Unpacking the obscure ’80s technology behind Aphex Twin’s Cheetah EP artwork





Richard D. James’ latest Extended Play pays homage to redundant technology.

“CHEETAH’S Sweet Talker speech synthesiser at £24.95 must surely be the most inexpensive way of adding synthetic speech to the Beeb,” begins one 1985 review of the defunct, notoriously complex piece if kit that lends its name, artwork and branding to Aphex Twin’s latest EP.

Made by Cheetah Marketing, a British manufacturer of microcomputer peripherals and electronic musical instruments in the 1980s (whose products lend their names to several tracks on the EP), the specific Cheetah Sweet Talker which has inspired the artwork had a particularly niche purpose.

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Made for BBC microcomputers, the Sweet Talker plugged into the main circuit board and was supposed to generate synthetic, or synthesized speech for use on television. As that same review in Acorn User explains:

To generate speech, Sweet Talker uses an approach based on allophones, which can be considered as the fundamental building-blocks of speech. When fed with a number between 0 to 63, the synthesiser chip can generate one of 59 distinct allophones, plus 5 different periods of silence. The allophone technique used in Cheetah’s synthesiser does not produce particularly natural-sounding speech, as human speech is not, unfortunately, a series of discrete sound segments. The advantages, however, are that it is easy to program, very cheap, and should allow any English language phrase to be synthesised.

Initially marketed as a new piece of kit, with a tongue-in-cheek retro advertising campaign sent to record shops, Aphex Twin’s Cheetah adopts all the idioms of the clunky micro-synth it draws on, instructing listeners to “read the owners manual carefully before attempting to operate” as well as encouraging them to make their own records from the EP.

Cheetah_sweet talker

And given that every Cheetah Sweet Talker came with a pre-recorded demo cassette (‘Beebtalk’ or ‘Chatbox’) – h/t Mr Beatnik for sourcing the photo above – it’s no surprise Aphex has chosen to make the EP available on tape too, all 2,000 of which apparently sold out in advance of the 8th July street date.

Out now on Warp and available here, check out our images of the vinyl and cassette release below, to compare with the original.