‘UPIC system’ (Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu) Patrick Saint-Jean & Iannis Xenakis, France, 1977.

Iannis Xenakis and the UPIC system
Iannis Xenakis and the UPIC system

Developed by the computer engineer Patrick Saint-Jean directed by the composer Iannis Xenakis at CEMAMu (Centre d’Etudes de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales) in Issy les Moulineaux, Paris, France, UPIC was one of a family of early computer-based graphic controllers for digital music (Other including Max Mathews’ Graphic 1 ) which themselves were based on earlier analogue graphical sound synthesis and composition instruments such as Yevgeny Murzin’s ANS Synthesiser , Daphne Oram’s ‘Oramics‘, John Hanert’s ‘Hanert Electric Orchestra’  and much earlier Russian optical synthesis techniques.

UPIC Schematic
UPIC Schematic

Xenakis had been working with computer systems as far back as 1961 using an IBM system to generate mathematical algorithmic scores for ‘Metastaseis’; “It was a program using probabilities, and I did some music with it. I was interested in automating what I had done before, mass events like Metastaseis. So I saw the computer as a tool, a machine that could make easier the things I was working with. And I thought perhaps I could discover new things”. In the late 1960s when computers became powerful enough to handle both graphical input and sound synthesis, Xenakis began developing his ideas for what was to become the UPIC system; an intuitive graphical instrument where the user could draw sound-waves and organise them into a musical score. Xenakis’s dream was to create a device that could  generate all aspects of an electroacoustic composition graphically and free the composer from the complexities of software as well as the restrictions of conventional music notation. 

UPIC Diagram
UPIC Diagram from a film by Patrick Saint Jean in 1976

UPIC consisted of an input device; a large high resolution digitising tablet the actions of which were displayed on a CRT screen, and a computer; for the analysis of the input data and generation and output of the digital sound. Early version of the UPIC system were not able to respond in real time to user input so the composer had to wait until the data was processed and output as audible sound – The UPIC system has subsequently been developed to deliver real-time synthesis and composition and expanded to allow for digitally sampled waveforms as source material, rather than purely synthesised tones.

The UPIC System hardware
The UPIC System hardware

To create sounds, the user drew waveforms or timbres on the input tablet which could then be transposed, reversed, inverted or distorted through various algorithmic processes. These sounds could then be stored and arranged as a graphical score. The overall speed of the composition could be stretched creating compositions of up to an hour or a few seconds.  Essentially, UPIC was a digital version of Yevgeny Murzin’s ANS Synthesiser which allowed the composer to draw on a X/Y axis to generate and organise sounds.

Since it’s first development UPIC has been used by a number of composers including Iannis Xenakis (Mycenae Alpha being the first work completely composed on the system), Jean-Claude Risset (on Saxatile (1992), Takehito Shimazu (Illusions in Desolate Fields (1994), Julio Estrada (on ‘eua’on’), Brigitte Robindoré, Nicola Cisternino and Gerard Pape (CCMIX’s director).

More recent developments of the UPIC project include the French Ministry of Culture sponsored ‘IanniX’ ; an open-source graphic sequencer and HighC; a software graphic synthesiser and sequencer based directly on the UPIC interface.

Images of the UPIC System


Iannis Xenakis: Who is He? Joel Chadabe January 2010



‘Images of Sound in Xenakis’s Mycenae-Alpha’ Ronald Squibbs, Yale University, rsquibbs @ minerva.cis.yale.edu

IanniX project homepage

‘Graphic 1’ William H. Ninke, Carl Christensen, Henry S. McDonald and Max Mathews. USA, 1965

‘Graphic 1’  was an hybrid hardware-software graphic input system for digital synthesis that allowed note values to be written on a CRT computer monitor – although very basic by current standards, ‘Graphic 1’ was the precursor to most computer based graphic composition environments such as Cubase, Logic Pro, Ableton Live and so-on.

The IBM704b at Bell Labs used with the Graphics 1 system
The IBM704b at Bell Labs used with the Graphics 1 system

‘Graphic 1’ was developed by William Ninke (plus  Carl Christensen and Henry S. McDonald) at Bell labs for use by Max Mathews as a graphical front-end for MUSIC IV synthesis software to circumvent the lengthy and tedious process of adding numeric note values to the MUSIC program.

” The Graphic 1 allows a person to insert pictures and graphs directly into a computer memory by the very act of drawing these objects…Moreover the power of the computer is available to modify, erase, duplicate  and remember these drawings”

Max Mathews  quoted from ‘Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture’ by Thom Holmes

Lawrence Rosller of Bell labs with Max Mathews in front of the Graphics 1 system c 1967
Lawrence Rosller of Bell labs with Max Mathews in front of the Graphics 1 system c 1967

Graphic 2/ GRIN 2 was later developed in 1976 as a commercial design package based on a faster PDP2 computer and was sold by Bell and DEC as a computer-aided design system for creating circuit designs and logic schematic drawings.

Audio recordings of the Graphic I/MUSIC IV system

Graphic I Audio file 1

Graphic I Audio file 2

Graphic I Audio file 3

Graphic I Audio file 4


‘Interview with Max Mathews’ C. Roads and Max Mathews. Computer Music Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Winter, 1980), pp. 15-22. The MIT Press

Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture. Thom Holmes



‘The Oramics Machine: From vision to reality’. PETER MANNING. Department of Music, Durham University, Palace Green, Durham, DH1 3RL, UK

M. V. Mathews and L. Rosler’ Perspectives of New Music’  Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring – Summer, 1968), pp. 92-118

W. H. Ninke, “GRAPHIC I: A Remote Graphical Display Console System,” Proceedings of the Fall Joint Computer Conference of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies 27 (1965), Part I, pp. 839-846.

‘Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology: Volume 3 – Ballistics …’ Jack Belzer, Albert G. Holzman, Allen Kent

The ‘Sonothèque’. L. Lavallée, France.1936

L. Lavalée’s ‘Sonothèque’ or “sound library” was a  “coded performance electronic instrument using photo-electric translation of engraved grooves”. The instrument was capable of reading music and sounds encoded graphically with conductive ink sensed by a set of electrically charged brushes


Thomas LaMar Rhea. ‘The Evolution of Electronic Musical Instruments in the United States’ 1972

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