EMS was the London electronic music studio founded and run by Peter Zinovieff in 1965 to research and produce experimental electronic music. The studio was based around two DEC PDP8 minicomputers, purportedly the first privately owned computers in the world.
Digital signal processing was way beyond the capabilities of the 600,000 instructions-per-second, 12k RAM, DEC PDP8s; instead, Peter Grogono was tasked with developing a new musical composition and ‘sequencing’ language called MUSYS. MUSYS was designed to be an easy to use, ‘composer friendly’ and efficient (i.e. it could run within the limitations of the PDP8 and save all the data files to disk – rather than paper tape) programming language to make electronic music. MUSYS, written in assembly language, allowed the PDP8s to control a bank of 64 filters which could be used either as resonant oscillators to output sine waves, or in reverse, to read and store frequency data from a sound source. This meant that MUSYS was a type of low resolution frequency sampler; it could ‘sample’ audio frequency data at 20 samples per second and then reproduce that sampled data back in ‘oscillator mode’. MUSYS was therefore a hybrid digital-analogue performance controller similar to Max Mathew’s GROOVE System (1970) and Gabura & Ciamaga’s PIPER system (1965) and a precursor to more modern MIDI software applications.
“It all started in 1969, when I was working at Electronic Music Studios (EMS) in Putney, S.W. London, UK. I was asked to design a programming language with two constraints. The first constraint was that the language should be intelligible to the musicians who would use it for composing electronic music. The second constraint was that it had to run on a DEC PDP8/L with 4K 12-bit words of memory.”
The two PDP8’s were named after Zinovieff’s children Sofka (an older a PDP8/S) and Leo (a newer, faster a PDP8/L). Sofka was used as a sequencer that passed the time-events to the audio hardware (the 64 filter-oscillators, six amplifiers, three digital/analog converters, three “integrators” (devices that generated voltages that varied linearly with time), twelve audio switches, six DC switches, and a 4-track Ampex tape-deck). Leo was used to compute the ‘score’ and pass on the data when requested by Sofka every millisecond or so;
“These devices could be controlled by a low-bandwidth data stream. For example, a single note could be specified by: pitch, waveform, amplitude, filtering, attack rate, sustain rate, and decay time. Some of these parameters, such as filtering, would often be constant during a musical phrase, and would be transmitted only once. Some notes might require more parameters, to specify a more complicated envelope, for instance. But, for most purposes, a hundred or so events per second, with a time precision of about 1 msec, is usually sufficient. (These requirements are somewhat similar to the MIDI interface which, of course, did not exist in 1970.)”
Previous to the development of MUSYS, the EMS PDP8s were used for the first ever unaccompanied performance of live computer music ‘Partita for Unattended Computer’ at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 1967. Notable compositions based on the MUSYS sytem include: ‘Medusa’ Harrison Birtwistle 1970, ‘Poems of Wallace Stevens’ Justin Connolly. 1970, ‘Tesserae 4’ Justin Connolly 1971, ‘Chronometer’ Harrison Birtwistle 1972, ‘Dreamtime’ David Rowland 1972, ‘Violin Concerto’ Hans Werner Henze 1972.
Demonstrating the digital manipulation of a voice with the frequency sampler:
‘In the Beginning‘ PeterGrogono with Stan Van Der Beek 1972. “In 1972, Stan Van Der Beek visited EMS. Peter Zinovieff was away and, after listening to some of the things we could do, Stan left with brief instructions for a 15 minute piece that would “suggest the sounds of creation and end with the words ‘in the beginning was the word'”. All of the sounds in this piece are derived from these six words, heard at the end, manipulated by the EMS computer-controlled filter bank.”
A composition consisting of a single note might look like this:
#NOTE 56, 12, 15;
The note has pitch 56 ( from an eight-octave chromatic scale with notes numbered from 0 to 63), loudness 12 (on a logarithmic scale from 0 to 15), and duration 15/100 = 0.15 seconds. The loudness value also determines the envelope of the note.
