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You've Got Mail

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This episode was produced by Colin DeVarney.

How a simple soundbite on America Online became one of the most recognizable sounds of the internet age, plus the creation of a whole new musical instrument. This episode features Elwood Edwards, the man behind the famous AOL “You’ve Got Mail” soundbite, and Bosco and Maya Kante, inventors of the ElectroSpit.

MUSIC FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE

Dust in Sunlight by Sound of Picture
Fingernail Grit by Sound of Picture
Fives by Sound of Picture
Massive by Sound of Picture
Jack 12 by Sound of Picture
Tipsy Xylo by Sound of Picture
Twinkle Toes by Sound of Picture

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, and hosted by Dallas Taylor.

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View Transcript ▶︎

You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I’m Dallas Taylor.

[music in]

There are so many stories out there that we wanted to share with you, but some of the stories just don’t need an entire episode. So this show is going to be a little different. I want to present two completely separate bite-sized stories. The first is about a small little phrase that’s become one of the most recognizable sounds in recent history. And later in the show, we’ll hear about the creation of a brand new spin on a modern musical instrument. So without further ado, this is Jack Dearlove reporting on our first story.

[music out]

Jack: So, I'm sitting here, on my phone, and currently I have 17 unread emails. Most are spam, there are a couple of newsletters, there's something from a letting agent that I probably should look at more carefully.

Jack: But it got me thinking, it wasn't always like this.

[music in]

Jack: Do you remember when checking your email was a pretty major process? Turn on your computer, dial up, log in, wait for it all to load. I mean, you probably still had 17 unread emails waiting for you, but you were the boss of when they were looked at, rather than your phone.

Jack: And there was something else about that era of email that was pretty special. After you've gone through all the process of getting online, you were probably greeted by something that's gone down in Internet history. The voice of a guy who'd tell you-

Elwood: You've got mail.

[music out]

Elwood: I've been a television broadcaster since I graduated from high school.

Jack: So, this is the man himself. He's called Elwood Edwards, he's now in his mid-sixties, and the story of how he became the voice of AOL starts the same way a lot of stories do. Boy meets girl.

[music in]

Elwood: I had just purchased a Commodore 64 computer, and in a Christian chat room I started talking with a woman who was KarenJ2. I was in Gaithersburg, Maryland and she was in Fairfax, Virginia. After we had talked for several months, I invited myself over for dinner. She fixed tuna salad, I remember that... and we became inseparable.

Elwood: We were married in December 1988.

Jack: What I love about this story is that we still treat relationships that start online like they're a new thing, but this was the eighties. They're definitely not.

Elwood: She was a customer service rep for the company called Quantum Computer Services, which in 1989 became America Online. She overheard Steve Case, one of the principles of America Online. He was discussing with some programmers the idea of adding a voice to the software.

Elwood: Karen volunteered me, and on a cassette deck in my living room, I recorded, Welcome! You've got mail. File's done, goodbye.

Jack: What did you think of it when you heard it for the first time?

Elwood: Well, I've been an announcer, even though you wouldn't know it by my voice today. Gee whiz. I've been an announcer my entire broadcasting career. I started in radio while I was in high school, then I was always a staff announcer at the various TV stations I worked at.

Elwood: So, it was nothing new to me to hear my voice coming out of a little speaker. I didn't really think anything of it at the time.

Jack: “I didn't really think anything of it at the time.”

[music out]

Jack: It was just an average day in a series of average days. It was one recording, three little words that are still in use today.

Elwood: I don't think anyone had any idea what it would become. Certainly, had I realized it at the time, I would now be retired, but I'm not. Even today, I have an AOL account, email account, but if you go on AOL.com and then you either open your mail or you create an email account, when you sign onto that and you have new mail, you still hear me say, you've got mail.

Jack: I will be honest. The first time I heard it, El's voice is still there, I couldn't believe it. I actually went and signed up for an AOL account myself, just to double check, and yup. There he is.

Elwood: You've got mail.

Jack: But he's not the only voice you could have over the years.

[music in]

Elwood: Along with the history of all of this, AOL used to have an occasional, I guess it was an annual for a while, celebrity voice contest where users of the system could change from the default voice, mine, to the voice of various celebrities who had recorded the phrases as well.

Elwood: I know Mick Jagger said...

[SFX clip: Mick Jagger: You've got some letters.]

