EMS Synthesisers, Peter Zinovieff, Tristram Cary, David Cockerell United Kingdom, 1969

EMS (Electronic Music Studios) was founded in 1965 by Peter Zinovieff, the son of an aristocrat Russian émigré with a passion for electronic music who set up the studio in the back garden of his home in Putney, London. The EMS studio was the hub of activity for electronic music in the UK during the late sixties and seventies with composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, Tristram Cary, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Hans Werner Henze as well as the commercial electronic production group ‘Unit Delta Plus  (Zinovieff, Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson).

Front panel of the DEC PDP8i
Front panel of the DEC PDP8i

Zinovieff , with David Cockerell and Peter Grogono developed a software program called MUSYS (which evolved into the current MOUSE audio synthesis programming language) to run on two DEC PDP8 mini-computers allowing the voltage control of multiple analogue synthesis parameters via a digital punch-paper control.  In the mid 1960’s access outside the academic or military establishment to, not one but two, 12-bit computers with 1K memory and a video monitor for purely musical use was completely unheard of:

” I was lucky in those days to have a rich wife and so we sold her tiarra and we swapped it for a computer. And this was the first computer in the world in a private house.” – Peter Zinovieff

The specific focus of EMS was to work with digital audio analysis and manipulation or as Zinovieff puts it “ To be able to analyse a sound; put it into sensible musical form on a computer; to be able to manipulate that form and re-create it in a musical way” (Zinovieff 2007). Digital signal processing was way beyond the capabilities of the DEC PDP8’s; instead they were used to control a bank of 64 oscillators (actually resonant filters that could be used as sine wave generators) modified for digital control. MUSYS was therefore a hybrid digital-analogue performance controller similar to Max Mathew’s GROOVE System (1970) and  Gabura & Ciamaga’s PIPER system (1965).

Peter Zinovieff at the controls of the PDP8 Computer, EMS studio London
Peter Zinovieff at the controls of the PDP8 Computer, EMS studio London

EMS studio diagram (from Mark Vail’s ‘ Vintage Synthesizers’)

Even for the wealthy Peter Zinovieff, running EMS privately was phenomenally expensive and he soon found himself running into financial difficulties. The VCS range of synthesisers was launched In 1969 after Zinovieff received little interest when he offered to donate the Studio to the nation (in a letter to ‘The Times’ newspaper). It was decided that the only way EMS could be saved was to create a commercial, miniaturised version of the studio as a modular, affordable synthesiser for the education market. The first version of the synthesiser designed by David Cockerell, was an early prototype called the  Voltage Controlled Studio 1; a two oscillator instrument built into a wooden rack unit – built for the Australian composer Don Banks for £50 after a lengthy pub conversation:

“We made one little box for the Australian composer Don Banks, which we called the VCS1…and we made two of those…it was a thing the size of a shoebox with lots of knobs, oscillators, filter, not voltage controlled. Maybe a ring modulator, and envelope modulator” David Cockerell 2002

vcs-3_0001 The VCS1 was soon followed by a more commercially viable design; The Voltage Controlled Studio 3 (VCS3), with circuitry by David Cockerell, case design by Tistram Cary and with input from Zimovieff . This device was designed as a small, modular, portable but powerful and versatile electronic music studio – rather than electronic instrument – and as such initially came without a standard keyboard attached. The price of the instrument was kept as low as possible – about £330 (1971) – by using cheap army surplus electronic components:

“A lot of the design was dictated by really silly things like what surplus stuff I could buy in Lisle Street [Army-surplus junk shops in Lisle Street, Soho,London]…For instance, those slow motion dials for the oscillator, that was bought on Lisle street, in fact nearly all the components were bought on Lisle street…being an impoverished amateur, I was always conscious of making things cheap. I saw the way Moog did it [referring to Moog’s ladder filter] but I adapted that and changed that…he had a ladder based on ground-base transistors and I changed it to using simple diodes…to make it cheaper. transistors were twenty pence and diodes were tuppence!” David Cockerell from ‘Analog Days’

Despite this low budget approach, the success of the VCS3 was due to it’s portability and flexibility. This was the first affordable modular synthesiser that could easily be carried around and used live as a performance instrument. As well as an electronic instrument in it’s own right, the VCS3 could also be used as an effects generator and a signal processor, allowing musicians to manipulate external sounds such as guitars and voice.

VCS3 with DK1 keyboard
VCS3 with DK1 keyboard

The VCS3 was equipped with two audio oscillators of varying frequency, producing sine and sawtooth and square waveforms which could be coloured and shaped by filters, a ring modulator, a low frequency oscillator, a noise generator,  a spring reverb and envelope generators. The device could be controlled by two unique components whose design was dictated by what could be found in Lisle street junk shops; a large two dimensional joystick (from a remote control aircraft kit) and a 16 by 16 pin board allowing the user to patch all the modules without the clutter of patch cables.

The iconic 16 X 16 pin-patch panel of the VCS3
The iconic 16 X 16 pin-patch panel of the VCS3. The 2700 ohm resistors soldered inside the pin vary in tolerance 5% variance and later 1%; the pins have different colours: the ‘red’ pins have 1% tolerance and the ‘white’ have 5% while the ‘green’ pins are attenuating pins having a resistance of 68,000 ohms giving differing results when constructing a patch.

The original design intended as a music box for electronic music composition – in the same vein as Buchla’s Electronic Music Box – was quickly modified with the addition of a standard keyboard that allowed tempered pitch control over the monophonic VCS3. This brought the VCS3 to the attention of rock and pop musicians who either couldn’t afford the huge modular Moog systems (the VCS3 appeared a year before the Minimoog was launched in the USA) or couldn’t find Moog, ARP or Buchla instruments on the British market. Despite it’s reputation as being hopeless as a melodic instrument due to it’s oscillators inherent instability the VCS3 was enthusiastically championed by many british rock acts of the era; Pink Floyd, Brian Eno (who made the external audio processing ability of the instruments part of his signature sound in the early 70’s), Robert Fripp, Hawkwind (the eponymous ‘Silver Machine‘), The Who, Gong and Jean Michel Jarre amongst many others. The VCS3 was used as the basis for a number of other instrument designs by EMS including an ultra-portable A/AK/AKS (1972) ; a VCS3 housed in a plastic carrying case with a built-in analogue sequencer, the Synthi HiFli guitar synthesiser (1973), EMS Spectron Video Synthesiser, Synthi E (a cut-down VCS3 for educational purposes) and AMS Polysynthi as well as several sequencer and vocoder units and the large modular EMS Synthi 100 (1971).

Despite initial success – at one point Robert Moog offered a struggling Moog Music to EMS for $100,000 – The EMS company succumbed to competition from large established international instrument manufacturers who brought out cheaper, more commercial, stable and simpler electronic instruments; the trend in synthesisers has moved away from modular user-patched instruments to simpler, preset performance keyboards. EMS finally closed in 1979 after a long period of decline. The EMS name was sold to Datanomics in Dorset UK and more recently a previous employee Robin Wood, acquired the rights to the EMS name in 1997 and restarted small scale production of the EMS range to the original specifications.

Peter Zinovieff.  Currently working as a librettist and composer of electronic music in Scotland.

David Cockerell, chief designer of the VCS and Synthi range of instruments left EMS in 1972 to join Electro-Harmonix and designed most of their effect pedals. He went to IRCAM, Paris in 1976 for six months, and then returned to Electro-Harmonix . Cockerell  designed the entire Akai sampler range to date, some in collaboration with Chris Huggett (the Wasp & OSCar designer) and Tim Orr.

Tristram Cary , Director of EMS until 1973. Left to become Professor of Electronic Music at the Royal College of Music and later Professor of Music at the University of Adelade. Now retired.

Peter Grogono Main software designer of MUSYS. Left EMS in 1973 but continued working on the MUSYS programming language and further developed it into the Mouse language. Currently Professor at the Department of Computer Science, Concordia University, Canada.

The Synthi 100 at IPEM Studios Netherlands.
The Synthi 100 at IPEM Studios Netherlands.

The EMS Synthi 100

The EMS Synthi 100 was a large and very expensive (£6,500 in 1971)  modular system, fewer than forty units were built and sold. The Synthi 100 was essentially  3 VCS3’s combined; delivering a total of 12 oscillators, two duophonic keyboards giving four note ‘polyphony’ plus a 3 track 256 step digital sequencer. The instrument also came with optional modules including a Vocoder 500 and an interface to connect to a visual interface via a PDP8 computer known as the ‘Computer Synthi’.  

