‘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, 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.”


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