The first digital pitch shifter: Lexicon Varispeech

When I was planning my “editorial calendar” for the next few weeks, I had planned on discussing the Eventide H910 Harmonizer as the “first digital pitch shifter.” I even described the H910 as such in an earlier blog post. However, it turns out I was wrong. The Lee article that I discussed in my previous post describes what is probably the first commercially available pitch shifter, the Lexicon Varispeech:

The Lexicon Varispeech was introduced in 1972, a good 3 years before the H910.  The Lexicon Pro website makes only passing mention of the device, describing it as a “Lexicon product for the language instruction market.” Fortunately, the Obsoletetechnology blog has a nice overview of the device, including photos, gutshots, and sound examples. The following image is taken directly from the aforementioned blog post, which you really should read:

Interestingly enough, for a device that was marketed as being used for speech and time compression, the Varispeech 27Y has a feedback knob. This is solely for use as a special effect, and was prominently featured on the H910 and H949 harmonizers of later years. I am uncertain if this was in the 1972 Varispeech, or if the 27Y was the original Lexicon model or a later version. If anyone has any info, please contact me.

Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie describes his use of the Lexicon Varispeech in an EQ Mag interview, where he also notes the incongruity of the feedback knob on a device used for time compression and expansion:

There was a lot of speech pathology research developed at Lexicon that was cross-purposed into pro audio. The Varispeech was originally intended to help stroke victims and people with speech disorders. The idea was that you could slow down a conversation at regular pitch but keep pitch where it was so that people could practice figuring out how to reconnect their mouth and their brain.

There was this weird period where [Lexicon was] screwing around with it; I got one that had a feedback knob, which as far as I can tell is completely useless for speech pathology, but it makes everything sound like Doctor Who, which is awesome.

It sounds great under the snare drum, and Tegan’s vocals run through it on ‘The Cure’ when she does the ‘Oh, uh oh, uh oh’ thing. The Varispeech is a really cool chorus-y, flange-y thing if you set it up that way. But it’s a speaker destroyer, too. It’s an old [’70s] effect, and Lexicon wasn’t worried about being sued by guys who were like, ‘You blew up my guitar amp, dude!’

Comments (9)

  • synthetic

    I love those kinds of buttons, the clear button with an orange indicator that would open up underneath. Back when a mechanical switch was cheaper than putting in an LED.

    Vintage digital, love it.

    • The Obsoletetechnology blog has pictures of the inside of the unit. There is almost nothing in there. Which is weird, as most early digital units are packed full of stuff. Which makes me think that the 27Y is a later unit, with a custom integrated circuit to do the heavy lifting.

      I agree, that is one good looking piece of hardware. Those knobs would probably cost a fair amount of change nowadays.

  • Curt

    Hi Sean,

    I just bought one of these weird Y-machines and I wonder if it fully working because it is really noisy; also when not when no signal is fed and teh feedback = 0 it produces noisy strucures.



  • Chris Mills

    I have a model 26 that I recently acquired, but I can find hardly any info on it..Does anybody know anything about this device?

  • Gary Hall

    Hi. I worked at Lexicon starting in 1977. The original Varispeech rack unit was the Model 26, no feedback knob. By that time, Lexicon delays had certain amount of presence in studios (they were originally designed for speaker synch in architectural installations) & the Model 17 was cooked up to appeal to those customers. Not very succesfully. Both units were based on a small board (Model 20) which had a custom chip designed to be built into a variable speed cassette deck (Varispeech II). Although Francis Lee’s paper is 1972, I’m pretty sure these hardware implementations date from mid-70s. btw, they all sounded like dog meat. 8-bt sound, really crude splicing algorithm.

    • Sean Costello

      I LOVE hearing this history. Thanks for your post, Gary!

      I’ve only heard one Varispeech in the flesh, and I think it was broken. I’m not sure how non-companded 8 bit delays could sound good at all. The crude splicing algorithm seems to contribute to the awesome “laser gun” effects when the feedback is turned up.

  • Gary Hall

    The sole criterion for the splicing algorithm was speech intelligibility, for use in cassette audiobooks. In truth, Dr Lee was not an audio person at all. Although Lexicon was started on a profitable contract from Gotham Audio for audio delay lines, Lee thought this to be a total flash in the pan and that the company’s growth depended on moving out of the professional audio space as quickly as possible.

    Luckily, not everyone in the company was thinking the same way… The company’s first prominent success was the 1978 Prime Time Delay, coming at a time when studio biz was booming. Digital delay was a big buzz at that point but not much usable product was available. The PT filled the bill and was a very hot item

    The real breakthrough of course was when David Griesinger showed up with his rat’s-nest digital reverb.


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