the ‘Maestrovox’, Victor Harold Ward, United Kingdom, 1952

Maestrovox Consort Model

The Maestrovox was a monophonic portable vacuum tube organ built by Maestrovox Electronic Organs in Middlesex, UK. The instrument was one of the many designs similar to the Clavioline, Tuttivox and Univox and intended as a piano attachment instrument for dance bands and light orchestras of the day. The Maestrovox was produced from 1952 onwards and came in a number of models, the Consort, Consort De-Luxe, Coronation and a later version that mechanically triggered notes from a Piano keyboard, the Orchestrain.


Maestrovox Consort
Maestrovox Consort


Maestrovox – By Charles Hayward of ‘This Heat’

I used a Maestrovox keyboard with This Heat, set up just to the left of my drum kit (alongside a Bontempi electronic organ with about 3 sounds). It can be heard throughout This Heat’s recordings and was used onstage for most of the group’s gigs.

The Maestrovox was a fascinating instrument, it was advertised second-hand in the Evening News small-ads, maybe 1966 or 68, I didn’t really know what it was that I was going to see, just that I wanted to use an electronic keyboard in conjunction with domestic tape machines and this was going fairly cheap, £15 or so. I persuaded my brother to go half although in truth he never really used it. When we got it back home the unusual qualities of the instrument slowly became clear.

Firstly it was monophonic, with priority given to the highest note played; this was heavenly, you could ‘yodel’ between notes, sometimes using the lower note as a drone, sometimes playing contrary lines in 2 hands with only 1 note being heard at any time, sort of ‘strobing’ between 2 places. The keys were highly sprung, so that on the black notes, if played very quickly, the springs would activate even faster and the rate of change between the higher played note and a sustained lower sound would be very distinctive. This sound was used at the beginning and end of the 1st This Heat album and also played very quietly for about 20 minutes immediately before a gig, a bit like a distant alarm.

Tuning was an unsolvable problem that became a fantastic strength and the predominant reason for using the keyboard with the group. There were a couple of little tuning knobs on the console of filters that were changed with a screwdriver. No matter how I tried I could not find the place where the keyboard was in tune with itself, the nearest I could get was the low D to have its octave on the E 9 notes higher, in other words a 14 note octave (instead of the usual 12). Consequently every note was slightly flat or sharp. This meant that melodies had to be re-learnt when using the Maestrovox so that the tuning would bend in and out with other ‘orthodox’ tuned instruments. When played at the ‘back’ of the group’s sound the result would be to inexplicably ‘widen’ the sound.

The 4-step vibrato didn’t seem to work properly and had the effect of flattening the tuning by very small amounts, a little more than a quarter tone at the fullest extent. A series of filters changed the sound, 5 or 6 little buttons that could be engaged in different permutations. A 2- page pamphlet had a list of filter combinations that imitated ‘real’ instruments (always a doomed idea). I seem to remember that 13 was bassoon in the lower register (a particular favourite) and oboe in the higher register. These sound filters also effected the tuning. Another row of 3 buttons changed the attack parameters, without a little ‘slope’ it was kind of ‘clicky’, like the sound was being switched on.

The keyboard was about the size of a PSS Yamaha (which is sometimes confusingly described as a ’midi’ keyboard), and had a range of perhaps 3 octaves. The Maestrovox was designed to sit under a piano keyboard as a sort of addition to the acoustic instrument, although the tuning must have made any orthodox use hilarious. There was a sort of tripod that was supposed to hold it up against the underneath of the piano keyboard, this looked very shaky and unreliable, so my dad knocked up a stand, something like a shrunken Hammond. Valves glowed inside the keyboard which was connected via a multi-pin plug and lead to an amplifier that also served as a box for transportation. Both mains electricity and sound signal were conveyed by this lead. To boost the signal I connected a pair of crocodile clips to the speaker and this was then plugged in to a larger amplifier. I’m not sure if a connection socket was fixed for ease and reliability when This Heat started touring more regularly. The volume was controlled by a knee-operated lever (I remember harmoniums used this method too), I found a way of holding this in place and used a foot swell pedal instead.

It blew up sometime before This Heat began and it was quite a problem getting replacement valves. During the recording of ‘Cenotaph’ on the Deceit album it blew up again, in fact the track starts out with 2 tracks of Maestrovox and by the end there’s only 1 because it stopped working during the overdub. Getting replacement parts was time consuming, perhaps impossible, and then other things meant that a lot of equipment held in our rehearsal studio Cold Storage got lost, including the Maestrovox. By this time This Heat had split and it’s sound was so much part of that group that I was both sad and pleased to see it go.