Elwood: But fewer than 20% of the AOL subscribers, throughout the years, had elected to change from my voice.

Jack: El is really proud of this, you can hear it in his voice.

Elwood: I would like to think they like to hear what I sounded like. I don't know for sure, but that's what I like to think.

Jack: It's almost like you've got a secret identity, you know, a bit like a super hero?

Elwood: Yeah, that's sort of true, yeah.

Elwood: It's not something I go around blowing my horn about, you know. My ex-wife used to be my greatest cheerleader. She would be the one who would open up the conversations, and then people would have me perform, if you would.

Elwood: I was on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

[music out]

[Clip: Jimmy Fallon:Elwood!

Elwood: They had me do the "Welcome, you've got mail."

Jimmy Fallon: Elwood!

Elwood: Then they had me say some other things.

Jimmy Fallon: Thank you for coming on the show, Elwood. Now, to prove that it's really you, can you say the classic “You've got mail” line?

Elwood: Welcome! You've got mail.

Jimmy Fallon: That's worth the price of admission, right there. That's enough.

Jimmy Fallon: Now, we've got some other phrases we'd love for you to say, so whenever you're ready, read the cue cards.

Elwood: Uptown funk.

Elwood: Adele Dazim

Elwood: File's done. Goodbye.]

Elwood: That was a great deal of fun, and I really appreciated the recognition. I was slightly taken aback by the audience reaction, it was rather thunderous in the studio, which I had not expected.

Jack: This is a guy who has been famous for decades, but he talks about going on a show watched by millions on TV, and online, all around the world like it was just a nice day out. Maybe that's it.

Jack: He could be milking his fame for everything it's worth, but he's not. He's just happy to have been part of your life.

[music in]

Jack: Do you ever get tired of it, at all?

Elwood: Oh, no. No, not at all.

Elwood: If anything, I enjoy the look on people's faces when they realize who I am. At the TV station where I work, I'm a News Editor, I run the studio cameras. I'm really a behind-the-scenes kind of person, I've never been one to really want to be in the limelight, but it's quite gratifying when somebody does realize who I am, and their reaction to that knowledge.

Elwood: Our world is full of people who were in the right place at the right time, and I'm glad to be one of those.

[music out]

[music in]

The decision to add a voice to America Online probably felt pretty insignificant at the time, but it really became a cultural icon. Elwood was only paid $200 and recorded it on a whim. It was a favor. This phrase has gone on to be synonymous with the early days of the internet, so much so that even younger generations know the phrase. It also made Elwood famous in a unique, hidden way. Almost no one would recognize him if they saw him on the street, case and point - here’s Twitter user Brandee Barker finding out that ther Uber driver was Elwood.

[Clip: Twitter video:

Brandee: This is my Uber Driver and he just told me something very special, that he’s the voice behind

Elwood: Welcome you’ve got mail.

Brandee: No way! Do it again! Do it again! Welcome, you’ve got mail. Yay, ok whats your name?

Elwood: Elwood Edwards.

Brandee: Elwood Edwards, thank you!

Elwood: You bet!]

After the break, we’ll take a look at another story about sound and technology. It’s about an inventor that combined our oldest instrument with modern technology to create something entirely new. After this.

[music out]

MIDROLL

[music in]

The human voice is our oldest instrument. It doesn’t take any sort of gear or technology to use it. It’s sort of the opposite of modern day synthesizers if you think about. But naturally, people have tried to blend these two opposites together to create something different and new. Our second story comes from the podcast Just the Beginning, which is about how independent creators bring their ideas to life. This story is of a husband and wife team that created an instrument called the ElectroSpit. Put simply, it kinda lets you sing like a robot. This story is reported by Michael Garofolo.

[music out]

Maya: A melodic robot. [Laughs]

Bosco: Yeah. That’s a great description. A robot…

Maya: Who has a soul.

Bosco: [laughs]

Maya: A robot with a soul.

[Bosko singing with ElectroSpit]: Oh yeah. Welcome, welcome, EeeElectroSpit…

[Bosco continues to improvise beneath intros]

Maya: My name is Maya Kante. I am in charge of business strategy, marketing, and cracking the daily whip.

Bosco: [Laughs] My name is Bosco Kante.

[SFX: Singing: My name is Bosco…]

Bosco: I am charge of engineering, the vision for the company… which is a shared vision.

