By Mike Isaacs
An unusual career combination of musical vocalist and engineer/inventor has sent Skokie resident Freddie Feldman down two different tracks in life.
The dynamic Feldman never expected those tracks to converge, leading him toward creating a potential breakthrough aid for those with neurological disorders. The assistive device he invented and continues to fine-tune provides an enhanced voice to those who have been robbed of their own because of cruel and unforgiving diseases.
Without both his music and engineering backgrounds, Feldman says, this unexpected destiny may never have arrived. He certainly never saw it coming.
“If you asked me 20 years ago what am I going to be doing in 20 years, this is not what I would have ever guessed,” Feldman said months after he gave a TEDx talk in Vienna. There, in only about 20 minutes, he summarized for a full house what he calls his “weird path” forward in life.
“When you have a disease like ALS or Parkinson’s, your brain is not really able to move messages very well to your muscles,” Feldman told the rapt audience. “Your voice becomes softer and more difficult to understand.”
Feldman’s device doesn’t move the needle forward in the fight to treat and ultimately cure diseases like Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, throat cancer and more.
But it allows those afflicted with such a debilitating disease the gift of communication when in many cases, that ability had become a severe challenge for days, months and even years.
“(These) people are still alive and their brains still work…and yet somehow they’re still forgotten,” Feldman said.
When he graduated in 1998 from Northwestern University in Evanston, Feldman was uncertain of where the future would take him. He left Northwestern with degrees in both computer engineering and vocal performance — not often considered complimentary pursuits in a post-college world.
“The tracks are parallel and I keep jumping from one to the other,” Feldman said. “Both tracks keep forward on their own in a way, and they sometimes bump into each other, which is what’s happening now.”
This split career personality is what drew him to Northwestern, miles away from his East Coast upbringing in Rockland County, New York.
“I couldn’t decide what the hell I wanted to do. I only applied to colleges that had double degree programs in engineering and music,” he said. He became the fifth person at Northwestern to walk away with music and engineering degrees simultaneously.
When Feldman talks about his diverse past, you would think he is recounting the histories of two different people.
He thought he was going to be a millionaire by age 30 with some kind of technology innovation, he says. His father was an engineer who taught him about programming and brought a robotic arm into their home. He has held several tech jobs and even now works as a programmer.
But in almost the same breath, Feldman also says he thought he was going to be a full-time touring rock star like a David Draiman. He was part of an a cappella group in high school after being inspired by Spike Lee’s PBS television show “Spike & Co. Do it A-capella.”
“It became the Bible of a cappella from that moment on,” he said. “Anyone doing anything in a cappella had seen that on television.”
Feldman’s teenage years were filled with voice lessons, participation in choirs, and ultimately forming an a cappella group with friends at Northwestern.
He was lead singer with the rock band, Gaskit, which landed one of their songs on a UPN network TV show called “Jake 2.0.” And when another of his groups, Vocomotion, disbanded, Feldman kept the name and opened his own studio.
According to his biography, Feldman produced more than 130 a cappella albums at Vocomotion, winning several Best Of College Acappella (BOCA) Awards and Contemporary Acappella Recording Awards (CARA).
All the while, he continued to work technology jobs, keeping his two diverse worlds apart. Feldman admits that he has maintained two Linkedin accounts — one for musician Freddie and one for engineer Fred.
“I think a lot of people in a cappella do that and separate things,” he said.
Feldman traces the unexpected merging of his worlds to an encounter he had 20 years ago with a fellow musician.
At an East Coast a cappella summit at Boston University, the musician confided to him about trying to strap a second microphone to his throat to generate unique sounds.
Feldman was also doing vocal percussion at the time and had interest in beatboxing, the art of recreating the sound of drum machines and other instruments with only a voice.
He made his first voice microphone using a non-elastic strap from a backpack and other things he found around the house. A plug-in box that he made allowed him to mute the mic, but there were problems with it, he said.
After working more on the device, Feldman sold a couple hundred units of an original model (TH60) and then turned to Kickstarter to fund a revised model (TH100). His throat microphone was called Thumper Throat Microphone, which he says is the only microphone created specifically for vocal percussionists and beatboxers.
One woman who contacted Feldman, however, wasn’t interested in the device for music.
An older student studying assistive technology at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Ireland, she was assigned to help two brothers diagnosed with a debilitating disease. She reached out to Feldman to see if he could create a voice microphone that could enhance their communication.
Feldman said he wasn’t sure how to do it, but he spent time studying and then repurposing his microphone for a use he never imagined.
The LADS Project
Identical twins Joe and Ben Styles were both diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy at a young age, according to their mother, Diane Styles.
“They were diagnosed at the age of 4,” she said. “At the age of 8, both lads stopped walking, by the age of 14 years, they could no longer use their hands. And at the age of 17 years, they were both ventilated, which made their speech very muffly.”
Styles said her boys, which she calls “the lads,” loved their computers and communicated through them. But their ability declined as they aged, she said.