Charles Hayward


The ‘Clavivox’ Raymond Scott, USA, 1952

Raymond Scott's Clavivox
Raymond Scott’s Clavivox

The Clavivox was invented by the composer and engineer Raymond Scott circa 1950. Scott was the leader of the Raymond Scott Quintet working originally for the CBS radio house band and later composing eccentric but brilliant scores for cartoons for Warner Bros such as ‘Loony Tunes’ and ‘Merrie Melodies’. Scott incorporated elements of Jazz, Swing, pop music and avant-garde modern music into his compositions using a highly personal and unusual form of notation and editing. To the exasperation of his musicians, Scott would record all the band sessions on lacquer discs and later, using a cut and paste technique, edit blocks of music together into complex and almost unplayable compositions.In the 1946 Scott founded Manhattan Research, a commercial electronic music studio designed and built by Raymond Scott, featuring Scott’s own electronic devices and other electronic instruments of the period. The studio had many unique sound processors and generators including ‘infinitely variable envelope shapers’, ‘infinitaly variable ring modulators’, ‘chromatic electronic drum generators’ and ‘variable wave shape generators’. Scott built his first electronic musical instrument in 1948 dubbed ‘The Karloff’ this machine was designed to create sound effects for advertisements and films and was said to be able to imitate sounds such as voice sounds, the sizzle of frying steak and jungle drums.

Raymond Scott in his studio with the Clavivox
Raymond Scott in his studio with the Clavivox

In the 1950’s Scott started to develop a commercial keyboard instrument the Clavivox or keyboard Theremin (completed circa 1956). The Clavivox was a vacuum tube oscillator instrument controlled by a three octave keyboard (with a sub assembly circuit designed by a young Bob Moog). The instrument was designed to simulate the continuous gliding tone of the Theremin but be playable with a keyboard. The machine was fitted with three ‘key’ controls on the left of the keyboard that controlled the attack of the note or cut of the note completely, these keys could be played with the left hand to give the enevelope characteristics of the note. Other controls on the Clavivox’s front panel were for fine and coarse tuning and vibrato speed and depth. Scott used the Clavivox in his cartoon scores for sound effects (similar to the ‘eerie whine’ of the Theremin) and stringand vocal sounds. The Clavivox was inteneded for mass production but the complexity and fragility of the instrument made this venture impractical.

During the 1960’s Scott built a number of electronic one off instruments and began experimenting with analogue pitch sequencing devices. One of the prototype instruments built during the sixties was a huge machine standing six feet high and covering 30 feet of scott’s studio wall. The pitch sequencer was built using hundreds of telephone exchange type switch relays and the sounds were generated from a bank of 16 oscillators, a modified Hammond organ, an Ondes Martenot and two Clavivoxes. The noise produced by the clicking switches had to be dampened by a thick layer of audio insulation.Scott used the machine to compose several early electronic music pieces in the 1960’s including three volumes of synthesised lullabys “Soothing Sounds for Baby” (1963) predating minimalist music’s (Phillip Glass, Steve Reich) use of repetition and sequences by 20 years.

Trailer of’Deconstructing Dad‘ a documentary on Raymond Scott.

Scott’s final and most ambitious machine christened the ‘ Electronium’ (not to be confused with the Hohner Electronium ) was the culmination of his work using pitch and rhythm sequencers (the design used a number of Moog-designed components, who had also contributed to the Clavivox) . Scott described the machine as an;

“instantaneous composition-performance machine, The Electronium is not a synthesizer — there is no keyboard [it was manipulated with knobs and switches] — and it cannot be used for the performance of existing music. The instrument is designed solely for the simultaneous and instantaneous composition-performance of musical works”

Raymond Scott

In 1972, Scott became the head of electronic music research and development for Motown Records. After his retirement, Scott used MIDI technology to continue composing until 1987, when he suffered the first of several debilitating strokes. Raymond Scott died in 1994.

Raymond Scott: born Harry Warnow September 10, 1908, Brooklyn,NY
Raymond Scott: born Harry Warnow September 10, 1908, Brooklyn, NY, February 8, Died 1994 North Hills, Los Angeles, California



The Raymond Scott Archive. P O Box 6258,Hoboken.New Jersey 07030. USA.

The ‘ANS Synthesiser’ Yevgeny Murzin. Russia, 1958

The ANS Synthesiser
The ANS Synthesiser at the Glinka Museum Miscow.

The ANS Synthesiser takes it’s name and inspiration from the Russian composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (A.N.S.), whose mystical theories of a unified art of sound and light had a huge effect on avant-garde composers and theoreticians in Russia during the early Soviet period. Murzin’s objective was to build an instrument that combined graphics, light and music that gave the composer an unlimited palette of sound and freed them from the restrictions of instrumentation and musicians; a direct composition-to-music tool.

The ANS was a product of a culmination of several decades of exploration in sound and light by composers and artists such as Andrei Aramaazov, Boris Yankovsky, Evgeney Sholpo and others. To generate sound it uses the established photo-optic sound recording technique used in cinematography; this technique makes it possible to obtain a visible image of a sound wave, as well as to realise the opposite goal – synthesizing a sound from an artificially drawn sound wave.

One of the 44 photo-optical glass disks of the ANS
One of the photo-optical glass disks of the ANS

One of the main features of the ANS that Murzin designed is its photo-optic generator, consisting of rotating glass disks each containing 144 optic phonograms (tiny graphic representations of sound waves which, astonishingly, were hand drawn on each disk) of pure tones, or sound tracks. A bright light beam is projected through the spinning disks onto a photovoltaic resulting in a voltage tone equivalent to the frequency drawn on the disk; therefore the track nearest to the centre of the disc has the lowest frequency; the track nearest to the edge has the highest. Given a unit of five similar disks with different rotating speeds the ANS is able to produce 720 pure tones, covering the whole range of audible tones.

