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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Save the frogs

Speak and Spell How do you grow a love of weird electronic noises in a kid? I think part of it comes from giving that kid weird electronic devices. Sure, I had a VIC-20, and later would own a C-64, but in the middle, there was something else. I had a Speak & Spell.

For those who aren't lucky enough to have grown up with these things, I will explain. It's a small electronic device which runs from 4 C batteries and lives in a rugged plastic box with a built-in handle. Depending on how old it is, it might have raised buttons or a membrane keypad like a microwave.

The basic idea was that it would ask you to spell stuff by talking to you, and then you had to key it in. The non-QWERTY keyboard seems rather odd to me now, naturally, but back then it didn't seem to be a problem. You'd type in the word and hit ENTER and it would tell you how you did before moving on.

E.T. module One really fun part about this system was that it could be expanded. In 1982, when E.T. hit theaters, they did a tie-in module which added content. There were a bunch of words and other puzzles stored on this tiny little plastic module which referred to events from the movie.

The one I'll never forget has something to do with a scene I otherwise would have forgotten from the film. One of the prompts says "Spell frogs, as in save the frogs... RIBBIT".

Yes, the little plastic box actually says "ribbit". I loved that one and would play it over and over just to hear it make the noise.

Recently, I stopped by a store and bought some C batteries just to bring this thing back to life, and hooked it up to my computer to record some samples from it. Here, some 30 years later, this little device and module both still work fine, and I can share this wonderful recording with everyone:

Isn't that great? Unfortunately, as far as I know, there's nothing else in there which even comes close in terms of hilarity.


There's more to this, though. The top row had several buttons which could be used to select modes, and it would play a short sound when you pushed them. It seemed to choose from a set of three or four sounds and you could never be sure which one you would get. I caught a recording of some of this, too.

I actually wrote about this back in 2012 and professed my love for the beeps and squawks of the Speak & Spell. Back then, I was talking about it in the context of a series of "bumpers" used by a TV station which used to play kids shows. That old post linked to a Youtube recording of some of the audio.

Unfortunately, that link is no longer valid since it's been marked private, but I did manage to save a copy of it. For the sake of preserving this data, here it is again. Listen carefully to the background noises which become easier to hear towards the end of the recording, and you should notice the same beep-boop-blorp stuff.

That's pretty solid evidence as far as I'm concerned. What else would make that noise?

Almost every key on that thing would make a noise, and I'm not just talking about mode selects and the letters. They even had a sharp funky noise which corresponded to the apostrophe (') key for some reason. I made a recording of the entire alphabet and added 5 apostrophes at the end just for the completeness. Enjoy.

I think this is one of those cases where emulation might not be able to capture the whole experience.