An example of a MUSYS program that would play fifty random tone rows:
50 (N = 0 X = 0
1 M=12^ K=1 M-1 [ M (K = K*2) ]
X & K[G1]
X = X+K N = N+1 #NOTE M, 15^, 10^>3;
12 - N[G1]
MUSYS evolved in 1978 into the MOUSE programming language; a small, efficient stack based interpreter.
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).
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).
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
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.
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 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 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’.
Since the 1920’s the Compton Organ Co had been the premier manufacturer of pipe organs for cinemas, churches and dance halls in the UK. In 1932 Compton developed their first electronic “pipe-less” organ the ‘Melotone’ intended as an add-on unit for conventional organs to extend their range. The Melotone’s sound was generated using the same tone-wheel technique as the Hammond Organ and the much earlier Telharmonium (1876), where a metal disc engraved with representations of sound waves spun within a magnetic field generating varying voltage tones. In this case two electrostatic tone wheels provided the sounds, amplified and fed to a large speaker horn in the organ loft. The Melotone was not intended as a complete instrument in itself and had it’s own ethereal synthetic character to contrast with a traditional pipe organ.
In 1938 Compton developed the Melotone concept into a stand-alone organ called the Electrone (or Theatrone) designed as a replacement for old pipe organs in churches and dance halls. This instrument had twelve tone generators and an organ-stop style range of voices. A post-war compact ‘economical’ version was brought out in 1952 also called the ‘Melotone’. Production of the organs continued until the 1960’s by which time tone-generator technology had become obsolete due to the arrival of cheaper and more dependable solid-state electronic circuitry.
The Ferranti Mk1 was the world’s first commercially available general-purpose computer; a commercial development of the Manchester Mk1 at Manchester university in 1951. Included in the Ferranti Mark 1’s instruction set was a ‘hoot’ command, which enabled the machine to give auditory feedback to its operators. Looping and timing of the ‘hoot’ commands allowed the user to output pitched musical notes; a feature that enabled the Mk1 to have produced the oldest existing recording of computer music ( The earliest reported but un-recorded computer music piece was created earlier in the same year by the CSIR Mk1 in Sydney Australia). The recording was made by the BBC towards the end of 1951 programmed by Christopher Strachey, a maths teacher at Harrow and a friend of Alan Turing.
The Maestrovox was a monophonic portable vacuum tube organ built by Maestrovox Electronic Organs in Middlesex, UK. The instrument was one of the many designs similar to the Clavioline, Tuttivox and Univox and intended as a piano attachment instrument for dance bands and light orchestras of the day. The Maestrovox was produced from 1952 onwards and came in a number of models, the Consort, Consort De-Luxe, Coronation and a later version that mechanically triggered notes from a Piano keyboard, the Orchestrain.
Maestrovox – By Charles Hayward of ‘This Heat’
I used a Maestrovox keyboard with This Heat, set up just to the left of my drum kit (alongside a Bontempi electronic organ with about 3 sounds). It can be heard throughout This Heat’s recordings and was used onstage for most of the group’s gigs.
The Maestrovox was a fascinating instrument, it was advertised second-hand in the Evening News small-ads, maybe 1966 or 68, I didn’t really know what it was that I was going to see, just that I wanted to use an electronic keyboard in conjunction with domestic tape machines and this was going fairly cheap, £15 or so. I persuaded my brother to go half although in truth he never really used it. When we got it back home the unusual qualities of the instrument slowly became clear.
Firstly it was monophonic, with priority given to the highest note played; this was heavenly, you could ‘yodel’ between notes, sometimes using the lower note as a drone, sometimes playing contrary lines in 2 hands with only 1 note being heard at any time, sort of ‘strobing’ between 2 places. The keys were highly sprung, so that on the black notes, if played very quickly, the springs would activate even faster and the rate of change between the higher played note and a sustained lower sound would be very distinctive. This sound was used at the beginning and end of the 1st This Heat album and also played very quietly for about 20 minutes immediately before a gig, a bit like a distant alarm.