The ink covered coding field of the ANS
The programming field of the ANS

The composer selects the tones by using a coding field (the “score”) which is essentially a glass plate covered with an opaque, non-drying black mastic. The vertical axis of the coding field represents pitch and the horizontal, time in a way that is very similar to standard music notation. The score moves past a reading device which allows a narrow aperture of light to pass through the scraped off part of the plate onto a bank of twenty photocells that send a signal to twenty amplifiers and bandpass filters. The narrow aperture reads the length of the scraped-off part of the mastic during its run and transforms it into a sound duration. The minimum interval between each of the tones is 1/72 of an octave, or 1/6 of a semitone, which is only just perceptible to the ear. This allows for natural glissando effects and micro tonal and non-western scale compositions to be scored. The ANS is fully polyphonic and will generate all 720 pitches simultaneously if required – a vertical scratch would accomplish this, generating white noise.

Stanislav Kriechi at the ANS
Stanislav Kriechi explaining the coding field of the ANS

The non-drying mastic allows for immediate correction of the resulting sounds: portions of the plate that generate superfluous sounds can be smeared over, and missing sounds can be added. The speed of the score – the tempo of the piece – can also be smoothly regulated, all the way to a full stop via a handle at the front of the machine.

Murzin built only one version of the ANS, a working version currently resides at the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow. Martinov, Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, Alexander Nemtin.

“I began experimenting with the ANS synthesizer when I joined Murzin’s laboratory in 1961. The most attractive method of composing for me was the freehand drawing of graphic structures on the score, including random and regulated elements, which are also transformed into sounds, noises and complex phonations. This offers new possibilities for composing, especially using variable tempo and volume. […]

An example of an ANS score, picturing graphic structures that were drawn freehand on the mastic-covered plate. In 1961 I composed the music for the film Into Space. Artist Andrew Sokolov’s cosmic paintings appeared as moving images in the film, smoothly changing into each other and dissolving into fragments by means of cinematic devices. The light and color of Sokolov’s cosmic landscapes generated complex phonations and sound transitions in All this makes it possible for the composer to work directly and materially with the production of mind. The movement of the cosmic objects on the screen initiated the rhythms of my music. I tried to express all this by tracing it on the ANS’s score, making corrections after listening to the resultant sounds in order to gradually obtain the suitable phonation. I finally felt that the sounds produced by the ANS synthesizer on the basis of my freehand graphic structures correlated perfectly with the pictures on the screen. From 1967 to 1968 I experimented with moving timbres on the ANS and studied different modes of animating electronic sounds. During this period, I composed the following pieces for performance on the ANS: “Echo of the Orient”, “Intermezzo”, “North Song” “Voices and Movement” and  “Scherzo”. All of these were composed traditionally for orchestra previous to my work with the ANS. When I coded these orchestra scores on the ANS, I wanted to solve the problem of animating electronic sounds, so that the phonation of the ANS could approach that of the orchestra. These pieces appeared on a recording entitled ANS, which was produced in 1970 by MELODIA record label.

Later I used the ANS to help me compose the music for a puppet show that incorporated the use of light called ‘Fire of Hope’, which was based on Pablo Picasso’s works. The play was performed in 1985 at a festival in Moscow and in 1987 at a festival in Kazan by the Moscow group Puppet Pantomime, under the artistic direction of Marta Tsifrinovich. My composition Variations, written for the ANS, was also performed during the 1987 Kazan festival.

In 1991, I began working on the music for the slide composition ‘Rarschach Rhapsody’ by P.K.Hoenich, who is known for his light pictures created with sunrays. The composition consisted of 40 sun projections with abstract and half-abstract forms. ‘Rorschach Rhapsody’ was performed at the symposium of the International Society for Polyaesthetic Education in September 1992 in Mittersill, Austria. In 1993, I collaborated with Valentina Vassilieva to compose a suite of 12 pieces entitled The Signs of the Zodiac. These compositions used the ANS along with the sounds of voices, natural noises and musical instrumentation. I am currently working on a fantastic piece named “An Unexpected Visit,” for ANS synthesizer with transformed natural noises and percussion instruments”

Stanislav Kreichi 2001

Yevgeny Alexandrovich Murzin. Russia 1914 - 1970
Yevgeny Alexandrovich Murzin. Russia 1914 – 1970

Biographical Information:

Murzin began his academic life studying municipal building at the Moscow Institute of Engineers. When Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 he joined the soviet Artillery Academy as a senior technical lieutenant. During his time in military service Murzin was responsible for developing an electro-mechanical anti aircraft detector which was later adopted by the soviet army. After the war Murzin joined the Moscow Higher Technical School where he completed a thesis on Thematics and was involved in the development of military equipment including an artillery sound ranging device, instruments for the guidance of fighters to enemy bombers and air-raid defence systems.

Murzin had a reputation as an admirer of jazz but when a colleague introduced him to the works of Scriabin, Murzin became obsessed with the composers work and synaesthetic concepts. It was these ideas that inspired Murzin to begin his ‘Universal Synthesiser’ project around 1948 which was to lead to the ANS synthesiser some decades later. Murzin presented his proposal to Boris Yankovsky and N.A.Garbuzov at the Moscow Conservatory where, despite initial reluctance, he was given space to develop the instrument. Despite almost universal disinterest in his project Murzin continued over the next decade to develop the ANS prototype with funds from his own finances and working in his spare time with the help of several friends (including composers E.N Artem’eva, Stanislav Kreychi, Nikolai Nikolskiy and Peter Meshchaninov).