“We tried the Dragon (software) unsuccessfully as it couldn’t pick up what the lads were instructing it to do,” she said. “(This) left the lads frustrated and they felt they had lost everything basically. It was so sad to watch them just sit there and instruct people. They gave up in the end.”
There is no cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which mostly impacts boys and is diagnosed at an early age, according to the Mayo Clinic. When Feldman in 2014 finally visited England, where the lads had moved to, they were 28.
“I created the mic but I didn’t know if it was going to work,” he said. “I brought backup lapel mics to try because if they didn’t work, I couldn’t come all this way and just leave them without anything.”
He never needed the backups.
Both Feldman and Styles remember the lads using the new devices for the first time, communicating as they had not been able to for so long. “Diane and I were crying in the kitchen,” Feldman recalled. “I have this tendency to tear up. I do a lot of crying with the people who use this.”
Feldman’s device did not help the physical side of the lads’ progressive disease but, significantly, their quality of life in their time remaining. Styles said they lost Joe to the disease in 2014. Now age 32, Ben can no longer use the device because he is in the last stages of his condition, his mother said.
“The slightest thing exhausts him,” according to Styles. “However, while they could use them, they were able to communicate with loved ones, which meant everything to Joe and Ben.”
Styles, in fact, said Feldman’s device gave her sons a reason to carry on — even if it was for a short time.
“For that, I will be eternally grateful to him,” she said. “My boys had back the window to the world, and what a wonderful gift to be given back. I actually call Freddie my American son.”
For Feldman, the Lads Project, as he calls it, changed his own life.
“This is when I realized I needed to make more than just a couple of microphones for the lads,” he said. “I needed to start a whole new company.”
Feldman launched VocoLabs (vocolabs.com) expressly for the assistive throat microphones he is creating. Closing in on finalizing a refined prototype, he said he has applied for patents, FDA approval and has taken other necessary measures.
There is no time-table on when the device will be available, but he said he is hoping for next fall.
“Our patent-pending system is a comfortable, unobtrusive throat microphone-based assistive device that focuses on the wearer’s voice,” the VocoLabs website states. “Building off our 19 years of throat microphone research and development, our system empowers our users to be heard again.”
According to multiple health resources, 10 million people live with Parkinson’s disease, 2.5 million with multiple sclerosis, 500,000 with ALS and thousands more with muscular dystrophy.
Feldman is certain there is a market — and more importantly — a need for his device.
A resource guide distributed by the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie addresses how the disease can affect muscles used for speaking and swallowing in certain cases. Speech pathologists there work with patients and oversee assistive devices for them.
“Assistive communication devices are any devices that may enhance a person’s ability to communicate effectively,” according to the guide. “Communication difficulties in ALS vary and can change over time. Some individuals may need only one type of device; others may move from one device or access method to another as symptoms change and progress.”
Although there are myriad devices used to help patients communicate, according to Les Turner officials, Feldman says his will provide valuable enhanced capability.
Lauren Webb, director of support services and education at the Les Turner foundation, said the foundation is always eager to see and assess new assistive devices when they become available.
“We know how important having communication options for families are and to try different things and to see if that works,” she said. “Our speech pathologists work on that, and we have a communication loan equipment program where we loan out equipment for individuals to use.”
Webb called communication in general a “critical” concern for families who have someone with ALS.
“It’s not just for them to be able to communicate within their family and share their stories, but it’s also a critical piece of working with their physician to tell them what’s really going on with them,” she said.
While most 21st century personal technology has limited shelf life, Feldman notes his technology outlives its users. He envisions VocoLabs making the new devices and the Lads Project remaining operational as a source for refurbishing and donating used devices to those in need.
The music still plays
Even with his new road taken, Feldman has never let the music stop. He continues as a vocalist in Listen Up!, a popular Jewish vocal band that performs throughout the area. But he is more certain than ever now about his true life’s mission.
Addressing his TED talk audience of some 1,000 people last fall, Feldman described his grandmother, Minnie, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease all the time he knew her. He was never able to hear her real voice, he said.
“The exciting part was when I realized I can’t go back in time and make this for my grandmother, but maybe I can make it for other grandmothers,” Feldman said.
One of those grandmothers was Denise.
A year after Feldman’s device gave voice back to the lads in England, his device was providing enhanced speech to a woman with multiple sclerosis living in a Naperville nursing home with her husband, he said.
Denise’s husband had not been able to communicate well with her for a long time, but Feldman’s device changed that.
“I was there for a couple hours, and then I went out to the car and I cried — like an ugly cry — for five minutes,” he said. Denise had reminded him of his grandmother who never had the same opportunity to reclaim her voice.
It was then, Feldman said, that his road ahead became clear and his own voice grew confident and filled with purpose.
“I’ve been part of various companies that have got into what they’re doing for what I feel are not the best reasons,” he said. “Everything has changed now. I can’t think of a better reason to do what I’m doing.”
Mike Isaacs has covered Skokie and its wide range of issues for both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times via the Skokie Review. He has won awards for both feature and news reporting and writing. His work has appeared in multiple publications in addition to Pioneer Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.