Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Sound of Sonovox!

You've heard the sound on radio stations everywhere; and it's all Gilbert's fault. Gilbert Wright. 

The story goes that back in the 1930s, there he was in the midst of his ablutions, shaving the whiskers on his Adam's apple when he noticed strange sounds coming from his mouth.  Being an engineer, he was moved to experiment.  That's what they do.  By mouthing words, he found that the razor sound was formed into speech.  And lo, the sound we know as Sonovox was born.  Radio stations would never be the same again.
As the technique was developed for its admittedly limited use, sound was fed into two small speakers placed on the sides of the throat.  Those sounds were transmitted to the larynx, so that they came out of the throat almost as if they were produced there.  Then, by mouthing the words you need, the distinctive Sonovox sound is created.

It wasn't long before the creative folk latched onto this new toy, and it appeared in a host of films through the '40s and '50s.  Witness this early appearance of Sonovox in the 1940 film 'You'll Find Out'. It's used to portray the voice of a dead person in a seance.  It's comforting to know that I will return to earth as a jingle singer.

The value of Sonovox was quickly identified by Gilbert's brother in law, who luckily was in advertising.  It was thus commercialised by the Wright-Sonovox company, an affiliate of ad agency, Free & Peters.  Clever move too, as it could “make a vacuum cleaner talk”.   Hence Sonovox was heard on-air as early as September 1941, in such ads as 'Stop at the sign of the Shell'; and assuring us that  pots and pans 'just loved to be washed' in a soap commercial.
PAMS, the jingle company over which every anorak swoons still, was quick to make hay from the effect.  You'll remember the cuts on-air in the UK from the pirate Radio London in the early '60s; and the same cuts (and others) on a young BBC Radio 1.   In fact, the ninth word ever 'sung' on Radio 1 back in 1967 was a Sonovox "Meew-sic".  Those incredible jingles are still re-sung to this day for retro shows like Blackburn's and Johnnie Walker's.

The sound was also spot on for the renegade pirate station Radio Northsea.  Its disembodied feel almost chiming with the station's rebelliousness.

DLT was infamous for the 'Quack, Quack, Oops' effect. Whilst I  can shed little light on the 'Quack Quack', the Sonovox 'Oops' was a PAMS creation from their Series 32 jingle set. 
JAM jingles used Sonovox excellently too. In later years, enjoy one of JAM's best-remembered cuts from the 1985 package 'Warp Factor' (cut 9).  Many a hospital radio station has bought the cut, but rarely have lyrics sounded as good as 'Serving the Universe'.  Here's JAM's eponymous hero, Jon Wolfert, showing just how the speakers are placed to make the sounds.

My first ever name check was Sonovox. £7.50 it cost me in 1979, from East Anglian Productions;  and Steve England at Alfasound (and its predecessor, Tapetrix) made good use of the effect too on such early packages as Soundsonics and Sonotronics. One of the latter cost me a little more than £7.50, as I recall.

Sonovox, of course, is only one of a number of electronic voice effects which have become part of music.  A generation will recall 'Sparky's Magic Piano'.  Sonovox was an early version of the talk box used in that production; and as the voice of Casey the Train in 'Dumbo and The Reluctant Dragon'.
With the talk box, amplified sound is fed by tube into the mouth and is then shaped before being picked up by the mic. On the other hand, the vocoder effect is entirely electronic.  Hence the oft-repeated claim that Sonovox sounds more 'human'. It is.

Jingle singer Dan Alexander reflects - and speaks re Sonovox five mins in.

Grab my new book now. Out this week!

RADIO SECRETS - An insider's guide to presenting and producing powerful content for broadcast and podcast.


  1. Great to see the full story of Sonovox told!

    I recall Sparky's Magic Piano on 78 (?) and later bought a second-hand 'EP' of it.. having no idea where it would lead...

    Somehow, as well as being 'fun' Sono is mischevious yet innocent..

    Steve England's Sono on our 1980 Trent package was as good as that made at PAMS and now JAM.. a true rado 'Art' which he loved doing..

    In 1974 I was fortunate to get a Sono namecheck on an original PAMS cut from series 18, and (edited) I can still use it 38 years later!

    The Timeless side of Radio...

  2. Len's Sonosational audio now added above!

  3. Steve England and Chris Elliott - the best Sonovox from the 80's - JAM a close 3rd.

  4. David

    Have to admit. Despite being fascinated by jingles in general and having a fondness for Sonovox, I knew nothing of your article here. Thank you for sharing and enlightening me.


  5. Pleasure, David - great to hear from you

  6. I'm not sure if shameless plugs are welcome here, but as we all share a love of Sonovox, I wanted to let you know that I've re-created the concept with a Bozavox. I just launched my Kickstarter campaign. Let me know what you think and wish me luck!

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  15. For me Chris Elliott was the sonovox king in the UK - followed by Steve England. Jon Wolfert's sono sounds too clean and perfect and I still enjoy Ken Justiss' work which you can still buy the RNI original tracks to have re-sono'd - I think for about £22 and they still sound great, especially with stereo mix outs.

  16. I recall that Rob Jones' 208 namecheck was particularly suited to this.


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