts, just in case they ever do a reboot or a remake and I get an opportunity to do some voice sound design for that. It’s fun because it’s an endless world of distortion, pitch shifting, harmonization, modulation. It’s just endless. It’s the coolest stuff you can come up with. So, I do tinker around with that, but other than that, that’s pretty much it.
 

DS: I think that’s about it. Do you have anything else that you’d like to add?

JG: Yeah, thanks for talking to me. This is some good stuff. I appreciate it. Someone commented on my video “I’ve waited decades to know this. This is what the internet was made for.” Everyone’s got their thing that they’re interested in. You know, rebuilding a Chevy small block engine or how to do this or that. And if you’re a synthesizer lover and you know science fiction history, this is it. Can you imagine if they made a Star Wars or they just hired some dude to do Darth Vader’s voice? They didn’t write it down or get his phone number. They decided they wanted to make more movies and it was like “hey, who spoke the words for Darth Vader behind the mask?” “Uh, I don’t know, some guy. He had a deep voice.” It would be a nightmare. I understand they used a vintage piece of gear called the Marshall Time Modulator on that voice, which is rare and expensive and it does this super tight flange that’s like this constricted, hollow, uncomfortable feeling of a few milliseconds. They shift it off, then it just holds there and that gives Darth Vader that kind of unhealthy metallic sound to his voice. But it’s frickin, James Earl Jones, you know what I mean? That’s so iconic. You need to, when you make a movie that iconic, you need to keep that formula and that recipe. And they didn’t do that with the Cylon voice. Just this one guy who’s quietly, still working in the entertainment and visual arts world down there knows this and it’s never been published.

Fortunately I have some credentials to talk to him, having a Billboard number 10 and an iTunes top 10 under my belt for electronic dance music production. When I introduced myself, he knows I’m not some yahoo, who won’t understand what he’ll tell me if I ask him these questions. So it’s been pretty cool to be able to communicate with him and he’s been cool. I try not to pester him too much, because, you know, I could be like a kid in a movie, who was it, Uncle Buck, when he was asking him endless questions. Yeah, there’s so much stuff I want to know, but little by little, it’s coming together.
 

A great big thank you to Joe Grandberg for sharing his experience in sound designing robot voices! You can find Joe Grandberg on YouTube here.

 

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