Tuning was an unsolvable problem that became a fantastic strength and the predominant reason for using the keyboard with the group. There were a couple of little tuning knobs on the console of filters that were changed with a screwdriver. No matter how I tried I could not find the place where the keyboard was in tune with itself, the nearest I could get was the low D to have its octave on the E 9 notes higher, in other words a 14 note octave (instead of the usual 12). Consequently every note was slightly flat or sharp. This meant that melodies had to be re-learnt when using the Maestrovox so that the tuning would bend in and out with other ‘orthodox’ tuned instruments. When played at the ‘back’ of the group’s sound the result would be to inexplicably ‘widen’ the sound.
The 4-step vibrato didn’t seem to work properly and had the effect of flattening the tuning by very small amounts, a little more than a quarter tone at the fullest extent. A series of filters changed the sound, 5 or 6 little buttons that could be engaged in different permutations. A 2- page pamphlet had a list of filter combinations that imitated ‘real’ instruments (always a doomed idea). I seem to remember that 13 was bassoon in the lower register (a particular favourite) and oboe in the higher register. These sound filters also effected the tuning. Another row of 3 buttons changed the attack parameters, without a little ‘slope’ it was kind of ‘clicky’, like the sound was being switched on.
The keyboard was about the size of a PSS Yamaha (which is sometimes confusingly described as a ’midi’ keyboard), and had a range of perhaps 3 octaves. The Maestrovox was designed to sit under a piano keyboard as a sort of addition to the acoustic instrument, although the tuning must have made any orthodox use hilarious. There was a sort of tripod that was supposed to hold it up against the underneath of the piano keyboard, this looked very shaky and unreliable, so my dad knocked up a stand, something like a shrunken Hammond. Valves glowed inside the keyboard which was connected via a multi-pin plug and lead to an amplifier that also served as a box for transportation. Both mains electricity and sound signal were conveyed by this lead. To boost the signal I connected a pair of crocodile clips to the speaker and this was then plugged in to a larger amplifier. I’m not sure if a connection socket was fixed for ease and reliability when This Heat started touring more regularly. The volume was controlled by a knee-operated lever (I remember harmoniums used this method too), I found a way of holding this in place and used a foot swell pedal instead.
It blew up sometime before This Heat began and it was quite a problem getting replacement valves. During the recording of ‘Cenotaph’ on the Deceit album it blew up again, in fact the track starts out with 2 tracks of Maestrovox and by the end there’s only 1 because it stopped working during the overdub. Getting replacement parts was time consuming, perhaps impossible, and then other things meant that a lot of equipment held in our rehearsal studio Cold Storage got lost, including the Maestrovox. By this time This Heat had split and it’s sound was so much part of that group that I was both sad and pleased to see it go.
Despite the invention of the incandescent electric light bulb ( Thomas Alva Edison and Joseph Swann, 1880) Carbon Arc Lamp were commonly used for street lighting and industrial applications – and remained so until the beginning of the twentieth century when developments in the lightbulb made the arc-lamp obsolete.
The Carbon Arc Lamp generated light by creating a bright spark between two carbon nodes. The problem with this method of lighting, apart from the dullness of the light and inefficient use of electricity was a constant humming, shrieking or hissing noise emitted by the electric arc.
The British physicist and electrical engineer William Duddell was appointed to solve the problem in London in 1899. During his experiments Duddell found that by varying the voltage supplied to the lamps he could create controllable audible frequencies from a resonant circuit caused by the rate of pulsation of exposed electrical arcs.