The first compositions using the ANS were completed in 1958 and exhibited in London and Paris. The ANS was moved to the Scriabin Museum in 1960 (ul. Vakhtangov 11, Moscow) and formed the basis of the USSR’s first electronic music studio which was used throughout the sixties’ by many world famous composers including Schnitke, Gubaydulina, Artem’ev, Kreychi, Nemtin and Meshchaninov.

Murzin and the ANS
Murzin and the ANS


Andrei Smirnov: Sound in Z – Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music The Theremin Institute, Moscow

Boris Yankovsky “The Theory and Practice of Graphic Sound”. Leningrad, 1939-1940

“Composer As Painter” excerpt from “Physics and Music”, Detgiz, 1963
Bulat M. Galeyev, “Musical-Kinetic Art in the USSR,” LlonardoU, No. 1, 41-47 (1991)

‘Oramics’ Daphne Oram. UK, 1959.

Daphne Oram working at the Oramics machine
Daphne Oram working at the Oramics machine at Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition in Tower Folly, Fairseat, Wrotham, Kent

The technique of Oramics was developed by the composer and electronic engineer Daphne Oram in the UK during the early 1960s. It consisted of drawing onto a set of ten sprocketed synchronised strips of 35mm film which covered a series of photo-electric cells that in turn generated an electrical charge to control the frequency, timbre, amplitude and duration of a sound. This technique was similar to the work of Yevgeny Sholpo’s “Variophone” some years earlier in Leningrad and in some ways to the punch-roll system of the RCA Synthesiser. The output from the instrument was only monophonic relying on multi-track tape recording to build up polyphonic textures.

Oram worked at the BBC from 1942 to 1959 where she established the Radiophonic Workshop with Desmond Briscoe. She resigned from the BBC in 1959 to set up her own studio the ‘Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition’ in a converted oast-house in Wrotham, Kent. With the help of the engineer Graham Wrench, she built “with an extremely tight budget and a lot of inverted, lateral thinking” the photo-electrical equipment she christened ‘Oramics’ which she used to compose and record commercial music for not only radio and television but also theatre and short commercial films.

“There was an octagonal room,” remembers Graham, “where she’d set up her studio, but on a board covering a billiard table in an adjoining reception room was displayed the electronics for Oramics. There wasn’t very much of it! She had an oscilloscope and an oscillator that were both unusable, and a few other bits and pieces — some old GPO relays, I remember. Daphne didn’t seem to be very technical, but she explained that she wanted to build a new system for making electronic music: one that allowed the musician to become much more involved in the production of the sound. She knew about optical recording, as used for film projectors, and she wanted to be able to control her system by drawing directly onto strips of film. Daphne admitted the project had been started some years before, but no progress had been made in the last 12 months. I said I knew how to make it work, so she took me on. I left my job with the Medical Research Council and started as soon as I could.”

“Graham Wrench: The Story Of Daphne Oram’s Optical Synthesizer’ Sound on Sound magazine Steve Marshall february 2009

Oramics machine
Oramics machine

The attraction of this technique was a direct relation of a graphic image to the audio signal and even though the system was monophonic, the flexibility of control over the nuances of sound production was unmatched in all but the most sophisticated analogue voltage controlled synthesisers. Daphne Oram continued to use the process throughout the sixties producing work for film and theatre including; “Rockets in Ursa Major”(1962), “Hamlet”(1963) and “Purple Dust” (1964).

Devizes, Wilts, 1925; Maidstone, Kent, 2003
Daphne Oram. Born Devizes, Wilts, 1925;Died Maidstone, Kent, 2003


Jo Hutton ‘Radiophonic Ladies’

The ‘Electronium’ René Seybold, Germany, 1950

The Electronium
The Electronium showing amplifier and keyboard

The Electronium A

The Electronium was designed by René Seybold and manufactured by the German company Hohner GmbH in Trossingen, Germany, from 1950 onwards. The Electronium was a monophonic electronic instrument resembling an accordion similar to Harald Bode’s Multimonica. The Electronium had a 41 note keyboard with keys or buttons and 16 ‘registration tabs’, the overall volume being controlled by the ‘bellows’ of the instrument. The Electronium came with it’s own amplifier and speaker and packed into a portable carrying case.
Carrying case of the Electronium
Carrying case of the Electronium

Electronium P

Electronium P was a piano-attachment instrument similar to the Clavioline, Tuttivox and Ondioline. The Electronium P had a three octave keyboard, transposable up or down within six octaves, controlling a single vacuum tube oscillator.The Electronium P was used in music concerts as an add-on for piano players and was much used throughout the 1950’s in Germany for both light and serious music. The Electronium P was used by several German Avant-Garde composers, Karlheinz Stockhausen used various Electronium models on “Telemusik” and “solo”(1952-6) and later on “Kurzwellen” (1968), These pieces being performed by his own group with the pianist Harald Bojé playing a modified standard Electronium.