Images of EMS Synthesisers


VCS3 Manual (pdf)


http://www.till.com/articles/arp/ ‘Analog Days’. T. J PINCH, Frank Trocco. Harvard University Press, 2004

‘Vintage Synthesizers’: Pioneering Designers, Groundbreaking Instruments, Collecting Tips, Mutants of Technology. Mark Vail. March 15th 2000. Backbeat Books





Peter Forrest, The A-Z of Analogue Synthesisers Part One A-M, Oct 1998.

The ‘Coupigny Synthesiser’ François Coupigny, France, 1966

Coupigny Synthesisier
Coupigny Synthesisier

During the late 1960’s an intense intellectual animosity developed between the GRM and WDR studios ; The French GRM, lead by Pierre Schaeffer championed a Gallic free ‘Musique Concrete’ approach based on manipulated recordings of everyday sounds contrasting with the Teutonic German WDR’s ‘Electronische Musik’ approach of strict mathematical formalism and tonality (probably a simplistic analysis; read Howard Slater’s much ore insightful essay on the schism). This divergence in theory meant that the studios developed in diverging ways; the Parisian GRM based on manipulation of tape recording and ‘real sound’ and the WDR studio on purely electronically synthesised sound.


Part of the Coupigny Synthesiser and EMI mixing desk
Part of the Coupigny Synthesiser and EMI mixing desk

After this rivalry had subsided in the early 1970’s Groupe de Recherches decided to finally integrate electronic synthesis into the studio equipment. The result of this was the  ‘Coupigny synthesiser’ designed and built by engineer François Coupigny around 1966 and was integrated into the 24 track mixing console of Studio 54 at the GRM. Despite this, the synthesiser was designed with ‘Musique Concrete’ principles in mind:

“…a synthesiser with parametrical control was something Pierre Schaeffer was against, since it favoured the preconception of music and therefore deviated from Schaeffer’s principal of ‘making through listening’ . Because of Schaeffer’s concerns, the Coupigny synthesiser was conceived as a sound-event generator with parameters controlled globally, without a means to define values as precisely as some other synthesisers of the day”
(Daniel Teruggi 2007, 219–20).

Pierre Schafer by the console of Studi 54 with the Coupigny Synthesisier
Pierre Schaeffer by the console of Studio 54 adjusting  Moog, the Coupigny Synthesiser is built into the panel directly below.

The Coupigny Synthesiser was a modular system allowing patching of it’s five oscillators using a pin matrix  system (probably the first instrument to use this patching technique, seen later in the EMS designs) to various filters, LFOs (three of them) and a ring modulator. Later versions were expanded using a collection of VCA controlled Moog oscillators and filter modules. The instrument was completely integrated into the studio system allowing it to control remote tape recorders and interface with external equipment. Unlike many other electronic instruments and perhaps due to Schaeffer’s concerns over ‘parametrical control’, the Coupigny Synthesiser had no keyboard – instead it was controlled by a complex envelope generator to modulate the sound. This made the synthesiser less effective at creating precisely defined notes and sequences but better suited to generating continuous tones to be later edited manually on tape. The Coupigny Synthesiser continues to be used at the GRM studio to this day.

The console of Studio 45 at the GRM
The console of Studio 45 at the GRM



Gareth Loy ‘Musimathics: The Mathematical Foundations of Music, Volume 2’

‘From magnetic tape to mouse’ by Daniel Teruggi


The ‘Beauchamp Synthesiser’ or ‘Harmonic Tone Generator’ James Beauchamp, USA, 1964

Beauchamp Synthesiser or Harmonic Tone Generator at the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. USA
Beauchamp Synthesiser or Harmonic Tone Generator at the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. USA

James Beauchamp invented the Harmonic Tone Generator in 1964, one of the first additive electronic voltage-controlled synthesisers, under the direction of Lejaren Hiller at the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“The instrument synthesised six exact harmonics with variable fundamental frequency from 0 to 2000 Hz. The amplitudes of the six harmonics, the fundamental frequency, and the phase of the second harmonic were programmed by voltage control. The fundamental frequency (pitch) was controlled by an external keyboard or generators to provide vibrato and other effects. Control of amplitude was provided by special envelope generators or external generators or even by microphone or prerecorded sounds.

The harmonics were derived by generating pairs of ultrasonic frequencies which were nonlinearly mixed to produce audio difference frequencies. That is to say, one set of frequencies, 50 KHz, 100 KHz, …, 300 KHz, was fixed. Another set, 50-52 KHz, 100-104 KHz, …, 300-312 KHz, was variable. When 50 and 50-52 KHz, etc., was mixed, the sine tones 0-2 KHz, … was derived. Harmonics were generated by full-wave rectification (even harmonics) and square wave chopping (odd harmonics), followed by band pass filtering to separate the harmonics.

The envelope generators consisted of variable delays and attack/decay circuits. In response to a trigger signal from the keyboard, after a programmed delay, the envelope generator would either rise and then go into an immediate decay while the key is depressed or it would rise and decay after the key is depressed. Having the upper harmonics delayed with respect to the lower ones gave an interesting effect.

Because the amplitude controls were “bipolar” (i.e., either positive or negative controls were effective), the instrument could serve as a multi-frequency “ring modulator”, which was especially useful when the controls were derived from a voice or musical instrument. The frequency control was also bipolar and was capable of producing rich sound spectra when the control was taken from a sine generator operating at frequencies ranging from 20 Hz through several hundred Hz. This FM effect was very popular for producing sounds useful in electronic music compositions.”

James Beauchamp. http://ems.music.uiuc.edu/beaucham/htg.html

James Beauchamp working on the  Harmo
James Beauchamp working on the Harmonic Tone Generator c1964

Several electronic music compositions utilised the Harmonic Tone Generator as their main source of electronic sounds. Among them are:

Herbert Brun, “Futility, 1964”

Lejaren Hiller, “Machine Music” and “A Triptych for Hieronymus”

Salvatore Martirano, “Underworld”

Kenneth Gaburo, “Antiphonics III”, “Lemon Drops”, “Hydrogen Jukebox”, and “For Harry”



Hiller, Lejaren, and James Beauchamps, .Research in Music with Electronics., Science, New Series, Vol. 150, No. 3693 (Oct. 8, 1965): 161-169.




IPEM ‘Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music’ Ghent, Hubert Vuylsteke & Walter Landrieu, Belgium, 1963

Walter Landrieu at the IPEM studio
Walter Landrieu at the IPEM studio

IPEM electronic music studio founded in 1963 as a joint venture between the Belgian Radio and Television broadcasting company and the University of Ghent with the objective of operating as both a creative studio, and a research institution – IPEM continues to this day to research into audio and psychoacoustics. One of the first instruments developed was a sine wave generator by Hubert Vuylsteke. His assistant, an engineer called Walter Landrieu, invented a vacuum tube based instrument called the ‘Melowriter’ in 1976 that allowed the musician to create sounds through an 8bit code typewriter style interface.

Melowriter designed by Walter Liandreu
Walter Landrieu’s ‘Melowriter’ 
Metaphon Landrieu
Inside the Melowriter
Landrieu's electronic organ (based on a design by Hubert Vuylsteke).
Landrieu’s electronic organ (based on a design by Hubert Vuylsteke).

470 compositions were realised at IPEM between 1963–1987. It is still operational, housed in the University building in the same place it was founded.



IPEM: Institute For Psychoacoustics And Electronic Music: 50 years of Electronic And Electroacoustic Music At The Ghent University is published by Metaphon, and comes with 2CDs of music made at the studio between 1963 and 1999. More details on the book here.

Chamberlin ‘Rhythmate’, Harry Chamberlin, USA,1947

Chamberlin Rhythmate
Chamberlin Rhythmate

Created in 1949, The ‘ Rhythmate’ was one of the first electronic drum machines ever produced. The instrument was designed and built (probably only ten machines were ever produced) by Harry Chamberlin in Upland, California. With the success of the Chamberlin keyboards in the 1960s Harry Chamberlin updated the drum machine – the Rhythmate model25/35/45 produced from 1960-1969 with 100 models sold.