Duddell’s investigations revealed that the cause of the arc-lamp noise was the nonlinear nature of the arc that resulted in a negative resistance. This phenomena had already previously been recorded in 1898 by a Dr. Simon (Frankfurt, Germany). Dr. Simon had noticed that the electric arc could be made to “sing” by means of modulating the voltage to an electric arc supply. Dr. Simon showed that the electric arc made a effective loudspeaker which he demonstrated in public. (Dr. Simon’s experiments also showed that the modulated arc produced not only sound but a modulated light beam by means of which the German Navy managed to make telephone calls between ships using a modulated arc searchlight and a photosensitive selenium cell.)
Duddell,who may have been aware of Simon’s work, tried to solve the noise by adding a LC resonant circuit across the arc and in doing so he created a tuneable oscillator. By attaching a keyboard that varied the voltage input to the circuit Duddell created one of the first electronic musical instruments. Duddell’s invention the only ever electronic instrument to use an electrical arc to generate sound and the first electronic instrument that was audible without using the yet to be invented amplifier, loudspeaker or telephone system as an amplifier and speaker.
When Duddell exhibited his invention to the London institution of Electrical Engineers it was noticed that arc lamps on the same circuit in other buildings also played music from Duddell’s machine this led to speculation that music delivered over the lighting network could be created.
“All three arcs were found to be supplied with current from the street mains, and it was clear that this main current had been varied in such a way by Mr. Duddell’s keyboard as to reproduce in the two other laboratories the tunes which he supposed he was playing only to his audience in the lecture room…This obviously meant that by playing on one properly arranged keyboard tunes could be reproduced in a number of different arcs and at a distance from the musician.“
MUSIC IN ELECTRIC ARCS.; An English Physicist, with Shunt Circuit and Keyboard, Made Them Play Tunes. New York Times, April 28, 1901,Page 7
Duddell didn’t capitalise on his discovery and didn’t even file a patent for his instrument. Duddell toured Britain with his invention in 1898 which unfortunately never became more than an amusing novelty; Duddell left the frequency within the audible range but later in 1902 Danish electrical engineers Valdemar Poulsen and Peder Pedersen realised that Duddell’s singing arc would function as a radio transmitter if the circuit was tuned to radio, rather than audio, frequencies.
The carbon arc lamp’s audio capabilities was also used by Thadeus Cahill during his public demonstrations of his Telharmonium ten years later.
Biographical Information: William du Bois Duddell.
UK 1 July 1872 – 4 November 1917
William Duddell an electrical engineer in Victorian England was famous for developing a number of electronic instruments notably the “moving coil oscillograph” an early oscillator type device for the photographic monitoring of audio frequency waveforms. Other inventions of Duddell’s included the thermo-ammeter, thermo-galvanometer (an instrument for measuring minute currents and potential differences later used for measuring antenna currents and still used in modified form today)and a magnetic standard, which was used for the calibration of ballistic galvanometers.
‘Some Experiments on the Direct-Current Arc’, Nature, vol. 63, no. 1625 (December 20, 1900), pp. 182-183.
Wireless: A treatise on the theory and practice of high frequency electric signalling. L.B.Turner. Cambridge University Press. 1931
‘The electrical imagination sound analogies, equivalent circuits, and the rise of electroacoustics, 1863-1939′ Roland Wittje Osiris, ISSN 0369-7827, 28, 2013, p. 40-63
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
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).
Developed by the Jennings Organ Company,West Hill, Dartford (later Jennings Musical Industries; creators of the Vox range of organs and amplifiers) in the UK, the Univox was a monophonic, portable, piano attachment instrument similar to the Clavioline. It’s sound came from a vacuum-tube sawtooth generator (as opposed to the square wave of the Clavioline) which in turn was modulated by a diode waveform shaper circuit. The pitch range was extended to three octaves (five in later models) using a frequency division technique which also allowed the playing of multiple octaves of the same note from one key. The instrument was controlled by a three octave F to F miniature wooden keyboard and came with it’s own 6 watt amplifier and 8″ speaker all built into a leather carrying case;
“The Clavioline keyboard was on the UK market before the Univox.. Clavioline originated in France and was imported for the British market by the UK/French company “Selmer” (based in Charing Cross road, London). Their main product were woodwind & brass instrument sales. They were not really into electronic products though the Clavioline was a good product. It was also expensive.
