The Hammond Novachord
The Hammond Novachord was manufactured by the Hammond Organ Co in the USA from 1939 to 1942, designed by Laurens Hammond, John Hanert and C.N.Williams. A total of 1096 models were built.The Novachord was a polyphonic electronic organ and was Hammonds first electronic tube based instrument – a departure from his usual tone-wheel designs. The Novachord was a much more complex instrument than the Solovox Hammond’s other electronic tube-based instrument. The Novachord had 169 vacuum tubes to control and generate sound and was played on a seventy two note keyboard with a simple pressure sensitive system that allowed control over the attack and timbre of the note. The sound was produced by a series of 12 oscillators that gave a six octave range using a frequency division technique; the Novachord was one of the first electronic instruments to use this technique which was later became standard in electronic keyboard instruments.
Novachord fron panel
The front panel of the instrument had a series of 14 switch-able rotary knobs to set the timbre, volume, ‘resonance’,bass/treble, vibrato (six modulation oscillators were used) and ‘brightness’ of the sound. A set of 3 foot operated pedals controlled sustain,and volume the third pedal allowing control of the sustain by either foot. The final signal was passed to a pre-amplifier and then to a set of internal speakers. The Novachord was able to produce a range of sounds imitating orchestral instruments such as the piano, harpsichord, stringed and woodwind instruments as well as a range of it’s own new sounds.
In May 1939 ‘The Novachord Orchestra’ of Ferde Grofé performed daily at the Ford stand at the New York World Fair with four Novachords and a Hammond Organ and in Adrian Cracraft’s ‘All Electronic Orchestra’, the Novachord also featured in several film scores (Hans Eisler’s “Kammersinfonie” 1940) but seems to have fallen from favour due to the instability of it’s multiple tube oscillators and playing technique. The Novachord was discontinued in 1942. A Hammond employee comments:
“The Novachord made beautiful music if played well, but it was not well adapted either to either an organists style or a pianists style. Thus it required development of a specific style, which not many musicians were prepared to do. it also had technical problems, requiring frequency adjustments to keep it operating chiefly because the frequency dividers and electronic components before the war were not nearly as good as those available in later years. The hammond Organ Company could have revived it after the war, and could have made it better in light of available technology at the time, but sales had been disappointing ad so it was not considered a good commercial product”
Hammond Novachord in “New Horizons” 1940
A restored Novachord
Novachord Orchestra: Introduction of The Hammond Novachord at the New York World’s Fair 1939 – 1940.
F.D.Merril jr: “The Novachord”, Electronics,xii/11 (1939),16
The Solovox was designed by engineers Alan Young, John Hanert, Laurens Hammond (speaker cabinet) and George Stephens of the Hammond Organ Co and manufactured in the United States between 1940 and 1948. The Hammond Solovox was a monophonic ‘keyboard attachment’ instrument intended to accompany the piano with organ type lead voices – similar to the Clavioline and Tuttivox. The three octave short keyed keyboard was stored on a sliding mounting under the piano keyboard with a knee operated volume control. The instrument was connected to an electronic sound generation box, amplifier and speaker housing by three thick cables and derived it’s sound from a single LC oscillator with a one octave frequency range – the signal from which was then passed through a series of 5 frequency dividers to create a further two octaves.
The Solovox (J+K models) used two vibrating metal reeds modulate the oscillator frequency to create a vibrato effect, in later models this was replaced by a second oscillator acting as a vibrato oscillator.On the front of the instrument below the keyboard there were a series of large thumb operated buttons for oscillator range (switchable +/- 3 octaves: ‘soprano’, ‘contralto’,’tenor’ , ‘bass’), vibrato, attack time, ‘deep tone’, ‘full tone’, ’1st voice’, 2nd voice’, ‘brilliant’ and a switch for selecting woodwind, string sound or mute. The Solovox was able to create a range of string, woodwind and organ type sounds and was widely used in light music of its time.
Solovox Production Models
- Model J (1940–1946)
- Model K (1946–1948)
- Model L (1948–1950)
Solovox patent files:
The Hanert Synthesiser or ‘Electric Orchestra’ was designed and built by John Hanert c1945 for the Hammond Organ Company and was described as an ‘Apparatus for Automatic Production of Music’. The Synthesiser was an instrument for composition and synthesis of electronic music similar to the later RCA Synthesiser and other coded performance machines. Instead of using punch paper tape like the RCA Synthesiser the Hanert Synthesiser had a moving mechanical scanning head that moved over a sixty foot long table covered in eleven inch by twelve inch paper cards. The paper cards held the characteristics of the sound (pitch, duration, timbre and volume) stored in the form of graphite marks that were ‘read’ by direct electrical contact of the scanning head.The sound generating part of the instrument occupied a whole room and consisted of a bank of vacuum tube oscillators, a random frequency generator (to produce ‘white noise’ characteristics for percussive sounds) and wave shaping circuits. Speeding up and slowing down of the music(accelerando/decelerando) could be controlled by altering the speed and direction of the scanning head.
Hanert’s unique system allowed a great deal of flexibility in composition and synthesis, marks could be added to the cards simply by using a graphite pencil and the cards could be arranged in any order allowing variations and multiple combinations in the composition. Hanert commented:
“The composer ultimately usually has but slight control over the instrumentation employed by the orchestra and it is only after tedious and time consuming steps have been taken and the orchestra has ultimately rendered the composition the composer can actually audition his composition……its is seldom that a recording represents the closeness to perfection which is anticipated by the composer and the conductor…
In the method and apparatus of this invention the composer, arranger or conductor has at his command means for controlling the quality of each note, its intensity, envelope and the degree of accent, duration and tempo without necessarily affecting any other note or tone of the composition. he has under his control, within the limitations imposed by the apparatus as a whole, facilities for producing, under his sole control, any of a substantially infinite variety of renditions of a composition.”
John M Hanert was the chief engineer and designer at Hammond Organ Co from 1934 until his death in 1962.
T.L.Rhea:”The Evolution of Electronic Musical Instruments in the United States” (diss., George Peabody College, Nashville, Tenn, 1972)