Chamberlin Rhythmate
Control panel of the Chamberlin Rhythmate 1960’s model

The Rhythmate was a tape loop based drum machine designed to accompany an organ player. the instrument had 14 tape loops with a sliding head that allowed playback of different tracks on each piece of tape, or a blending between them. It contained a volume and a pitch/speed control and also had a separate amplifier with bass, treble, and volume controls, and an input jack for a guitar, microphone or other instrument. The tape loops were of real acoustic jazz drum kits playing different style beats, with some additions to tracks such as bongos, clave, castanets, etc. The Rhythmate has a built-in amplifier and 12″ speaker.

In 1951, Harry Chamberlin used his idea of magnetic tape playback to create the Chamberlin Model 200 keyboard. The Model 300/350, 400, 500 and 600/660 models followed.

Chamberlin Rhythmate
Inside the Chamberlin Rhythmate showing amplifier 10″ speaker and tape loops



The ‘Wave Organ’. Frank Morse Robb. Canada. 1927


The Robb Wave Organ designed by Morse Robb in Belleville, Ontario was an early pre-cursor, and said to be  musically superior, to the Hammond Organ. The instrument attempted to reproduce the sound of a cathedral pipe organ by amplifying sounds generated by a similar tone-wheel mechanism. Robb based his tone-wheel design on that of Melvin Severy’s ‘Choralcello’ but with the addition of amplification – which wasn’t available to Severy at the time.

“…Such an instrument as his, (Severy’s ‘Choralcello’) however, is both practically and theoretically impossible, as without amplification, far greater than the microphone type he suggests, nothing but the faintest trace of tones could be heard. The mere addition of amplification to his instrument would not be invention. If this were done, moreover, the instrument could not be made to function musically as the circuit and wiring arrangement set forth in his patent-would preclude that possibility due to internal resistance in the magnets. Every impulse generated by the tone disc would be absorbed in the circuits to such an extent that amplification would be impossible.”

Robb’s aim was to miniaturise elements of previous huge tone-wheel designs (‘Coralcello‘ of 1909 and ‘Telharmonium‘ 1897-1917) to create a practical, easy to maintain and affordable electronic organ. This was done by reducing the size and number of the tone wheels by adding a system of gears and increasing the number of notes on each wheel by  ‘doubling and redoubling the wave forms on the discs on one shaft’ . The instrument was equipped with twelve tone wheels representing each note, the ‘character’ or timbre of note – corresponding to organ stops and photographed from a cathode ray oscillograph – plus the harmonics of each fundamental note. The variation in pitch of each note was achieved by changing the speed of the tone wheel’s rotation giving the Wave Organ a total of five octaves. The tone wheels spinning within a magnetic field generated a voltage output of each note which was made audible by being passed to a valve amplifier and loudspeaker.

The prototype Wave Organ was built in 1927 at the Toronto Daily Star’s CFCA radio studio in Belleville and patented in 1928 (1930 in the USA). Robb planned to market the instrument by arranging a production contract with the General Electric Company in Schenectady, NY and later, organ builders Casavant Frères in Canada, however the worsening economic troubles of the 1930s depression permanently stalled the agreements in the spring of 1931 .

Undaunted by the commercial  failure of his first prototype, Robb produced a new, two manual, 32 note version of the Wave Organ in 1934 and launched the ‘ Robb Wave Organ Company’- incorporated on 21 September 1934 – to market and sell the instrument. The first productions models became available in July 1936 and was publicly demonstrated at Eaton’s department stores in Toronto and Montréal. Despite an initial positive reaction Robb was unable to obtain funding for further production and in 1938 he abandoned the project – Only thirteen models were ever sold and the Wave Organ was taken off the market in 1941.

The Robb Wave Organ was more expensive than other electronic organs of the period – notably the American Hammond Organ, which used an almost identical tone-wheel technology – and sales suffered because of World War II. The last remaining Wave Organ prototype is preserved at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ontario.

Second version of Morse Robb’s ‘Wave Organ’ c1936

Michael J. Murphy professor RTA School of Media talks about the Robb Wave Organ

Frank Morse Robb

born 28 January 1902 in Belleville, Ontarion; died 5 August 1992 in Belleville

Robb studied at McGill University from 1921 to 1924 and then returned to Belleville where in 1926 began research on the Robb Wave Organ. After the commercial failure of the Wave Organ, Robb applied his talent as an inventor to devices for the packing of guns during the Second World War. He became vice-president of his brother’s packing company and won acclaim as a silversmith. He also wrote a Sci-Fi -post nuclear holocaust novel Tan Ming (1955) under the pseudonym Lan Storming (“An amusing fantasy in which a department store window dresser falls in love with a robot mannequin and manages to conjure into its body the soul of a princess named Tan Ming from a postholocaust future.”).

'Tan Ming' by
‘Tan Ming’ by Lan Stormont/Morse Robb 1955


Canada Science and Technology Museum

Encyclopedia of Music in Canada

‘La Croix Sonore’ Nicolai Obukhov. Russia – France, 1929-1934

Modern reconstruction of the Croix Sonore at the musée de L'Opéra, Paris.
Modern reconstruction of the Croix Sonore at the musée de L’Opéra, Paris.

Nicolai Obukhov was a Russian composer who, after studying  at the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories with  Maximilian Steinberg and Nikolai Tcherepnin, left Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution in 1918. Obukhov settled in Paris in 1919 where he studied orchestration with Maurice Ravel and Marcel Orban while supporting his new family by working as a bricklayer. 

Marie-Antionette Aussenac-Broglie plays the Croix Sonore. Image; ‘Comoedia’ Paris 5th March 1934.

Obukhov, who signed his name “Nicolas l’illuminé” (Nicholas the visionary), was a deeply religious mystical Christian and profoundly influenced by the new theosophical cult of the Salon de la Rose + Croix which became popular with artists and musicians in the early 1920s. These beliefs were expressed in his compositions which, like his fellow countryman Alexander Scriabin, were intended as a means of attaining a transcendent state and a bridge to the world of the spirit – rather than just an aesthetic creation – Obukhov was driven by the idea that there was a higher reality to which art could reach. He attempted to achieve this spiritual goal through, for the time, unconventional means; a “total harmony” of 12 tone composition, unusual rhythm, experimental methods of notation, new invented instruments and expressive vocal directions –Obukhov was probably the first composer to   require a singer to make ‘non musical’ vocal sounds:

 ‘I forbid myself any repetition: my harmony is based on twelve notes of which none must be repeated. Repetition produces an impression of force without clarity; it disturbs the harmony, dirties it.’[1]

“…music enjoys decided advantages which endow it with possibilities of insinuation into the depths of the soul, and the mind, of emotions inaccessible to other arts. This faculty resides in the fact that music is hindered less than any other art in the realisation of its aims by material conditions.” [2]

In order to achieve this musical ‘insinuation’ Obukhov supplemented the traditional orchestra with new instruments of his own invention. These included the “Crystal” a piano type instruments where hammers hit a row of crystal spheres and the “Éther” an electronically powered instruments where a large rotating paddle wheel created various, apparently inaudible infra- and ultra-sonic humming sounds that ranged from approximately five octaves below to five octaves above human hearing. This sound was intended to have a mystical effect on the listener – though the effect was probably physiological, depending on the volume and frequency of the instruments sound. Low frequency infra-sound is known to have a physical effect on the human nervous system causing disorientation, anxiety, panic, bowel spasms, nausea, vomiting and eventually unconsciousness (supposedly 7-8 hz is the most effective being the same frequency as the average brain alpha wave). The effect is unintentionally generated by the extreme low frequencies in church pipe organ music, instilling religious feelings and causing sensations of “extreme sense sorrow, coldness, anxiety, and even shivers down the spine.” [3]

The film actor Georges Colin presents Obukhov's "Chants Des Spheres " with the chorus and the Croix Sonore. Photo; L'Ouest-Éclair March 6th 1936.
The film actor Georges Colin presents the “Le Chant Des Spheres” with the Croix Sonore. Photo; L’Ouest-Éclair_03_06_1936_02

Obukhov’s only purely electronic instrument was “La Croix Sonore” or “Sonorous Cross” which was essentially one of several Theremin type instruments developed in Europe after Leon Termens departure to the USA in 1927 (others included the “Elektronische Zaubergeige” and the “Elektronde“). The Croix Sonore was designed and built in Paris by Michel Billaudot and Pierre Duvalier to Obukhov’s instructions in 1929 and was the result of several years experimenting with beat frequency/heterodyning oscillators probably after witnessing Termen’s demonstration of the Theremin while on tour around Europe. As with theTheremin the Croix Sonore was based on body capacitance controlling heterodyning vacuum tube oscillators. To suit Obukhov’s mystical and theatrical style, the circuitry and oscillators were built into a 44 cm diameter brass orb and the antennae disguised by a large 175 cm high crucifix adorned with a central star.