‘Dr Kent’s Electronic Music Box’ Dr Earle Kent, USA, 1951

Dr Earle Kent's Music Box
Dr Earle Kent’s Music Box

The Electronic Music Box was a synthesis and composition device designed and built as a personal project by Dr Earle.L.Kent while employed at the C.G.Conn Ltd Company, USA, to design electric organ circuits. The Music Box was an analogue ‘beat frequency’ vacuum tube based synthesiser controlled by a punched paper strip device as used previously in the 1930’s by instruments such as Givelet and Coupleaux’s ‘Givelet’ and later on the RCA mkII and Siemens Synthesiser amongst others. The punch paper strip was a system similar to a ‘pianola’ paper reader and allowed the composer to produce musical sequences that were beyond the manual dexterity of the performer:

“The goals established for the music Box involved wider flexibility of performance than is possible in any conventional musical instrument. It was felt that it should not be confined to the usual limitations of manual keying. It should be capable of grater speed and wider combinations than are possible by manual or pedal dexterity, and it should not be limited to the equally tempered scales as are most keyed instruments. It was recognised that virtually any speed or combination could be obtained by keying with a perforated paper roll with the loss of some of the vital control usually exercised by a musician while making music and also with the loss of its conventional acceptance as a musical instrument. However, it was felt that a musician usually “records” his manual manipulation rather precisely in his brain before a concert by repetitive rehearsal and that the losses by recording this operation on paper would be exceeded by the gains”
Dr Earle.L.Kent
Dr Earle Kent
Dr Earle Kent at the C.G.Conn Ltd CompanyLabs c 1950

Although based on the established ‘beat frequency’/heterodyning principle, Kent’s instrument employed a more complex system of frequency changers to create a more interesting range of timbre and control over the shape of the note. The Music Box was designed to allow control off the ‘slurring’ of the note, formant filtering control and control of volume and depth and rate of tremolo. The Electronic Music Box was influential on the development of electronic musical instruments, Dr Kent was visited by Harry Olson who later adapted features of his RCA synthesiser to incorporate functions of the Music Box, but the Conn company chose not to exploit the commercial possibilities of the instrument.


The ‘RCA Synthesiser I & II’ Harry Olson & Herbert Belar, USA, 1951

The RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center at Columbia's Prentis Hall on West 125th Street in 1958. Pictured: Milton Babbitt, Peter Mauzey, Vladimir Ussachevsky.
The RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center at Columbia’s Prentis Hall on West 125th Street in 1958. Pictured: Milton Babbitt, Peter Mauzey, Vladimir Ussachevsky.

In the 1950’s RCA was one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the United States; business interests included manufacturing record players, radio and electronic equipment (military and domestic – including the US version of the Theremin) as well as recording music and manufacturing records. In the early 50’s RCA initiated a unusual research project whose aim was to auto-generate pop ‘hits’ by analysing thousands of  music recordings; the plan being that if they could work out what made a hit a hit, they could re-use the formula and generate their own hit pop music. The project’s side benefit also explored the possibility of cutting the costs of recording sessions by automating arrangements and using electronically generated sounds rather than  expensive (and unionised) orchestras; basically, creating music straight from score to disc without error or re-takes.


The RCA electrical engineers Harry Olson and Hebart Belar were appointed to develop an instrument capable of delivering this complex task, and in doing so inadvertently (as is so often the case in the history of electronic music) created one of the first programmable synthesisers – the precursors being the Givelet Coupleux Organ of 1930 and the Hanert Electric Orchestra in 1945.

Paper punch roll showing parameter allocation
Paper punch roll showing parameter allocation

The resulting RCA Mark I machine was a monstrous collection of modular components that took up a whole room at  Columbia University’s Computer Music Center  (then known as the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center). The ‘instrument’ was basically an analogue computer; the only input to the machine was a typewriter-style keyboard where the musician wrote a score in a type of binary code.


Paper-punch input of the RCA Synthesisir
Paper-punch input of the RCA Synthesisir
Punch paper terminals of the RCA MkII
Punch paper terminals of the RCA MkII

The keyboard punched holes in a pianola type paper role to determine pitch, timbre, volume and envelope – for each note. Despite the apparent crudeness of this input device, the paper roll technique allowed for complex compositions; The paper role had four columns of holes for each parameter – giving a parameter range of sixteen for each aspect of the sound. The paper roll moved at 10cm/sec – making a maximum bpm of 240. Longer notes were composed of individual holes, but with a mechanism which made the note sustain through till the last hole. Attack times were variable from 1 ms to 2 sec, and decay times from 4 ms to 19 sec. On the Mark II, High and low pass filtering was added, along with noise, glissando, vibrato and resonance,  giving a cumulative total of millions of possible settings.

Structure of the RCA MkII
Structure of the RCA MkII
RCA Synthesiser structure
RCA Synthesiser structure

The sound itself was generated by a series of vacuum tube oscillators (12 in the MkI and 24 in the MkII) giving four voice polyphony which could be divided down into different octaves . The the sound was manually routed to the various components – a technique that was adopted in the modular synthesisers of the 1960’s and 70’s. The eventual output of the machine was  was monitored on speakers and recorded to a lacquer disc, where, by re-using and bouncing the disc recordings, a total of 216 sound tracks could be obtained. In 1959 a more practical tape recorder was substituted.

