‘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


Sources

http://daphneoram.org

http://www.sara.uea.ac.uk/?artist&id=749

Jo Hutton ‘Radiophonic Ladies’

http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb09/articles/oramics.htm

The ‘Electronium’ René Seybold, Germany, 1950

The Electronium

The Electronium showing amplifier and keyboard

The Electronium A

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

Carrying case of the Electronium

Electronium P

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

Sources

http://www.balgverschluss.de/cm

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

Dr Earle Kent's Music Box

Dr Earle Kent’s Music Box

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

“The goals established for the music Box involved wider flexibility of performance than is possible in any conventional musical instrument. It was felt that it should not be confined to the usual limitations of manual keying. It should be capable of grater speed and wider combinations than are possible by manual or pedal dexterity, and it should not be limited to the equally tempered scales as are most keyed instruments. It was recognised that virtually any speed or combination could be obtained by keying with a perforated paper roll with the loss of some of the vital control usually exercised by a musician while making music and also with the loss of its conventional acceptance as a musical instrument. However, it was felt that a musician usually “records” his manual manipulation rather precisely in his brain before a concert by repetitive rehearsal and that the losses by recording this operation on paper would be exceeded by the gains”
Dr Earle.L.Kent
Although based on the established ‘beat frequency’/heterodyning principle, Kent’s instrument employed a more complex system of frequency changers to create a more interesting range of timbre and control over the shape of the note. The Music Box was designed to allow control off the ‘slurring’ of the note, formant filtering control and control of volume and depth and rate of tremolo. The Electronic Music Box was influential on the development of electronic musical instruments, Dr Kent was visited by Harry Olson who later adapted features of his RCA synthesiser to incorporate functions of the Music Box, but the Conn company chose not to exploit the commercial possibilities of the instrument.

Sources

http://orgs.usd.edu/nmm/News/Newsletter/August2010/ConnResearch.html

The ‘RCA Synthesiser I & II’ Harry Olsen & Herbert Belar, USA, 1952

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

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

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

RCA MkII

RCA MkII

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

Paper punch roll showing parameter allocation

Paper punch roll showing parameter allocation

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

 

Paper-punch input of the RCA Synthesisir

Paper-punch input of the RCA Synthesisir

Punch paper terminals of the RCA MkII

Punch paper terminals of the RCA MkII

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

Structure of the RCA MkII

Structure of the RCA MkII

RCA Synthesiser structure

RCA Synthesiser structure

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

Babbit, Luening, Ussachevsky and others at the RCA MkII

Babbit, Luening, Ussachevsky and others at the RCA MkII

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

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

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

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

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

Milton Babbitt

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

RCA Synthesiser

RCA Synthesiser

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



Images of the RCAI& II

 

rcasynth_labelrcasynth01

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

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

 


Sources

http://www.jamesfei.com/pictures/pictures-rca/pictures-rca.html

The ‘Composer-tron’ Osmond Kendall. Canada, 1953

The Composer-tron

The Composer-tron

Developed during the early 1950′s by Osmond Kendall for the Canadian Marconi Company, the Composer-Tron was an analogue synthesis and composition instrument 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 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.”

Sources

“The Art Of Electronic Music”, Darter,Tom. 1984 GPI Productions.

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

Siemens Studio

Siemens Studio

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

Siemens studio Equipment:

Tone Generation

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

Tone Modulators

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

Programming with the ‘Semi Automatic Hole-strip Punching Machine’
(left: the coding console. right: the hole puncing machine)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diagram explaining the punch-tape coding for the Seimens Studio

Diagram explaining the punch-tape coding for the Seimens Studio

Coding of the Punch-tape reader:

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



Sources:

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

The Siemens Museum Website

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

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

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

sidemanBillboard16May1960

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

Sideman control panel

Sideman control panel

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



Sources