The Sonorous Cross was played in the same way as the Theremin – using the bodies capacitance to control the oscillators frequency, in this case moving the hands out from the central star on the crucifix altered the pitch and volume of the instrument. The ritualistic gestures made while playing this most unusual looking of instruments complemented the occult and mystical nature of Obukhov’s music and life.Obukhov continued to develop the instrument and produced an improved version, completed in 1934.

Nikolay Obukhov composed numerous pieces using his instrument as well as several using the Ondes-Martenot, culminating in his major work; “Le Livre De Vie” which exploited the glissando effects the Sonorous Cross could produce. The performances of these pieces were intended to be more like an occult church ceremony rather than an orchestral performance; Obukhov insisted that here were no spectators at his concerts – everyone would play their part in the mystical ritual which would take place in a circular ‘temple’:

“When the ‘Book of Life’ is performed, by which I mean when it is lived, the spectators, the participants will be arranged in spirals, in the interior of a circular and raised scene. The ‘terrestrial’ orchestra will be coiled up around the scene. A dome will contain the ‘celestial’ orchestra. Lighting changes will intervene in the ‘Sacred Action’, a synthesis of cult and orgy (the latter meant symbolically). Such is the ritual where science and religion are married.[4]

“…some like priests will take part directly in the action, the others witness it, participating mentally like the faithful in church.” [5]

These performances received mixed reviews from the puzzled critics:

A Paris concert audience was stirred. and while it squirmed and tittered. tonight when Nicholas Obouhoff’ presented parts of his “Book of Life” and hitherto unknown “Annunciation of the Last Judgement.” to the accompaniment of the new electric musical instrument, the croix sonore.

Henry Prunieres introduced the concert. warning the audience that it was going to hear chords played on the piano. notes sung by a human voice and sounds drawn from an instrument such as it had never heard before. Even this warning. however. did not prepare the listeners for the sudden “shriek” – there is no other word for it-of Suzanne Balguerie on the opening note of one of Obouhoff‘s liturgic poems. There was no warning, either. when the singer suddenly began to whistle instead of sing. Some members of the audience thought it was one of their number expostulating in the classic manner and began to cry, “Hush! hush!“

Prunieres had praised the courage of the singers, Mme. Balguerie and Louise Matha. in attempting music so new, and as they produced strange note after strange note many felt that this praise was well merited. if only because their mastery of their effects prevented the audience from tittering more loudly.

‘Titters Greet Music of Obouhoff in Paris: Singers’ Strange Performance Accompanied by Electrical Instrument, Causes Stir’, 1. New York Times, May 16, 1934, p. 23.

“In “Annunciation of the Last Judgement” the singers stood together, one gowned in white. the other in red. while Obouhoff and Arthur Scholossberg played two pianos. and Princess Marie Antoinette Aussenac de Broglie, apart and sacramentally gowned in black, blue and orange, drew from the croix sonore notes that throbbed like twenty violins or at times sang like a human voice. In all this, it was the instrument that had the most success. Obuhoff’, it is said, dreamed of it long before the invention of the radio made application of the principle possible. He wrote music for it, calling it “the etherphone.” Out of it, by moving the hand back and forth, the Princess de Broglie drew an amazing sweetness or the most dreadful note, like the knocking of fate, to give Obouhofifs strange religious music far more power than his two pianos or even the distortions of his singers’ voices could produce.”[6]

Nicolas or Nicolai Obukhov ( also Obouchov, Obuchov, Obouhow, Obuchow), Born April 22, 1892 in Ol’shanka, Kursk, Moscow – died, June 13, 1954 in St. Cloud, France

Nikolay Obukhov studied counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory from 1911 and later at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1913 (with Kalafati, Maksimilian Steinberg and Nikolay Tcherepnin). His first published works date from this period, and were published as ‘Quatre mélodies’ by Rouart et Lerolle in Paris in 1921.


In 1915 Obukhov developed his own idiosyncratic form of musical notation (similar to one invented in Russia by Golïshev during the same period) using a 12-tone chromatic language highly influenced by the mystical Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. The only performances of his music in Russia took place at this time. A report of the performance describes Obukhov as ‘a pale young man, with gazing eyes’ who ‘confused the audience’. Obukhov left Russia during the revolution with his wife and two children; they eventually settled near Paris a year later. In Paris he encountered financial hardship until helped by Maurice Ravel who found Obukhov a publisher allowing him to devote his time to his music.


The 1920s saw a handful of performances, most notably that of the ‘Predisloviye knigi zhizni’ (‘Introduction to the Book of Life’) under Kussevitzsky. During this and the next decade he put into practice ideas for electronic instruments Obukhov had conceived as early as 1917: the ‘efir’ and ‘kristal’ (‘ether’ and ‘crystal’) he had described in Russia eventually gave rise to the croix sonore, and even though he built and wrote for the ether, it was with the croix sonore that he gained most attention. He found an exponent of the instrument in his pupil Marie-Antoinette Aussenac-Broglie who had also performed some of his piano music; she demonstrated the instrument around France and Belgium. Similar to both the theremin and the ondes martenot in that pitch production is reliant upon the distance of the performer’s arm from the instrument, the croix sonore was the subject of a film of 1934. During the mid-1940s his notation again provoked heated discussion, this time in Paris; a book containing works from the 18th to the 20th centuries in Obukhov’s notation was published by Durand. In 1947, his ‘Traité d’harmonie tonale, atonale et totale’ ‚ which had already interested Honegger ‚ was published, while a year later he lectured on this subject in the Russian Conservatory in Paris. Obukhov spent his last years incapacitated by a mugging in 1949 where the final version of  ‘the Book of Life’ was stolen; he composed only a few works after this incident.


Obukhov’s output is dominated by vast works of which the most notorious ‚ notwithstanding the gargantuan ‘Troisième et dernier testament’ and ‘La toute puissance’ ‚ is the ‘Kniga zhizni’ (‘The Book of Life’) on which he worked from around the time he left Russia until at least the mid-1920s. Described by the composer as ‘l’action sacrée du pasteur tout-puissant regnant’ it was intended to be performed (or ‘accomplished’) uninterruptedly every year on the night of the first and on the day of the second resurrection of Christ. Obukhov did not consider himself the composer of this work; instead, he saw himself as the person permitted, by divine forces, to ‘show’ it. Parts of the score, one version of which is nearly 2000 pages in length, are marked in the composer’s blood. The music is preceded by a lengthy exposition in archaic Russian, while the work concludes with one section the score of which unfolds into the form of a cross and another, taking the shape of a circle, which is fixed onto a golden and silver box decorated with rubies and red silk. (Nicholas Slonimsky, in his memoir ‘Perfect Pitch’ relates that the composer’s wife, driven to despair by Obukhov’s obsessive behaviour regarding this piece, attempted to burn ‚ or ‘immolate’, in the composer’s terminology ‚ the manuscript but was interrupted in her crime.) Much of the instrumental writing is characterized by the alternation of chorale-like material (often ornamented by filigree arppegiation) with tolling patterns, building to textures of considerable rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity. The vocal parts ‚ as with his writing for the voice in most of his other works ‚ have huge tessituras and are bespattered with glissandi and instructions for screaming or whispering. The style which is consistently applied in this magnum opus is prevalent in all of his mature works and has its roots in the songs and piano miniatures written in Russia.