Babbit, Luening, Ussachevsky and others at the RCA MkII
Babbit, Luening, Ussachevsky and others at the RCA MkII

It seems that by the time the MkII Synthesiser was built RCA had given up on their initial analysis project. Mainstream musicians had baulked at un-musical interface and complexity of the machine; but these very same qualities that appealed to the new breed of serialist composers who took the RCA Synthesiser to their heart;

The number of functions associated with each component of the musical event…has been multiplied. In the simplest possible terms, each such ‘atomic’ event is located in a five-dimensional musical space determined by pitch-class, register, dynamic, duration, and timbre. These five components not only together define the single event, but, in the course of a work, the successive values of each component create an individually coherent structure, frequently in parallel with the corresponding structures created by each of the other components. Inability to perceive and remember precisely the values of any of these components results in a dislocation of the event in the work’s musical space, an alteration of its relation to all other events in the work, and–thus–a falsification of the composition’s total structure…

Why should the layman be other than bored and puzzled by what he is unable to understand, music or anything else?…Why refuse to recognize the possibility that contemporary music has reached a stage long since attained by other forms of activity? The time has passed when the normally well-educated [person] without special preparation could understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, and physics. Advanced music, to the extent that it reflects the knowledge and originality of the informed composer, scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible than these arts and sciences to the person whose musical education usually has been even less extensive than his background in other fields.

I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.

But how, it may be asked, will this serve to secure the means of survival for the composer and his music? One answer is that, after all, such a private life is what the university provides the scholar and the scientist. It is only proper that the university which–significantly–has provided so many contemporary composers with their professional training and general education, should provide a home for the ‘complex,’ ‘difficult,’ and ‘problematical’ in music.

Milton Babbitt

Among the composers who used the machine frequently were the Princeton composer Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen, the latter of whom composed the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Time Econium” on it in 1968.

RCA Synthesiser
RCA Synthesiser

The pioneering RCA Synthesiser became obsolete and fell out of use in the early 1960s with the arrival of cheaper and reliable solid state transistor technology and the less complex programming interfaces of instruments such as the Buchla and Moog range of synthesisers. Neither machine survives in working condition today. The MkI  was dismantled during the 1960s (parts from it cannibalised to repair the MkII). The MkII is still at Columbia University’s Computer Music Center, but has not been maintained and reportedly is in poor condition, it was vandalised sometime in the early 1970’s and little used after that.

Images of the RCAI& II



RCA issued a box set of four 45 RPM extended-play disks with a descriptive brochure.  This set featured a narration and demonstration of the basic features of the synthesizer, and concluded with renditions of several well known popular and classical pieces “played” on the synthesizer:

Side 1: The Synthesis of Music-The Physical Characteristics of Musical Sounds (7:13, 3.3 mb)
Side 2: The Synthesis of Music-Synthesis by Parts (Part 1) (5:55, 2.7 mb)
Side 3: The Synthesis of Music-Synthesis by Parts (Part 2) (4:37, 2.1 mb)
Side 4: Excerpts from Musical Selections (Part 1) (6:05, 2.8 mb)
Side 5: Excerpts from Musical Selections (Part 2) (3:28, 1.6 mb)
Side 6: Complete Selections-Bach Fugue No. 2, Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 1 (4:47, 2.2 mb)
Side 7: Complete Selections-Oh Holy Night (Adam), Home Sweet Home (Bishop) (6:42, 3.1 mb)
Side 8: Complete Selections-Stephen Foster Medley, Nola (Arndt), Blue Skies (Berlin) (7:49, 3.6 mb)



The ‘Composer-tron’ Osmond Kendall. Canada, 1951

Osmond Kendall Composer-tron
‘This how the Composer-tron would look in your home – it may cost less than a piano’ Osmond Kendall’s ‘Composer-tron’ c1953 at the Film Board of Canada promoted as a domestic instrument (photo: Maclean’s, Canada’s National Magazine, June 11, 1955)

Developed as early as 1944 by Osmond ‘Ken’ Kendall, an electronic engineer at the National Film Board of Canada (NFBC) (and colleague of the animator Norman McLaren) the ‘Compositron’ and later the ‘Composer-Tron’ was an analogue synthesis and composition apparatus that utilised an innovative and unique control system. The Composer-Tron had a cathode ray tube input device that could ‘read’ patterns or shapes hand drawn on it’s surface with a grease pencil. The drawn shape could be defined as the timbre of the note or as the envelope shape of the sound, rhythmical sequences could be written by marking a cue sheet type strip of film:

“The Composer-tron is an electronic device that enables a composer or arranger of music to create his composition directly as he conceives it. The conventional aeries of intermediate steps—sheet music—musicians—musical instruments—room acoustics—microphones—are all eliminated. The composer produces his musical record for instant audition and he may do it in nearly the same time that he would take to compose and write a conventional musical score. The musical sounds he may use are limited only by his imagination since they may be like familiar musical instruments or completely unique.