Tom Jennings saw the market potential and already had a good slice of the keyboard sales for accordions etc. Tom found a local electronic engineer, Les. Hills, who studied the Clavioline and designed another circuit different to the existing French patent. Unfortunately the product was not at all reliable, with most units breaking down almost as soon as they got to the end customer. Some of this problem was due to instability in the earlier circuit design but mostly due to choice of suitable components and mechanical shortcomings.
Les had only been employed for the circuit design. The mechanics having been cobbled together by the accordion service men at the time. I was head hunted by Tom to sort out the reliability problems. This took a few months of circuit, component testing plus improvements to the mechanics. This was in 1951 period.
In about 1951/1952 the Univox took off in a big way due to its competitive price and Tom’s country wide marketing program. The first version was the J6, single keyboard model, later followed by the J10 with two rows of Tone & effect tabs. All models were supplied with metal screw-on clips, to fasten it under the right hand side of a piano. Later we designed an adjustable chromed stand that enabled the user to do gigs in other locations with out having to screw on fixing brackets each time. Most customers in those days were either Pub owners or pianists playing Pub gigs.
So, No the Clavioline was not the same as the Univox, only catered for the same market.”
Derek Underdown. Technical Director/Chief Engineer at JMI/Vox from 1951-1967
The Univox keyboard had a unique a double contact system under the key allowed basic control over the note shape – striking the key harder caused a thyratron impulse generator make a shorter decay, creating a staccato effect, striking the key softly gave a long decay of up to two seconds. A vibrato oscillator was also provided to modulate the output and also to retrigger the thyratron tube to create ‘mandolin’ type repeated notes. The Univox’s front panel consisted of fifteen switches to further control the timbre of the instrument, three vibrato controls, a thryratron modulation control and an overall knee operated volume control.
Mellotrons and Novatrons were produced in England by Streetly Electronics, Birmingham, from the early ’60s until the early ’80 by Leslie Bradley and his brothers Frank and Norman. The original Mellotron was designed as an expensive domestic novelty instrument and were based, knowingly or not on the Chamberlin a very similar tape-sample based instrument from the USA. The Mellotron was an analogue precursor of the modern digital sampler using pre-recorded strips of magnetic tape rather than digital samples. Under each key was a strip of magnetic tape with a recorded sound that corresponded to the pitch of the key (The Mark II had two keyboards of 35 notes each making a total of 1260 seperate recordings). The instrument played the sound when the key is pressed and returns the tape head to the beginning of the tape when the key is released. This design enables the recorded sound to keep the individual characteristics of a sustained note (rather than a repeated loop) but had a limited duration per note, usually eight seconds. The keyboard was fully polyphonic and could reproduce a wide range of wind and string instruments as well as percussion.
“Now, with the fabulous Mellotron, anyone with the slightest ear for music can command his own orchestra – simply by using two fingers and a thumb – producing a wealth of orchestral sounds from a single keyboard…I regard the Mellotron as the “greatest” in home entertainment since television.”
Eric Robinson, c1967
Most Mellotrons had 3 track 3/8″ tapes, the different tracks being selectable by moving the tape heads across the tape strips from the front panel. This feature allowed the sound to be easily changed while playing and made it possible to set the heads in between tracks to blend the sounds. Despite attempting to faithfully recreate the sound of an instrument the Mellotron had a distinct sound of its own that became fashionable amongst rock musicians during the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Novatron was a later model of the Mellotron re-named after the original company liquidised after a legal dispute in the USA in 1977. Melltrons became obsolete in the 1980’s with the popularisation of synthesisers and later digital samplers and the Novatron/Mellotron company folded in 1986. Despite this, the nostalgia for the instrument continued and Bradley’s sons restarted the Mellotron company around 2000 with the re-launch of a digitally enhanced Mk4000.