Taking as a starting point the language employed by Skriabin in his mid- and late-period works, Obukhov evolved a harmonic technique based on the systematic configuration and manipulation of 12-note chords or harmonic areas. The sonorities resulting from this ‘total harmony’ are often broadly octatonic and frequently have a quasi-dominant character due to the prevalence of diminished fifths in the lower elements. Although longer structures appear to unfold in a schematized yet organic manner, the detail of musical procedure is curiously static. Obukhov saw his work as a musical articulation of his strongly-held religious beliefs and would sometimes sign his manuscripts ‘Nicolas l’illuminé’ or ‘Nicolas l’extasié’. Possibly inspired by Vladimir Solov´yov’s idea of ‘sobornost´’ (collective spiritual or artistic experience), Obukhov sought to abolish the traditional performer-audience polarity in favour of a merging of these previously mutually exclusive groups into one of participants. Obukhov mostly used his own texts which are frequently inspired by the Book of the Revelation or the Apocrypha. It is thus no coincidence that the only poets whose work appealed to him spiritually and compositionally were Solov´yov and Bal´mont, since it was the former’s orthodox mysticism that significantly informed the apocalyptic vision of the latter. In addition to these sources, mention should be made of Obukhov’s use of two verses by Musorgsky; it is between his work and that of Messiaen that Obukhov’s visionary language can be placed.

(details from: Commentary, Composers:4. Russian,Lithuanian and Jewish composers)

List of works by Nicolai Obukhov:

1945 Adorons Christ, for piano (Fragment du troisième et dernier Testament) Keyboard
1942 Aimons-nous les uns les autres, for piano Keyboard
1915 Conversion, for piano Keyboard
1916 Création de l’Or, for piano Keyboard
1915 Icône, for piano Keyboard
1916 Invocation, for piano Keyboard
1948 La paix pour les réconciliés – vers la source avec le calice, for piano Keyboard
1952 Le Temple est mesuré, l’Esprit est incarné, for piano Keyboard
1915 Pieces (2), for piano Keyboard
Pieces (2), for piano Keyboard Piece
1915 Prières, for piano Keyboard
1915 Revelation, for piano Keyboard


[1] Quoted after Schloezer op. cit. p. 47.

[2]. manuscript MS 15226. music department at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France Paris.

[3] ‘Organ Music Instills Religious Feelings’ by Jonathan Amos, 9/8/2003

[4] ‘Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-Garde, 1900-1929 p. 107. By Larry Sitsky, .Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut and London, 1994.

[5] ‘ Nicolas Obukhoff’, La Revue Musicale, 1, part 3, Nov. 1921, pp. 38-56, by Boris de Schloezer,

[6] Quoted from ‘ Visible Deeds of Music: Art and Music from Wagner to Cage’ Simon Shaw-Miller

Hugh Davies. “Croix sonore.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online

E.Ludwig: “La Croix Sonore” ReM, nos 158-9(935),96 ReM,nos 290-91 (1972-73)

Consciousness, Literature and the Arts. Archive. Volume 1 Number 3, December 2000 “Skriabin and Obukhov: Mysterium & La livre de vie The concept of artistic synthesis”. By Simon Shaw-Miller
Commentary, Composers: Russian,Lithuanian and Jewish composers
‘Nikolay Obukhov and the Croix Sonore’ Rahma Khazam. From: Leonardo Music Journal 
Volume 19, 2009 
pp. 11-12


‘Titters Greet Music of Obouhoff in Paris: Singers’ Strange Performance Accompanied by Electrical Instrument, Causes Stir’, 1. New York Times, May 16, 1934, p. 23.

The ‘Choralcelo’ Melvin Linwood Severy & George.B. Sinclair. USA, 1909

The Choralcelo (“heavenly Voices”) was a hybrid electronic and electro-acoustic instrument conceived as a commercial high-end domestic organ, sold to wealthy owners of large country houses in the USA. The Choralcelo was designed and developed by Melvin Severy with the assistance of his brother in law George B. Sinclair and manufactured by the ‘Choralcelo Manufacturing Co’ in Boston, Massachusetts. Later models were extensively redesigned and improved by Quincy Sewall Cabot, inventor of the ‘Synthetic Tone’.
Melvin Severy b.1863 Melrose, Mass; d. California 1951
Melvin Severy b.1863 Melrose, Mass; d. California 1951 
Severy was a versatile inventor, engineer musician, composer and author. Before the Choralcelo, Severy’s inventions already included patents for printing presses, solar heating systems, a camera, fluid drives, and many others.The Choralcelo was developed by Severy from 1888 until 1909. Te instrument was first presented to the public on the 27th April 1909 at the Boston Symphony Hall,in Boston, Mass. At it’s unveiling the Choralcelo was accompanied by A soprano voice and about forty members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was said to have been ‘enthusiastically received’ by some of ‘Boston’s best known families’.
First Choralcelo concert proves highly successful
As for the Choralcelo itself, it proved an interesting and unique instrument. Fronting the audience from the platform was a mahogany box to disguise an upright piano somewhat exaggerated, and with two rows of keys. The Instrument, it was announced, resulted from twenty one years of persistent labour on the part of it’s inventor Melville (sic) L. Severy and George D. Sinclair both of Boston. The Choralcelo obtains sound of the violincello, the trumpet and the French horn , the oboe and the bassoon, the harp and the pipe organ from a single compass from the wire strings used in the pianoforte, which are vibrated by means of small electro-magnets stationed at scientifically determined points along their length.
programme of the first Choralcelo concert, Boston, 1909.
programme of the first Choralcelo concert, Boston, 1909.
The surprise in the Choralcelo is that the ordinary piano string can be made to give more sounds than those obtained from it under the blows of the hammer, and the variety of these sounds is great on the account of the immensely increased possibility of making what the student musician knows as overtone. The concert this evening faithfully demonstrated the merits of the Choralcelo, and it may be expected to contribute important things to music. Great skill is required in it’s handling. The player is embarrassed somewhat by the very largeness of the means at his disposal. He must learn to select. With careful study this new instrument is designed to do many and large things and the contention of it’s inventor seems to be fully justified”
The Musical Age.New York, May 1st 1909.
The company was taken over in 1918 by Farrington. C. Donahue & A. Hoffman (in some reports claimed as its inventor). At least six of the instruments were sold and continued to be used up unit the 1950’s. Two working examples of the instruments are known to have survived in the USA one at Ruthmere Mansion in Elkhart, Indiana.The Choralcelo was a direct contemporary of the Telharmonium, though not as big, was still a huge instrument using a similar electromagnetic tone wheel sound generation to the Telharmonium used in the ‘organ’ section of the instrument as well as a set of electromagnetically operated piano strings.
Choralcelo at Denver Collorado
Part of a Choralcelo at Denver Colorado
The visible part of the Choralcelo consisted of two keyboards, the upper (piano) keyboard having 64 keys and the lower 88 (piano and ‘organ’), controlling the invisible part of the instrument, usually in the basement of the house, consisting of 88 tone wheels and a set of piano strings and bells that were vibrated by electromagnets and a set of hammers. The keyboards also had a set of organ style stops to control the timbre and fundamentals of the tone that could then be passed through cardboard, hardwood, softwood, glass, steel or “bass-buggy” spring resonators to give the sound a particular tone.The Choralcelo also incorporated a pianola style paper roll mechanism for playing ‘pre-recorded’ music and a 32 note pedal board system. The entire machine could occupy two basements of a house, the keyboards and ‘loudspeakers’ being the only visible part of the instrument.

Sounds of the Choralcelo

“Poor Little Butterfly” from an original 78rpm glass master live 1942 recording, hand played by Regene Farrington, wife of Wilber Farrington, President of The Choralcelo Co. Recorded in the Choralcelo Studio in New York City. (from: C. W. Jenkins, AMICA)

Promotional brochure from the  Choralcelo Manufacturing Co

Detailed History of the Choralcelo from “History Of the Choralcelo” by W.Jenkins

“The information furnished is based on forty years of acquaintance with the instrument, and on three complete Choralcelo instruments at hand, friendship with one of the principals, interviews with others involved in the work, family members, original blueprints, all the patents issued, (and there were many) and original documents from the archives. “

“The story of the Choralcelo is largely the story of two men… Melvin L. Severy, born in 1863 in Melrose, Mass; died in California in 1951; and Wilber E. Farrington, born 1869, died 1945. Severy was a brilliantly gifted, multi-faceted inventor who secured patents on a printing press, solar heating, a camera, fluid drive, and many others, besides the Choralcelo. He was a scholar, artist, musical composer, and author. His grandson recalls that he was interested in secret passages in the pyramids, to name one of his many interests. Severy was assisted in his experimentation by his brother-in-law, George B. Sinclair. They had married Flint sisters. Wilber Farrington was an idealistic, philosophic visionary who devoted the majority of his life to his love of the unique tone of the novel instrument and his determination to see it successfully developed and manufactured. He was a charismatic and effective fund raiser and invested his own fortune in the work.There had been many efforts at strengthening or lengthening the tone of piano strings electrically.