The Composer-tron is not a musical instrument and it cannot he “played” in any sense at all. It’s designed to make records and it may be used for recording from a microphone. However, the Composer-tron is fitted with a new kind of electronic musical tone generator that may he adjusted by the composer to provide sound waves of any pitch, having overtones of any degree of complexity The tones may be made to match those of any known musical instrument or the wave structure may be set to tone qualities that could never be duplicated by any conceivable mechanical musical instrument whatever. The complex tones thus generated are shown to the composer in greatly enlarged form on a television tube screen. The composer then draws a design or pattern on a second screen. These designs may be original or they may be copied from the designs presented by recorded musical playings. Such designs often contain the elements of the “‘touch” of the musician and they can be made visible on the TV tube screen. This facility provides for the first timer means whereby the nuances of a musician’s touch may be superimposed on an electronic sound source. The design is transferred by methods similar to television. The resulting combined visible tone designs are converted into waves which are recorded and instantly auditioned over a loud-speaker.

The machine has a capacity for memorising op to 80-component instrument notes which may be finally recorded in any desired sequence. Other, facilities, such as a means for precisely timing the advent of each note, a means for developing chords directly (not necessarily derived from component notes), and a means for erasing faulty sections in a recording, etc., are all provided in the Composer-tron.”

Osmond  Kendall quoted in ‘Canadian Film Technology, 1896-198’ (Gerald G. Graham, Ontario Film Institute University of Delaware Press, 1989)

Osmond Kendall Composer-tron
” The compositron contains an oscilloscope to analyze sound patterns and a series of tapes or film on reels to record sound. Every sound has a pattern and when these patterns are played in a certain order on the films and then are played together, the required effect will be produced”
Osmond Kendall at the Composer-tron/Compositron in Maclean’s  Magazine, June 11, 1955

The purpose of the Composer-Tron, like that of the ‘Hanert Electrical Orchestra‘, was to provide a synthesis and composition tool that closed the gap between composer and performer allowing the composer to define all the aspects of the music in one session:

“At present, the composer writes his mental symphonies as black symbols on white paper. He has no way of knowing wether they’re just what he had in mind. Months or years may pass before he hears them played by a symphony orchestra. Not uncommonly he never hears his best work……with Kendal’s grease pencil, the composer can, in effect, draw the grooves in the record. Working with a Composert-Tron….he can walk out of his study with his recorded composition under his arm.”
Maclean’s  Magazine, June 11, 1955
Osmond Kendall Composer-tron
Osmond Kendall (L) and Louis Applebaum (R) at a photoshoot for Macleans Magazine analysing sound for the Composer-tron. “with the magic of electrons this inventive Canadian composes piano concertos and turns doodles into the sounds of an eighty-piece orchestra” (Maclean’s, Canada’s National Magazine, June 11, 1955)
The Composer-tron was designed primarily to provide synthesised soundtracks for films produced by the National Film Board of Canada during the post-war period of interest in hand-drawn audio soundtracks and experimental techniques (see the works of Norman McLaren and others). However with limited funding and scepticism from the NFBC the Composer-tron project ran into financial difficulties – An attempt during the early 1950’s to develop a commercial model aimed at amateur composers with funding from the Marconi Company proved unsuccessful. In desperation, Kendall and his mentor Louis Applebaum tried to keep the project alive by seeking funding from the Canadian military and the Bell Telephone Company which were ultimately also unsuccessful. The project was mothballed sometime in the late 1950’s.


‘The Art Of Electronic Music’ p46 Rhea,Tom.L. Edited by Darter,Tom & Greg Armbruster 1984 GPI Productions.

Alan Phillips, ‘Osmond Kendall’s Marvellous Music Machine’ Maclean’s Magazine, June 11, 1955. [p.54]. York University Archives, Louis Applebaum fonds 1979 -002/030.

‘Music in Canada: Capturing Landscape and Diversity’. Elaine Keillor. McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 18 Mar 2008

‘Louis Applebaum: A Passion for Culture’. Walter Pitman. Dundurn, 1 Oct 2002

Louis Applebaum, letter to Arthur Irwin, Commissioner, NFB, December 6, 1950. York University Archives, Louis Applebaum fonds, 1979-002/022

‘Composertron’ Hugh Davies. The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, 2nd edition, issue Published in print January 2001.

‘Canadian Film Technology, 1896-1986’. Gerald G. Graham, Ontario Film Institute. University of Delaware Press, 1989

The ‘Siemens Synthesiser’ H.Klein & W.Schaaf. Germany, 1959

Siemens Studio
Siemens Studio

The Siemens Synthesiser or ‘Siemens Studio For Electronic Music’ was a German development similar to the RCA Synthesiser originally to compose live electronic music for Siemens’s own promotional documentary films. Like the RCA MkII, The Siemens Studio was a modular ‘composition and synthesis system’ that generated musical sequences and synthesised and recorded the results. The Siemens Synthesiser was developed by Helmut Klein and W.Schaaf at Siemens Halske in Munich, Germany in 1959 for the Studio Für Elektronische Musik in Munich. The Siemens system linked and controlled the studio using a similar system to the RCA Synthesiser, a set of four punch paper vari-speed rolls controlling the timbre, envelope, pitch and volume of a bank of 20 oscillators, a white noise generator, a Hohnerola (a hybrid electronically amplified reed instrument marketed by Hohner-similar to the ‘Multimonica‘) and an impulse generator. The synthesiser had a tonal range of seven octaves.