Maya: Yeah, I was about to say I don’t know about that. [Laughs]

[Bosco continues on electrospit: "We’re going to give you the backstory — oh."]

Michael: I got to see the ElectroSpit when we sat down for this interview, and it looks a little like a pair of headphones that you wear around your neck… with the parts that you’d normally put over your ears — Bosco calls them soundcups — resting right on your throat.

Bosco: So, the way the ElectroSpit works, the sound comes into the soundcups [SFX]. If I put it on my neck it goes through my neck and out of my mouth. It replaces your vocal chords [SFX]. So if I talk at the same time you can kind of hear it in the background [SFX] but if I open the back of my throat now you can hear it now you can hear it oh… That’s what it sounds like.

[Music: Zapp “More Bounce To The Ounce”]

Michael: The ElectroSpit is actually based on an older instrument, called the talkbox… that was used a lot in the 1970s and early 80s… and that’s when Bosco got hooked…

Bosco: I was in middle school at the time, and I would ride in my neighbor’s ’65 Impala, and he would play Zapp, “More Bounce the Ounce”, and then we would go to the skating rink and they would have breakdancing and popping competitions, and that was the main song for those competitions. Ever since that time, I wanted to know how to make that sound, how do they do that.

[Music: Zapp “More Bounce To The Ounce”]

Michael: Bosco spent years mastering his talkbox technique. And he is a master. Bosco is one of the few go-to guys in the music business and his credits prove it. He’s played talk box on tracks by Bruno Mars and Big Boi.

Michael: So, why is he trying to reinvent it?

Michael: Well, first of all, the talkbox is notoriously difficult to play… there are some… let’s say, basic design flaws… for example… you have to try to sing while holding a plastic tube in your mouth.

Bosco: And if you hold it in the wrong place, it doesn’t sound right. And even if you hold it in the right place, it still sounds like you have a tube in your mouth.

Michael: And then, there’s Kanye.

Bosco: Kanye, okay. So, I had the opportunity to play live on the American Music Awards with Kanye West because I did this song called, “Kanye’s Workout Plan,” that I wrote, and there’s a big talkbox solo. But before the show, they’re talking about what the performance is gonna be like and it’s gonna have all these dancers and you’re gonna be moving around.

Maya:‘Cause they were doing a workout routine, dance routine.

Bosco: Right. And the talkbox is not mobile. So I’m gonna have to lip sync. Which sucks because this is my big moment to like show everybody in the world how great of a talkboxer I am and no, I’m out there doing a Milli Vanilli. That was the inspiration for ElectroSpit.

[SFX: Bosco improvising with ElectroSpit]

Maya: Some of our early prototypes we had like a person with a keyboard tie, and you know how they have those snorkeling things where they have the thing in their nose, we thought maybe we could do that.

[SFX: Bosco improvising with ElectroSpit]

Bosco: I had like an attachment to the tube, like I thought of the talkbox as the tube.

Maya: And the more you thought about it it was like that makes it so you can’t share it because it make it unsanitary. And that means that less people can use it. When you go to a studio, anybody can pick up a guitar, right? But if somebody has a spare talkbox laying around, unless you have a clean tube, nobody wants to touch that thing.

[Bosco improvising with ElectroSpit]

Michael: There was maybe no one more qualified to bring the talkbox into the 21st century than Bosco. He’s not only a musician — he’s also a mechanical engineer. He got his first big break in the music industry while he was still in college when he was commissioned to do the theme song for the TV show In Living Color.

[SFX: In Living Color Theme Song]

Michael:And it seems Bosco’s particular brand of genius that combines music and technology, it runs in his family.

Bosco: My mom plays French horn, my grandmother plays trumpet. My aunt plays trumpet. My other aunt plays guitar and sings. So, you know, Christmas carols are very lively.

Maya: I sit silently. [laughs]

Bosco: So music was a huge part of our family. And then, in addition, everybody in my family did math. My mom is a math … she was a math professor and now she’s a civil engineer. My grandmother was a math professor, but before that she was working as an electrical engineer and she was actually part of the team that invented the microwave. My mom’s first cousin invented the laser.

[Music: ElectroSpit “Now Is So Last Year”]

Michael: Like I said… Bosco seemed destined to build this instrument.