Remains of a Choralcelo at the National Music Museum, Vermilion Sands, South Dakota
Remains of a Choralcelo at the National Music Museum, Vermilion Sands, South Dakota

As early as 1876, Elisha Gray had patented a single note oscillator; and in 1890 Eli C. Ohmart filed a patent on prolonging the tone of piano strings electromagnetically… the patent was assigned to Melvin Severy. The principle being worked on was simple… magnets were placed behind the strings of the piano, and accurately timed pulses of DC current were fed to the magnets coinciding with the natural periodicity of the strings.. for example, if note A vibrated at 440 vibrations per second, then 440 pulses of current per second would be fed to the magnets for that note, and sustained organ-like tone would be produced without the use of the hammers. The mechanism which accomplished this was the interruptor, powered by a small electric motor, which had nine brass cylinders 3 1/2″ long spinning at predetermined speeds. Each cylinder had eight make and break tracks 1/4 inch wide, alternate spaces being set in an enamel, a non-conductor. Sterling silver brushes rode on these tracks. The lowest notes required about 20 pulses per second, and the highest, about two thousand. The overwhelmingly difficult part was the governing of this device… the very slightest deviation and the frequency of the pulses would not coincide with the natural periodicity of the strings, and the tone will die. Patent after patent was filed for variations on governing mechanisms, some of them so elaborate that they were complicated mechanisms in themselves.

The basic concept of tone production, though simple, proved nearly impossible in execution… matching, on one side, an already tuned vibrating body, with perfectly matching pulses of magnetism, ranging anywhere from 20 vibrations per second to 2,000. The governing device controlling the speed of the make and break cylinders would not only have to provide such absolute perfection whenever called for, but would also have to be able to compensate for the vagaries of the electric current generated in that day, which powered the motor the drove the governor… to do this, it would have to be able to keep the cylinders rotating without the slightest deviation even if the motor driving the assembly slowed down or speeded up. If the speed of the cylinders changed while the instrument was being played, the tone would die out.

Remains of a Choralcelo at the National Music Museum, Vermilion Sands, South Dakota
Remains of a Choralcelo at the National Music Museum, Vermilion Sands, South Dakota

An elegantly simple, brilliant magnetic combination governor and clutch evolved, which performed perfectly without physical contact, so there could be no overheating, and there were no clutch pads or other friction assemblies to wear out. Even today it is a marvel of brilliant application of principles of physics , and a marvel at least to those who are aware of what they are seeing to watch the spinning copper band drive the heavy flywheel merely by cutting through the invisible magnetic force. It is so disarmingly simple one could have no inkling of the years of labor which preceded it. Appreciating what it represents, I still have a feeling of awe. I doubt there has ever been anything like it, before or since. It was through the many mechanisms Severy laboured over and patented in his determination to solve the problem that fluid drive evolved. The first concert was given in 1905, and was by invitation.

The Choralcelo of that first phase of development was an impressive upright piano with one keyboard, usually with a roll player; the case of the finest grain mahogany with beautifully hand-carved openwork scroll panels. The tone could be varied by means of a slider near the left hand. It was the first tone produced without physical contact of some kind, and the tones produced invoked orchestral instruments minus the sound of the bow on the string or the breath of the flutist.


Development continued and a two manual instrument marked the second level, or phase, of the evolution of the Choralcelo. It still had the piano keyboard and piano strings which were excited by magnets. The piano strings were tuned by means of screws to attain greater stability. There was an organ keyboard above the first one, and a row of stops to control the range of tone units. These took the form of sets of tuned bars, or plates, which could be of steel, or wood, or aluminium, or sometimes glass. There were usually 41 to a set, and typically they varied in length from 5 3/4″ to 10 1/2″, and usually were about 5/16″ thick. Materials other than steel had small iron armatures affixed so that there would be response to the magnets.


Installed directly over these bars were resonating chambers, usually cylindrical fiber tubes, open at each end, which reinforced the tone, just as one sees in marimbas and vibraharps, The tone production was entirely acoustic; there was nothing electronic about the Choralcelo… no amplifiers, no loud speakers, no tubes… nothing of the sort. These sets of bars were remote from the main console and could be placed anywhere. The switching and control devices were remote from the main console and could be contained in two cabinets, each about 5 1/2′ high, and installed in the basement, along with the interrupter mechanism and motor-generator which delivered 30 volts of DC. The bar units could also be installed in the basement if desired, in which case grillwork was installed in the floor above them to transmit the sound; or they could be installed in the music room where the console was and concealed behind panelling or whatever was desired. The units were all connected by cables, usually armored with interwoven wire strands to protect them from damage. If all the machinery and also the bar units were to be placed in the basement, the space required would be approximately that of a modest bedroom.

Melvin L Severy circa 1915
Melvin L Severy circa 1915

The final phase of the development of the Choralcelo was the rewiring of the controls so that upper partials could be at the command of the Choralcelist and thus the potential of the instrument was greatly expanded because infinite variations and combinations were now available. The attempt to produce a completely new, unique instrument of this complexity in such a short period of time… the original factory closed in 1917 because of the war… was a monumental undertaking, and the multiplicity of the directions one might take was daunting. After all, the piano metamorphosed over several centuries, and other instruments have done the same. Experiments were conducted with reeds. A magnificent, large double bass unit having steel ribbons instead of individual strings was developed… there was a remote full-sized string unit which could be remotely placed… A variation of the interrupter mechanism was developed using brass discs instead of the earlier cylinders. There were twelve discs, each with six tracks, rotating at speeds determined by the gearing. All of these inventions, some of which were superseded by later ones, required designing, engineering, machining.. the investment was astronomical. In today’s money it amounted to many hundreds of millions of dollars. The instruments themselves were expensive, by today’s standards costing about a half million.

There were about one hundred built, many of them being installed in the music rooms of the wealthy. There were some that were in theatres to accompany silent films… Filene’s in Boston had two, one in the restaurant. Lord and Taylor in New York, and Marshall Field in Chicago, among others, featured Choralcelos, as did several hotels. There were even two on yachts.

The effort was a daunting task but great strides had been made by the time WWI broke out… materials were no longer available and as a result, the factory closed. Farrington and several of the most devoted men involved remained active in several locations, Cleveland, Chicago, Port Chester, Connecticut, and New York among them. The last activity was a demonstration studio in New York City, but another world war broke out and the studio closed in 1942.”

Choralcelo Patent Files

‘The Choralcelo, a Wonderful Electric Piano’

 ‘The Electrical Experimenter’ Magazine, USA. March 1916

This Marvelous Electrically Operated and Controlled Musical Instrument is More Than a Piano – It Produces Sustained Notes of the Lowest and Highest Register, Over a Range Heretofore Unattainable, and, Moreover, is Played Like a Regular Piano

In India, far away, as the popular song goes, the natives are content to regale themselves musically with plaintiff notes given forth by a goat skin stretched over the end of a hollowed log, upon which the musician beats a tune with the flat of his hand.

The music of the caveman was the wind is sighing through the trees, accompanied by the rustle of the leaves. Even they wanted to express themselves in a harmonious manner, hence the drum, the horn and other crude instruments of musical expression.

Then we may possibly expect some marked advances in our musical culture and education since the advent of the “Choralcelo,” despite the prophecies of those who take a pessimistic view of life in general.

The piano becomes a tongue-tied infant beside the latest masterpiece of the musician’s art. At times its notes thunder forth and seem to shake the very earth itself, and then again they may be subdued to an elusive softness like unto the faint notes of a distant church choir.

But what is it? How is it accomplished? What is the result of many years of untiring labor on the part of several of the cleverest men of the world? What is it upon which a fortune that would ransom a king has been spent? The Choralcelo!

The Choralcelo, the most wonderful musical instrument ever thought out by the human mind, is like nothing else the world of music has ever known. This masterpiece reproduces any piece of music in any form of instrument, from a string to a flute; not only does it reproduce them, but the notes emitted by it are sustained, pure and sweet, which is entirely different from the ones produced by the instruments that are in present use.