Siemens studio Equipment:

Tone Generation

  1. Hohnerola: “An electronic tongue-instrument of 84 tones from C to H”
  2. An impulse or sawtooth generator with 84 tones
  3. 1 white noise generator
  4. A generator for statistic impulses which are made from white noise with the help of a trigger
  5. 4 sine tone generators [20 – 20’000 Hz]
  6. 20 special sine generators. These generators a 3 frequency spectrum, from 1r5 – 160 Hz, 150 – 1600 Hz and 1500 – 16000 Hz, with the option of continual change from sine to square wave.
  7. A tone generator based on photo-electric principles

Tone Modulators

  1. Analogue reverb
  2. Echo delay
  3. Pitch transformer
  4. Echo frequency transformer
  5. Vocoder
Programming with the 'Semi Automatic Hole-strip Punching Machine' (left: the coding console. right: the hole puncing machine)
Programming with the ‘Semi Automatic Hole-strip Punching Machine’
(left: the coding console. right: the hole puncing machine)

Additional input devices were also developed for the Siemens Synthesiser; a drawn sound technique (photoelectrically generated sounds) allowed the scanning of photographic slides using Siemens’s specially designed ‘Bildabtaster’ technology. The German painter Günter Maas used this device to translate several of his paintings into musical compositions. Later models also had a Siemens Vocoder built in as a sound controller uniquely for its time, allowing the musician to give the sound vocal envelope characteristics.

The machine room at the 'Studio for Electronic Music' (L-R:punch-paper controller, 2 four channel magnetic tape recorders, 'Bildabtaster' picture-scanner.  Foreground:2 Master magnetic tape machines)
The machine room at the ‘Studio for Electronic Music’
(L-R:punch-paper controller, 2 four channel magnetic tape recorders, ‘Bildabtaster’ picture-scanner.
Foreground:2 Master magnetic tape machines)

The development of the Siemens synthesiser continued after the Munich studio had relocated to Ulm and came to an end when the studio was dissolved in 1969. The Siemens system was used by many European experimental composers throughout the 50’s and 60’s including Mauricio Kagel, Bengt Hambreus, Milko Kelemen and the director of the Munich Studio Für Elektronische Musik, Josef Anton Riedl.

The punch-paper strip controller (Lochstreifen-Schnellsender) A synchronous-motor moves the paper strips across the reader. The 4 parallel moving strips are read by removeable steel wire brushes. The system can also be run in reverse.
The punch-paper strip controller (Lochstreifen-Schnellsender)
A synchronous-motor moves the paper strips across the reader. The 4 parallel moving strips are read by removeable steel wire brushes. The system can also be run in reverse.
Diagram explaining the punch-tape coding for the Seimens Studio
Diagram explaining the punch-tape coding for the Seimens Studio

Coding of the Punch-tape reader:

  1. Pitch: The pitch is defined by two strips. One strip chooses the octave, the second the tones within the octave. There are 7 octaves , and 12 tones within those octaves, making 84 tones in total. They can be chosen in fixed tuning with the electronic tuner or in a tuning that can freely be chosen with the impulse generator and sine generators. Combinations allow the choice of several different generators.
  2. Volume: The volume can be defined in 32 steps of 1,5 dB.
  3. Timbre: The colouring (timbre) by a choice of 14 band filters or filter combinations
  4. Duration: The duration of the signal is defined by the number of equal hole combinations in connection with the reading speed of the punch-paper strip. There are three different speed settings of the paper strip, 64, 90 or 128 signals a second. The normal speed is 64 signals per second, i.e. a duration of 16 ms per signal. The duration is a quarter note, played in Mäzel’s Metronome MM = 120, is 0,5 s which equates to 32 equivalent hole combinations, an eighth note is then 16, a sixteenth note 8 hole combination.


H.Klein:”Uber ein Apparatur zur Steuerung und Verformung von Klängen”,Nachrichtentechnische Fachberichte,cv(1959),31 Répertoire international des musiques expérimentales (Paris,1962),36.

The Siemens Museum Website

Images and details provided by Siemens Aktiengesellschaft, Siemens Forum, München.

“Klangsynthese und Klanganalyse im elektronischen Studio”, Siemens & Halske Aktiengesellschaft 1962

The Wurlitzer ‘Side Man’ Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, USA, 1959


The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company released an early commercially produced drum machine called the Sideman in 1959. It was an “electro-mechanical” drum machine that offered a choice of 12 electronically generated predefined rhythm patterns with variable tempos. The sound source was a series of vacuum tubes which created 10 preset electronic drum sounds. The drum sounds were ‘sequenced’ by a rotating disc with metal contacts across its face, spaced in a certain pattern to generate parts of a particular rhythm. Combinations of these different sets of rhythms and drum sounds created popular rhythmic patterns of the day, e.g. waltzes, fox trots etc.

Sideman control panel
Sideman control panel

These combinations were selected by a rotary knob on the top of the Sideman box. The tempo of the patterns was controlled by a slider that increased the speed of rotation of the disc. The Sideman had a panel of 10 buttons for manually triggering drum sounds, and a remote player to control the machine while playing from an organ keyboard. The Sideman was housed in a portable wooden cabinet that contained the sound generating circuitry, amplifier and speaker.