Once the phonograph had supplanted radio and the pianola as the predominant format for music sales in the 1930s, attention turned to refining and accelerating the production and manufacture of records. Hammond Organ Inc’s chief Designer John M Hanert – who was responsible for the design of the hugely successful tonewheel ‘Hammond Organ’ series as well as the vacuum tube based ‘Solovox’ and ‘Novachord’ instruments – was contemplating a self-contained device that could be used as a composition system, sound synthesiser and gramophone production tool:
“My invention relates generally to apparatus for production as sound or as a signal for recording purposes, without the employment of musicians in anyway whatsoever.”
The result of Hanert’s experiment was the Electric Automatic Orchestra; a large, room sized machine installed at the Hammond Instrument Inc. sound studios at 2915 North Western Ave Chicago Illinois. The basic function of the machine were divided into three parts; a composition ‘Time Sequence’ table where the composer could write musical notation into the machine, a synthesis module which created sounds from the notation, and an output – in this case a lacquer disc-lathe to cut master recordings.
The ‘Time Sequence’ section was an eighteen meter table – extendable to the amount of room-space available – covered with overlapping ‘record notation’ cards of approximately 28 X 30 cm. These cards could be drawn on with conductive graphite or aquadag marks representing musical information. Above the table travelled a wheeled electric-motor driven ‘scanning carriage’ equipped with multiple phosphor-bronze contact brushes. When the brushes made contact with the conductive graphite marks on the cards below, an electronic signal was generated that triggered the relevant musical reaction in the sound generating part of the instrument. (Hanert also provided an alternate photoelectric set of scanning heads which could replace the contact brushes.)
Hanert’s design enabled the composer to a create ‘perfect’ compositions by writing, erasing and re-writing the music on the ‘Time Sequence’ table – which could be done on or off-site or as required. Once this perfect composition had been achieved, the machine could make a final run and cut a master recording to disc to be used for mass production.
The record notation cards were pre-printed with a grid like template and could be marked to represent individual note pitch – measured in quarter tones, envelope, timbre, vibrato, position in the bar and volume as well as overall instrument volume. The final tempo of the piece could be controlled by simply varying the speed of the rail driven scanning carriage as it travelled along the table or paused, reversed or ‘looped’ by control marks on the cards. The length of the table defined the length of the piece, which on this model, consisted of 39 cards giving a maximum playing length of 96 bars.
The tones themselves were created by six separate banks of polyphonic vacuum tube generators similar in design to Hanert’s Novachord (USA, 1940). The instrument was also able to create percussive xylophone and drum sounds created by random (white noise) generators. Combinations of sounds could be defined on the notation cards allowing the composer to immediately switch instrument sounds as the piece progressed.
Hanert’s instrument was unique in that for the first time a composer/producer could work in a nonlinear fashion: the composition cards could be erased or deleted simply by rubbing out the graphite mark or removing the card. Cards could be arranged in any order, enabling the composer to mix, transpose and reverse music themes and sounds, instrumentation could be changed at any point or applied to any written part of the composition. And, Hanert’s machine allowed the composer/producer the ability to monitor the results of the editing almost immediately. Hanert compared this facility to the practice of a visual artist:
The difficulties inherent in the orchestral production of a composition may be compared to those which would confront an artist who found it necessary in painting a picture to destroy the complete or partially complete picture he was painting every time he became dissatisfied with any slight detail of the picture. The painter is not subject to such stringent regulation but instead merely repaints such minor portion of the whole picture which does not represent the subject being painted sufficiently accurately to meet his artistic approval…In the method and apparatus of this invention the composer, arranger, or conductor has at his command means for controlling the quality of each note, its intensity, intensity envelope, the degree of accent, duration, and tempo without necessarily affecting any other note or tone of the composition.
Despite its innovative qualities, the Electric Automatic Orchestra was never used commercially as Hanert had intended. In fact it seems that it was only ever used by Hanert himself and was not taken seriously by the Hammond company – who tended to humour Hanert’s ‘technical eccentricities’ in order to maintain his interest in more mundane but commercial designs. In addition to Hammond’s lukewarm support, the commercial failure of the project was also down to a combination of the synthetic nature of its sound, the inability of composers of the day to grasp the new musical paradigm the instrument offered plus the ever increasing capability and quality of recording technology– microphones, mixing desks, magnetic pick-ups, tape recorders – made the need for such a solution less pressing. The Electric Automatic Orchestra was sidelined and eventually mothballed by the Hammond company sometime during the 1950s.
Shortly after the disappearance of Hanert’s machine, David Sarnoff, chairman of RCA corporation, commissioned a self-contained commercial music production machine that could mathematically analyse and re-synthesise pop music.
“Composers don’t need to be able to play an instrument because our synthesizer will allow them to create any kind of music they want…Musicians aren’t required if you have our synthesizer.”
(David Sarnoff, chairman of RCA during the 1950s. Excerpt From: Vail, Mark. “The Synthesizer.” Oxford University Press 2014. p271)
What became known of as the RCA Synthesiser (the first time ‘Synthesiser’ was used in a musical context) was installed at the Columbia–Princeton Electronic Music Center and directly referenced Hanert’s work (8). The machine used the same, though perhaps less flexible structure; a three stage process of music production – in this case a paper punch roll for composition, multiple banks of vacuum tubes for sound synthesis, and the same lacquer disc lathe for musical output.
Biography: John Marshall Hanert
John Marshall Hanert was born into a German-American family on 18th March 1909 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1932 Hanert was awarded a B.S. in Engineering and a BSE in Physics at The University of Michigan. An accomplished organist, Hanert had a special interest in electronic musical instruments and after graduation began working with Richard Ranger – inventor of the Rangertone Organ amongst other electronic musical devices – in New York on a Photo-Electrical musical instrument. In 1934 Hanert was appointed as the Head of Research at the Hammond Organ Inc in Chicago where he spent the rest of his life as the chief designer of all of Hammond’s instruments; Hanert became known as the musically untrained Laurens Hammond’s ‘Ears’.Hanert was the co-inventor on the first Hammond tone-wheel organ and inventor of the Solovox (1938) and Novachord (1939–42) one of the world’s first commercial synthesisers as well as many patents for vibrato and reverberation audio processors. Hanert continued working at the company After Laurens Hammond’s retirement in 1958 until he died on 23rd June 1962 at the age of 53 in a car accident near New Munster Wisconsin.
T.L.Rhea:”The Evolution of Electronic Musical Instruments in the United States” (diss., George Peabody College, Nashville, Tenn, 1972)
Rhea, Tom. ‘The Hanert Synthesizer’ Electronic Perspectives, Contemporary Keyboard September 1979 p78.
Suisman, D. Selling Sounds,The Commercial Revolution in American Music. Harvard University Press. 2012.
Dorf, R.H: Electronic Musical Instruments (Mineola, NY, 1954, 2/1958), 25–45, 119–27, 142–52
Dolan, Brian. Inventing Entertainment: The Player Piano and the Origins of an American Music Industry. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc 2009.
Barry, Stuyvesant. ‘Hammond As In Organ: The Laurens Hammond Story’ 1974
‘The Michigan Alumnus’ vol LXIX 1962-1963 page 63
Private collection of Douglas Jackson 2017.