Practically all the musical instruments, previous to the invention of the Choralcelo, carry into the tone which they produce certain impurities which arise from the manner in which they are caused to vibrate. The violin interrupts the free vibration of the string by the grating rub of the bow. The piano adds the noise that results from the blow of the hammer on the string – while the organ mingles the breathiness of its air current with the pure vibrations of the column of air in the pipe. In like manner all instruments employing extraneous contacts to start the vibration destroy the purity of the note produced. And as they seek to amplify the tone they have produced they increase the intrusion and false sounds. The soft pedal of the piano, the swell-box of the organ, the mute of the violin, are just so many outrages on the purity of the tone.

The Choralcelo, by the very means which it employs in producing the tones, is freed from all obstructions. Vibration without contact, involving perfect freedom of vibration, and thus the Choralcelo gives all the natural overtones and harmonics; rich – full – pure and perfect, thus opening to the musician wonderful possibilities of expression and emotional power of which he possibly never dreamed.

The manner in which this result is accomplished is one of wonder. It is the subtle pull of the electro-magnet which now achieves pure tone production. These electro-magnets are caused to act directly upon the strings of the instrument.

The most delicate graduation of tone power can be produced by the mere variation of the strength of an electric current, and not by smothering devices which the present form of instrument employs. The tone, therefore, retains all its original purity through all vibrations and intensity, something that has been impossible heretofore.

We will next inspect the mechanism employed to perform these wonders. It may be stated that the vibrating elements are caused to oscillate by means of a pulsating electric current sent through an electro-magnet acting on the vibrating membrane.

The machine which beaks up continually the electric current into a series of waves is really the “heart” of the Choralcelo. The operating device consists essentially of a series of metal discs having a certain number of insulating segments inserted into their peripheries. These discs are arranged to revolve at a fixed speed. Silver-tipped brushes are so placed that they will bear upon the revolving discs. It will thus be seen that in order to produce the fundamental periodicity of any given “string”, it is only necessary to rotate a disc containing a certain number of segments at the correct speed.

A large number of combinations are possible through the manipulation of a few keys, which correspond to the stops of an organ, and such a keyboard is clearly shown at Fig. 1. This resembles a piano, and it really is one, with additional keys and pedals. The pedals are used to vary the strength of the current sent through the electro-magnets.

A tremolo effect is given by means of a slow speed interrupter giving a pulsating current at a few revolutions per second. The instrument which produces this effect is depicted on the right of Fig. 2, while the one towards the left reproduces tones representing a flute. The regulation piano tone is produced with the usual percussion hammers, which may be thrown into or out of action by the pressure of a key. The staccato notes of the piano may be struck upon strings already vibrating with the pulsating current. Thus sustained notes of a higher pitch are produced upon the string.

A piano which employs both the electro-magnets and hammers is clearly shown on the left of Fig. 3. Note the large number of wires which are employed for connecting the various for connecting the various magnet coils. It is an engineering feat in itself to even make and wire the various circuits.

Marvelously sweet tones are produced by vibrating pieces of brass, wood and aluminum. In fact, any resonant body susceptible to vibration may be made to emit tones. In order to cause these bodies to vibrate, it is necessary to place within them a small piece of iron, so that the electro-magnets may attract them. Instruments that are operated by this method are depicted in Fig. 3. The one toward the right is an instrument that imitates a flute. The electro-magnets are placed underneath the tubes, which are made out of wood and act as resonating chambers. The magnets are caused to act on iron discs mounted at the lower end of the tube. Another style of flute instrument is illustrated in Fig. 4. This employs a different variety of tubes, ranging from a very high tone to a very low one. The smaller pipes give the latter tone, while the larger ones the former.

The instrument shown in the center of Fig. 3 illustrates a brass chime. The tones are produced by hammers, each of the tubes being supplied by one. These are operated by electro-magnets, as perceived in the upper bracket of the stand. These are also connected to the same keyboard.

The very deep tones of an organ are produced by vibrating diaphragms placed beneath metal horns. A pair of electro-magnets are held a minute distance away from the diaphragm and serve to vibrate the latter when the pulsating current is applied. The volume of the tones is powerful and is very pleasant although it is very low. By increasing the power in the electro-magnets, the strength of the tones is so much increased that it is almost impossible to imagine the effect.

“Echo” combinations may also be installed without limit wherever their effect may be most beautiful at any distance from the master instrument. Thus the greatest cathedral may be filled with a glory of sound. The tower may be used to flood the surrounding country with the same divine melody. It may also be carried to the quiet cloister and to the private room. An instrument played in one place may repeat its music elsewhere.

The Choralcelo was developed and its wonderful basic principle discovered by Melvin L. Severy of Arlington, Mass., and George B. Sinclair. These savants have been working for twelve years to bring this musical instrument up to the perfection which it has reached today. One cannot predict its possibilities or limits as it is really still in its early stages of development.


H.Trabandt: ‘Das Choralcelo’ ZI,xxix (1910)-‘Das Choralcelo als Konzertinstrument’ ZI xxx (1910)



Amica Bulletin. Volume 45, Number 4 August/September 2008

The New England Magazine.

‘An Early Electro-Magnetic Experiment’ Edith Borroff, College Music Symposium Vol. 19, No. 1 (Spring, 1979), pp. 54-59

The ‘Cellule Photo Electrique’ or ‘Cellulophone’. Pierre Toulon & Krugg Bass, France, 1927.

Pierre Toulon's Patent for the Cellulophone
Pierre Toulon’s Patent for the Cellulophone

Invented by the French engineer Pierre Toulon aided by the electronic engineer Krugg Bass, the Cellulophone (“Cellule Photo-électrique”) made it’s debut as a prototype in France in 1927. The Cellulophone was an electro-optical tone generator instrument resembling an electronic organ controlled by two eight octave keyboards and a foot pedal board.

The sound was created by passing a light beam through slits in a vari-speed rotating disk. The single spinning disk was cut with a number of equidistant slits (54 slits for the lowest note) with different shaped masks to create varied timbres. The disks masked a light beam that flashed through the slits and on to a photoelectric cell, the speed of the rotating disk therefore determining the frequency of the output signal from a single vacuum tube oscillator.

The Cellulophone (copyright Tom Rhea, Keyboard Magazine 1977)
The Cellulophone (copyright Tom Rhea, Keyboard Magazine 1977)


Toulon’s Cellulophone won the Prix jean Bares in 1933:

Second prize (2,500 francs) was awarded to Mr.. Pierre Toulon, a father of three children and consulting engineer of the Electrical School , who made a large number of inventions, among which include “the relay arc” whose principle is applied in instruments referred to as “Thyratrons” and “Spark-gap convertors”, the latter enabling flattening  and straightening of even high powered electrical currents.

Mr. Toulon also invented a device called “Cellulophone” – a musical instrument keyboard developed by the Pleyel company, which is an organ extremely reduced in size.

One disk was used for all the notes of each octave therefore notes whose frequencies could not be generated by an integral number were out of tune. This system however gave the unique and unusual possibility of having a different timbres for each octave. The Cellulophone was one of a generation of instruments in the 1920-30’s using a photo-electric sound generation method; other examples being the “Licht-ton Orgel” , the “Photona” and the “Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones”. The increased sophistication and reliability of post war electronic circuitry marked the decline of light based synthesis after the 1940’s except for a few pioneers such as Daphne Oram who used a similar sytem not only to synthesise sounds but to sequence sounds.

Pierre Toulon proposed in the 1930’s a related technique of speech synthesis using fragments of optical film mounted on a rotating drum.

Rotating disc mechanism of the Cellulophone<em> (©Tom Rhea, Keyboard Magazine 1977)</em>
Rotating disc mechanism of the Cellulophone (©Tom Rhea, Keyboard Magazine 1977)

Extract from ‘La Revue hebdomadaire : romans, histoire, voyages.’ Paris, March 1928 which describes various new electronic instruments of the period including the Cellulophone:


Les concerts du professeur Theremin. Une expérience d’acoustique fort instructive. Battements électriques. Où interviennentles lampes à trois électrodes de la T. S. F. Le principe de l’éthérophone. Un précurseur. Piano etorgues radio électriques. Le cellulophone. Conclusion. On a beaucoup parlé ces derniers temps d’une rénovation de l’art musical par l’emploi d’instruments de musique utilisant la merveilleuse souplesse des ondes hertziennes. Les concerts donnés cet hiver à Paris par le professeur Léo Theremin, de Léningrad, ont attiré un nombreux public. Il n’est pas douteux que l’idée d’utiliser les ondes hertziennes à la production des sons puisse constituer une innovation heureuse. Essayons donc de décrire le merveilleux appareil du professeur Theremin et d’en faire comprendre le fonctionnement.