Michael: And with a backstory like this, it makes sense that Bosco and Maya really do consider ElectroSpit a family business… even if what they are doing doesn’t exactly look like a mom and pop type of thing.

Bosco: Everything for us is family, you know?

Maya: Yea, everything.

Bosco: Yea, it’s just everything.

Maya: Some people were like, “How do you work together and live together and you’re married?” And I was like, “Well, we actually really do like each other.”

Bosco: That’s right.

Bosco: But when we first got together, Maya had come from the corporate world.

Maya: There was some learning to be done about what looks like work. Entertainment looked like kick it time to me. He’s like, “No, this is a business meeting.” I was like, “No, you’re having drinks.”

Bosco: And I had never had a quote unquote job, I mean…

Maya: You’ve always been an entrepreneur.

Bosco: I’ve always been-

Maya: And people don’t think of that as a job, but it’s so much more grueling than a job because nobody tells you what to do, there’s no set hours. Like, he had way more of a job than anybody that I’ve ever known.

Bosco: Well, yeah, if I didn’t sell this particular song then I wasn’t gonna be able to pay my mortgage. So initially anytime we would face some adversity in our entrepreneurial ventures, Maya would, she started looking at the job-

Maya: Job boards.

Bosco: Job boards.

Maya: And I’d be applying for jobs and stuff. ” And he was like, “You’re just fooling yourself.”

Bosco: You’re just wasting time. Now, when we face some type of adversity or challenge, it’s “we can do it, we can figure this out, we’re gonna get creative.”

Maya: We’re doing it. It’s always we’re doing it.

Bosco: See? We’re doing it. It’s done. Consider it done.

Maya: Yeah.

[Music: ElectroSpit “Now Is So Last Year”]

Bosco: Initially, she looked at ElectroSpit as “this is Bosco’s thing. He’s the producer, he plays talkbox.”

Maya: This crucial turning point where our son was trying to give me a compliment, and he goes, “Mommy, maybe when I grow up I wanna be a music helper like you.” And I was like, “What?” I was like, “I’m a boss.”

[Music: ElectroSpit “Now Is So Last Year”]

Michael: And how about their son? Even though he’s still in elementary school, he’s already angling to take over the family business.

Maya: At his school, they had a project called The Living History of Hip Hop. His dad came in as a part of that whole project and did a demonstration of the ElectroSpit. And all the kids got up and tried it. And then after school that day, our son said, “Okay, so I need to be the salesman.” Because he said, “Everybody in class says that they each have $100, so I think that’s a good price point, around $100.” I was like, okay, you’re in the fourth grade and you’re nine years old and you’re trying to basically pimp out your classmates to buy the ElectroSpit [laughing].

[Music: ElectroSpit “No Chute”]

Michael: When I spoke to Bosco and Maya, the ElectroSpit was just about to go into production. And I couldn’t help but notice that as they talked about the upcoming release, they sounded a bit like parents watching their kid grow up.

Bosco: You know, the talkbox is gonna be out there and people are gonna do all kinds of stuff. And I know that there’s gonna be some kid that’s gonna pick it up and be 10 times better than me and play it upside down or behind his back and that’s the exciting part.

Maya: We don’t wanna put any limitations on it. We’re just excited to see what other people do.

[Music: ElectroSpit “No Chute”]

That story came from our friends at the Just the Beginning podcast. The hosts Zakiya Gibbons and Nick Yulman and they present some fantastic stories on creatives making their dreams become a reality. So take a moment to go find it and hit that subscribe button... You can also find out more about the Electrospit at electrospit dot com.

[music out]

[music in]

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making television, film and games sound incredible. Find out more at defactosound.com

This episode was produced by Colin DeVarney and me, Dallas Taylor, with help from Sam Schneble. It was sound edited by Soren Begin, and mixed by Jai Berger.

Thanks to reporter Jack Dearlove and the Just the Beginning podcast for letting us share their stories. And if you happen live in London, Jack actually made an awesome app that tells you the status of the London Tube through emojis. So check that out at tubemoji dot com.

Also, if you’ve heard any other great stories about sound or read in another article about sound, be sure to send it to us. You can do that by writing us on Twitter, Facebook or by email at hi@20k dot org. Seriously, my favorite part of doing this show is hearing from our amazing listeners, so don’t be shy.

Thanks for listening.

[music out]

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