L’explication paraîtra très simple à tous les sans-filistes. Quant à mes autres lecteurs, s’ils veulent bien me prêter quelque attention, je suis certain qu’ils saisiront tout aussi aisément le principe de la musique radiophonique. Rappelons tout d’abord une expérience d’acoustique que chacun peut répéter, pourvu qu’il possède chez lui quelque instrument de musique.

Tout le monde sait que le son est produit par les vibrations de la matière et qu’il nous paraît d’autant plus aigu que les vibrations sont plus rapides. Lorsqu’on fixel’extrémité d’une tige d’acier, une lame de fleuret par exemple, dans un étau, et qu’après l’avoir écartée desa position on l’abandonne à elle-même, elle entre en vibration et produit un son, d’abord très grave, maisqui monte de plus en plus au fur et à mesure qu’on raccourcit la lame, ce qui augmente le nombre des oscillations par seconde. Les sons les plus graves que l’on puisse entendre correspondent environ à 30 vibrations par seconde, et les sons les plus aigus à 40 000. Entre ces limites s’étend toute la gamme des sons perceptibles.

Mettons en bran le deux diapasons identiques, donnant par exemple chacun le la normal, l’un d’eux ayant été désaccordé par un peu de cire fixée sur l’une des branches. Le diapason normal effectuant 435 vibrations par seconde, celui qui a été désaccordé en donnera par exemple 432. Dans ces conditions, lorsque les deux diapasons fonctionnent en même temps, on perçoit dans le son d’ensemble des renforcements et des affaiblissements sucessifs,des sortes de hou, hou, hou, répétés régulièrement etqu’on appelle des battements. L’expérience a permis de constater que le nombre deces hou, hou, hou. par seconde est exactement égal à la différence entre les nombres de vibrations par seconde que donnent séparément les deux diapasons, soit ici 435 diminué de 432. Il y a donc trois battements par seconde. Le phénomène est général. Chaque fois qu’on produit simultanément, au moyen d’appareils quelconques, deux séries de mouvements vibratoires dont les nombres d’oscillations par seconde sont différents, l’ensemble donne lieu à des renforcements et à des affaiblissements successifs,à des battements. Or les ondes hertziennes résultent d’une sorte de mouvement vibratoire d’un milieu hypothétique qu’on suppose répandu partout et auquel on a donné l’antique nom d’éther. Dans les ondes, dites entretenues, qu’utilise la radiophonie, les vibrations sont très régulières mais extrêmement rapides. Elles se produisent à raison de quelques centaines de mille par seconde. Envoyées directement dans un téléphone, ces ondes seraient sans actionsur lui, car à supposer qu’elles fussent capables de faire vibrer, suivant un rythme de quelques centaines de mille par seconde, la membrane du téléphone, nous serions incapables de percevoir des vibrations aussi rapides, pour les quelles notre oreille est atteinte d’une surdité absolue. Mais émettons simultanément, au moyen de deux appareils différents, deux séries d’ondes hertziennes, les unes, pour fixer les idées, à raison de ioo ooo vibrations par seconde, et les autres, à raison de 99 000. Leur production simultanée donnera naissance à des battements électriques, à des renforcements suivis d’affaiblissements des ondes hertziennes, dont le nombre par seconde sera égal à 100,000 diminué de 90,000. Et à ces battements électriques qui se produisent ainsi à raison de 1,000 par seconde, le téléphone peut être rendu sensible. Sa membrane oscillant à raison de r 000 vibrations par second eémettra un son aisément perceptible. Si donc, l’une des deux séries d’ondes demeurant invariable et se produisant toujours à la fréquence 100 000, nous avons le moyen de faire varier la fréquence de l’autre série d’ondes et de la rendre égale par exemple à 99,500, à 99,400, à 99,300. le nombre des battements, toujours égal à la différence des fréquences associées, sera successivement 500, 600, 700. par seconde. Le téléphone actionné par les battements fournira un son deplus en plus aigu, correspondant successivement à 500, 600, 700. vibrations par seconde. Et c’est là tout le secret de l’éthérophone. Des ondes hertziennes sont produites à la fréquence moyenne de 300 ooo vibrations par seconde par deux générateurs appelés hétérodynes. Si les deux séries d’ondes sont légèrement désaccordées, elles donnent lieu à des battements électriques qui, agissant dans un haut-parleur à la manière habituellement utilisée dans les réceptions radiophoniques, en actionnent la membrane et produisent un son. De la boîte où sont enfermées les deux hétérodynes émergent une tige métallique verticale jouant le rôled’antenne, et une spirale en fil de cuivre placée horizontal ement sur le côté. Le fonctionnement de l’appareil consiste à faire varier les constantes électriques de l’un edes deux séries d’ondes en approchant la main droitede l’antenne verticale et la main gauche de la spirale. Le premier mouvement fait varier la fréquence des battements et, par conséquent, détermine la hauteur de lanote le second mouvement agit sur l’amplitude des ondes et par suite sur l’intensité du son. De ces deux mouvements, le premier, qui doit suivre les notes de la partition musicale, est évidemment le plus compliqué etest de ce chef dévolu à la main droite le second est réservéà la main gauche en raison de sa simplicité.

L’idée qui est à la base de l’éthérophone n’est pas nouvelle. Dès 1917, les ingénieurs français travaillant au laboratoire de la tour Eiffel avaient songé à tirer un parti musical des battements radio électriques dont nous venons de parler. M. Armand Givelet, vice-président du Radio-Club de France, avait eu l’idée de marquer à lacraie sur le cadran du condensateur d’hétérodyne le réglage correspondant aux différentes notes de la gamme. En tournant rapidement ce condensateur variable et en arrêtant brusquement l’aiguille sur les repères du cadran, il était parvenu assez facilement à jouer des mélodies populaires simples. C’était, en somme, exactement le principe de l’éthérophone. Il a suffi de perfectionner quelques détails pour obtenir un appareil permettant deproduire des effets véritablement artistiques.

D’ailleurs, M. A. Grivelet a réalisé, il y a quelques années, le premier piano radio électrique. On a pu voircet instrument exposé récemment au premier Salon des Sciences et des Arts, au Grand Palais des Champs Élysées. Chaque note est produite par un circuit séparé, engendrant les vibrations sans qu’aient à intervenir des battements. De son côté, M. Bertrand a construit sous le nom d’orgue radio électrique un appareil d’un principe tout à fait analogue à celui du professeur Theremin, qui utiliseles battements électriques de deux hétérogynes, et dans lequel le son est diffusé par un haut-parleur de grand modèle. La variation de la hauteur du son est produite par la commande d’une manette qui se déplace devant un cadran comportant une gamme de trois octaves.

Le Cellulophone de M. Pierre Toulon n’est pas moins curieux. Son principe est tout différent. Il utilise la propriétédes cellules photo électriques, sortes de piles qui donnent naissance à un courant lorsqu’elles reçoivent un faisceau de lumière. En envoyant sur une cellule, non un éclairage continu, mais un éclairage intermittent qu’on peut réaliser en interposant entre la source lumineuse etla cellule un disque tournant perforé, la pile produit une succession de courants instantanés dont le nombre par seconde dépend du nombre des trous que porte le disqueet de sa vitesse de rotation. Envoyés dans un haut parleur,ces courants le font vibrer avec la même fréquence. La hauteur de la note musicale dépend ainsi du nombre de trous que porte le disque et de sa vitesse derotation, le timbre étant déterminé par la forme de cestrous. On conçoit qu’on puisse modifier à volonté la hauteur et le timbre, et obtenir des effets musicaux très variés.

Il serait difficile de prédire l’avenir qui est réservé aux appareils de musique radio électrique. Indiquons seulement qu’ils ont permis d’obtenir des effets artistiques très intéressants, et il ne serait pas surprenant que,grâce à eux, la musique, cette forme si élevée et si expressive de l’art qui a très peu évolué depuis des siècles,entrât dans une voie entièrement nouvelle.


From Le Genie Civil February 7, 1928

cellulophon from ‘le genie civil’ 18 February 1928



Donhauser, P.: Elektrische Klangmaschinen. Die in Deutschland und Österreich Pionierzeit, Boehlau Vienna 2007.

Rhea, Tom. Keyboard Magazine 1977.

Le Genie Civil February 7, 1928

‘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’